Books Read in 2021

My annual account of books read over the year. Happy to have taken in so much good stuff! Nearly doubled last year’s total with 67 completed titles and a nice mix of genres. Top reads are in bold. Enjoy!

JANUARY

Walking: One Step at a Time (NF) by Erling Kagge: A reread to get the year started. Musings on life and movement. Every time I read this I get more from it. Always a top read! 

Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons From Marine Mammals (NF) by Alexis Pauline Gumbs: Accepted an advance reading copy from the publisher (AK Press) to do a review. Gumbs basically compares the plight of marine mammals to the human experience (specifically the Black human experience). Once started, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Great portion at the end for practical self-work. This book is definitely in the year’s top 5. 

Uncommon Grounds: A History of Coffee and How it Transformed the World (NF) by Mark Pendergrast: A dense read that taught me more about coffee than I expected. Fascinated to see how intertwined the industry is with the major world problems (ie. warfare) for the past few hundred years. Often the content was a bit too textbooky, but all in all I enjoyed it.

FEBRUARY

Build Yourself a Boat (P) by Camonghne Felix: The first book of poetry I’ve read FOR FUN in years. A nice change of pace. Gave me a chance to consider the feeling of the lines more than examine it for reviewing purposes.

Leave the World Behind (F) by Rumaan Alam: Post-apocalyptic story that was as compelling as Netflix (and kept me from the screen, in many cases). I appreciated the nontraditional choices Alam made in paragraph construction. 

Salt (P) by Dorianne Laux: Limited run short chapbook by one of my writing teachers. Felt like a softer version of “normal” Dorianne poems. Another book of poetry I read for fun. So nice.

Go, Went, Gone (F) by Jenny Erpenbeck: An amazing book about a retired German man’s encounter with a group of African refugees, and his ensuing academic interest and genuine friendship with them. A statement on the other and what it means to be out of place (while wanting to be in place). A lovely read.

MARCH

Sometimes a Wild God (P) by Tom Hirons: A single poem book with wonderful illustrations. A powerful piece of art.

I am a Stranger Here Myself (NF) by Debra Gwartney: I know Debra from my MFA program. This book tells her family story along the historical story of Narcissa Whitman, early Oregon pioneer/missionary. An honest and self-reflective narrative that made me think a lot about my own ancestors and how I could be somehow giving back to them.

Brown Girl, Brownstones (F) by Paule Marshall: Story of pre-WWII era NYC (Brooklyn/Flatbush) and a community from the West Indies. Insightful coming of age of Selina who’s way more mature than her age.

APRIL

A Blistered Kind of Love (NF) by Angela and Duffy Ballard: PCT journey story. Angela’s bits are great, but Duffy’s sections are loaded with over the top metaphors and drove me sorta nuts. The story was inspirational, but mostly because I was reading about the PCT for the first time.

Tournesol (P) by Lynn Xu: A free chapbook I found via the author’s husband, Josh Edwards (also an author). Sent directly from the publisher (Compline) for the cost of shipping.

All the Rage (P) by Rosamond S. King: Took this book as a review copy for publisher Nightboat and sat on it a while. Addresses police brutality and violence against Black bodies, but with an attached hope. So poignant and timely. Great book.

Thru-Hiking Will Break Your Heart (NF) by Carrot Quinn: Memoir about the author’s 2013 PCT thru-hike. So beautifully honest and filled with details, imagery, and thoughts I could easily relate to as a fellow long distance walker. She’s got a lovely voice that’s easy to fall in love with. Top 5 for sure.

MAY

Autumn Light (NF) by Pico Ayer: The author returns to Japan after the death of his father-in-law and is reminded about the importance of momentary joys. Lovely book that celebrates the mundane as a starting point for self-reflection. 

A Walk in the Woods (NF) by Bill Bryson: A one and done mandatory read about the author’s experience on the Appalachian Trail. A few too many dad jokes for my taste.

Kink (F/stories) edited by R.O. Kwon and Garth Greenwell: Amazing book of short stories. Couldn’t put it down. Love how exploring kinks opens the door wider to human acceptance and understanding. Top 5!

Thanks a Thousand (NF) by A.J. Jacobs: A guy decides to thank everyone involved in the making of his daily cup of coffee a possibility. A lovely little book on gratitude.

