We have finally waved goodbye to 2021. After filling in 365 pages, a fresh set of 365 days has been provided to us. With the conclusion of a year is the commencement of a new one. 2021 was filled with uncertainties as the pandemic continued to wreak havoc across all parts of the world. The vaccination drive kicked off as well but the threat of the Omicron variant is about to reverse all the gains made. Nevertheless, hope still springs eternal despite the uncertainties that shroud the future.
Staying true to what has become my annual tradition, I am kicking off the new year by looking back to the previous year, its hits, and of course, its mishits. It is also an opportunity to take a glimpse of how the coming year is going to shape up. This book wrap-up is a part of a mini-series that will feature the following:
- 2021 Top Ten Not-So Favorite Reads
- 2021 Top Ten Favorite Books
- 2021 Book Wrap Up
- 2021 20 Most Memorable Book Quotes (Part I)
- 2021 20 Most Memorable Book Quotes (Part II)
- 2021 New Favorite Authors
- 2022 Books I Look Forward To List
- 2022 Top 22 Reading List
I recently published the list of my not-so-favorite reads in 2021. Now, I will be sharing with everyone my favorite reads of the past year. Among the 92 books I read last year are some outstanding reads. There were some that impressed me and reeled me in with their captivating, powerful, and immersive stories and prose. These books helped make 2021 a memorable reading year. Without more ado, here are my favorite reads from the year that was.
Go Tell It On The Mountain by James Baldwin
Kicking off my 2021 Favorite Reads list is one of the books that I have been looking forward to ever since I first encountered it. I first came across James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On The Mountain through must-read lists. It immediately piqued my interest for it reminded me of a popular Christmas song of the same title. It did take me time but I finally was able to acquire my copy of the book in 2020 and