Skill in Action (NF) by Michelle Johnson: A wonderful confluence of yogic philosophy and social justice. Reminded me of the dismantling racism course I took earlier in the year. Also a reminder that this is the sort of work I am drawn to. Plus, Michelle is a dear friend and an amazing human.

How to Live in a Car, Van, or RV (NF) by Bob Wells: I was introduced to this author while watching the film, Nomadland. The book is garbage. Its presentation and edits and patriarchy within is too much and unnecessary. I still, however, am intrigued by van life. 

JUNE

The Night Always Comes (F) by Willy Vlautin: Great tragic read about a downward spiraling life. “Don’t do it, Lynette!” a quote from the book, became an inside joke between a friend and I. Love the author’s band, Richmond Fontaine, too.

Another Brooklyn (F, YA?) by Jacqueline Woodson: Wonderful coming of age prose. Sort of poetry, sort of fiction, but 100% wonderful.

JULY

Braiding Sweetgrass (NF) by Robin Wall Kimmerer: Jaw-dropping. What humans can learn from the world by listening to plants and animals. All flourishing is mutual. Top book of 2021!

Grandma Gatewood’s Walk (NF) by Ben Montgomery: An OK read about an amazing woman who pioneered the Appalachian Trail. Kept my interest, but I was happy to skim over the author’s regular historical backstory of (then) current events. Motivated me to think about hiking the AT.

Walking on Cowrie Shells (F/stories) by Nana Nkweti: A slow starter, but by mid-way though I was captured. I especially liked the zombie narrative (based on a true story) and other Camaroonian immigrant-in-America themes. Author’s voice is poetic and weaved me through the prose with ease.

Bird Uncaged (NF) by Marlon Peterson: Tragic story and reflections on the author’s upbringing and influences that need rewiring. Very resonant with me, especially his thoughts on reversing his own toxic masculinity.

Wild (NF) by Cheryl Strayed: I’ve been putting off reading this and mostly because I didn’t want to get caught up in the Oprah hype. But what a great read. Got me thinking about when/how an adventure is “worthwhile,” or if too much weight is often put on the accomplishment of a thing. Answer is yes. Being “done” is never as important as taking the risk to “do.” Sidenote…the movie stinks.

Long Division (F) by Kiese Laymon: Author’s re-release of his bought-back novel. A book with two covers (front and back) and a similar story told twice. I kept thinking of Haruki Murakami’s magical realism and surreal details. But there’s also a lot of race conversation and details that make it far more than just pseudo-sci-fi. Love Kiese. I devoured this one. Top 5, too.

You Were Born For This (NF) by Chani Nicholas: Have previously followed Chani on social media and enjoy what she says in snippets. Taught me more about astrology.

AUGUST

If You Come to Earth (Children’s) by Sophie Blackall: Recommended by Stephanie Lillegard, owner of North Bank Books, where I did my first book reading. Bought it for my brother’s kids. A great kid’s book about diversity and acceptance.

The Sunset Route (NF) by Carrot Quinn: This book deepened my admiration for the author. I love her story, her style, and how easily she touches me with words. This one is about her life hopping trains, but really it’s more a memoir about her tragic and poverty-stricken childhood.

Kent State (NF/YA) by Deborah Wiles: A beautiful and compelling account of the Kent State massacre written in prose and told through the author’s accounts as learned through interviews and her research of eye-witnesses. It’s a great lesson in wholeness. The necessary gathering of all voices so that the story is full like stories always are. 

Spirit Run (NF) by Noe Alvarez: The author’s story of his involvement in the 2004 running of the Peace and Dignity Journey (PDJ) wherein indigenous runners from Northern Alaska to Tierra del Fuego run to meet at the center of the hemisphere in Panama City. It’s a wonderfully written piece of prose and compelling travel account, too.

Blank Space (F) by Jodi Scott Elliot: An old friend’s long piece about an actor who gets caught up in her character in a purposeful attempt to take on the character’s traits. The author’s voice is rich and fresh and her knowledge of acting makes her unnamed character wildly compelling.

Exhalation (F/stories) by Ted Chiang: I was a little unnerved by all the tech talk, but the metaphors and allegories were too powerful and fresh to ignore. I enjoyed the book way more than I thought I would at the outset. Sometimes you just gotta charge ahead. 

Half an Arc & Artifacts & Then the Other Half (F) by Dan Tremaglio: Author asked me to blurb it… “This debut is a collection of dreams: Blue meteorites; Lettuce-eating dogs; Meaningful eye contact while whale watching. Who knew we needed a book about bologna and xylophones and the fear of belly buttons? This unexpected and thought-provoking work is a fresh take on the ordinary. A lyrical study of what it means to be truly human.” Top read!

Ghachar Gochar (F) by Vivek Shanbhag: Short novel. Loved the succinctness and honesty of this writer’s prose. The story of a family who, because of one family member’s efforts, went from rags to riches on a dime. I enjoyed it.

When She Comes Back (NF) by Ronit Plank: Author’s memoir about her mom’s involvement with Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s cult in the 70s and 80s. A quiet and unassuming reflection on her childhood experience as seen through the eyes of an adult mother. Poignant and tragic.

SEPTEMBER

Wild Milk (F/stories) by Sabrina Orah Mark: The cover shook me. A painting of a stone-faced woman wearing a clown nose. Wonderful collection of offbeat writing with fresh metaphors and nonlinear/dreamy narratives. Small press Dorothy Project out of STL. This work inspired me to seek out more from these folks. Loved this line from the final entry: “There are stains that happen suddenly, and can never be washed out.”

Finna (P) by Nate Marshall: A harsh meditation on Blackness that includes various poems to other (real?) people named Nate Marshall—one is a white supremacist. Loved the voice and the flow of lines.

A Fortune for Your Disaster (P) by Hanif Abdurraquib: Strong voice and musicality in the lines. A few series within about Marvin Gaye, Tesla, and “How Can Black People Write About Flowers at a Time Like This.” And they all flow perfectly together. The last poem really threw me (form-wise)—a side by side author-redacted piece that turns the fuller-paged poem into a small one, simply by eliminating a majority of the words. I love that this is where we depart from the book.

The Memory Police (F) by Yoko Ogawa: Great novel about an island where the memory police gradually remove items from inhabitants’ existences. Novels, boats, various “unnecessary” foods, and eventually body parts, until nothing but consciousness remains. It’s definitely a metaphor on power (and more), but also just a cool story about a ridiculous, yet seemingly not-far-fetched world. Top read!!

In Praise of Walking (NF) by Shane O’Mara: I really wanted to dig into this book, but it’s failed to capture my attention beyond a page or so/day, and even that was labored. One fun fact it taught me—the brain hardens as time passes and walking decreases the rate of this hardening. Also, if the brain is already hardened, regular walking helps bring it back to life! Cool.

A Black Nest of Baby Teeth (P) by Jason Bargueño: Fellow MFA student’s killer book of 50 haiku. Self made and self-published. A gorgeous hand-typed collection of the most thought provoking little poems ever. Here’s a doozy: “each night she replaced / a page from her bible with / a page from a map.” Awesome.

Planet Janet (F/YA) by Dyan Sheldon: A day-by-day fictional journal of an angsty teenager that was too trite for my liking. Blah.

The Glittering Bird REBORN (P) by Barbara Soehner: Sentimental therapy poems that helped the author navigate some tough times.

(up)rooted (P) by Laurel Sonneby: A self-published work by a barista from Indaba Cafe (Spokane). Very much a “coming to terms with my life” sort of book.

OCTOBER

In Praise of Paths (NF) by Torbjorn Ekelund: The idea of memory and walking and how we know ourselves and each other though the details of the landscape.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey (F) by Thornton Wilder: Basically a backstory about the 5 people who died when a Peruvian footbridge collapsed and how a local missionary priest used the details of each person’s story to prove the existence of God.

Music fort Exile (P) by Nehassiau deGannes: African/Caribbean diaspora poems filled with musical lines and togetherness. One of my margin notes, “We are scattered but we are whole.”

Transcendent Kingdom (F) by Yaa Gyasi: The book searches for a scientific basis for suffering while the author struggles with her own faith. Loved this bit: “Of course my mother is her own person. Of course she contains multitudes. She reacts in ways that surprise me, in part, simply because she isn’t me. I forget this and learn it anew because it’s the lesson that doesn’t, and can’t, stick. I know her only as she is defined against me, in her role as my mother, so when I see her as herself…there’s dissonance.”

News From the Glacier (P) by John Haines: Simple work, somewhat repetitive and drab. Loves these lines: “I came to this place, / a young man green and lonely. // Well quit of the world, / I framed a house of moss and timber, / called it a home, / and sat in the warm evenings / singing to myself as a man sings / when he knows there is / no one to hear. // I made my bed under the shadow / of leaves, and awoke / in the first snow of autumn, / fille deith silence.”

NOVEMBER

I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness (F) by Claire Vaye Watkins: Dark and sketchy details and language, all presented in a fresh fashion that kept me engaged for the entire 3 days it took to tear through this. The dangers of delving too deep into nostalgia and the past (trauma). The complications of family and dangerous cycles. The importance of finding a way forward. Really enjoyed this one. Top 5!

Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps (NF) by Jennifer Garvey Berger: The author names 5 things that get in the way of quality leadership. Loved the bit at the end that encourages readers to define/refine their purpose. Good stuff.

River Notes: The Dance of Herons (NF/essays) by Barry Lopez: Barry’s work always makes me want to be a better person. To slow my life down so I might find a deeper place from which to write, or offer language, or think, or harvest relationships. A memorable line: “A person cannot be afraid of being foolish. For everything, every gesture, is sacred.”

Thirst: 2600 Miles From Home (NF) by Heather “Anish” Anderson: The story of the author’s FKT on the PCT. I was amazed that her story wasn’t just a rushed adventure north from Mexico to Canada. Even though she was knocking out 50 or so miles/day, she still had time to enjoy people and places. Good writing.

Ornamental (F) by Juan Cardenas: An initially intriguing story about women participating in a medical study. It lost me half way in, and by the end I was done with the author’s efforts to sexualize the narrative. Don’t recommend. 

No. 91/92 (NF/essays) by Lauren Elkin: An experimental book showcasing the author’s daily notes taken on her iPhone over a year as she commuted back and forth to her teaching job in Paris. I love the bursts of imagery and thoughts that often don’t seem to have any sort of linearity—but isn’t that what life mostly is?

The Emissary (F) by Yoko Tawada: A dystopian, post-apocalyptic, futuristic yet realistic snapshot of life in Japan after a tragic disaster. The aftermath lengthened the life of older people and made youth fragile, requiring care. Compelling and dark.

DECEMBER

Vera Violet (F) by Melissa Anne Peterson: Loved how the author described scenes with short bullets. It’s like she made serious effort to ensure readers were in the pocket, right there with the tragedy at play. Dark and stirring, with a character that’s as much elusive to the reader as intimately connected. I loved it. Top 5.

An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (NF) by Georges Perec: This book is about a man who documents every detail of a day as he sits and watches from a seat at various cafes. The idea of looking close yet missing the obvious. The idea of being somewhat anonymous in plain sight. The idea that minutiae is what makes the world go around. I loved this artful study. Found it inspirational. Definitely top 5!

How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America (NF) by Kiese Laymon: My 2nd Kiese book of 2021. Love this man’s work and his dedication to love and personal excellence. memorable line: “If you love someone, you accept and try to understand, but you also demand excellence. It’s the least we can do for each other.”

A Monthly Account of the Year Leading Up to the End of the World (P) by Joshua Edwards: Bought this book at a shop in Marfa, TX during my walk across America. An amazing story about a person’s management of love and self knowing the world is ending. Loved this meditation: “Escape nostalgia by moving closer.” Loved it. Top read!

Cold Millions (F) by Jess Walter: Spokane author telling a fictional (yet based in truth) tale of turn of the century labor activism as it happened in Spokane, WA. Fun to read since it mentioned a lot of parts of the city I am familiar with.

Winter Count (NF/essays) by Barry Lopez: A “winter count” refers to an annual story brought to the table by Native American tribes as the year comes to an end. These are Barry’s stories and they are all amazing. This got me: “I could feel the nearness of tears, those that threaten when one senses how much one wants a promise of intimacy to be real.” Everything by Barry is a top read…

Desert Notes: Reflections in the Eye of a Raven (NF/essays) by Barry Lopez: Maybe it’s ironic that I’m reading about the desert when it’s zero degrees outside. Maybe wishful thinking. Either way, this reread is always a new revelation. I can’t get enough of this author/teacher. Reading him makes me want to be a better person. Great way to end the year.

 

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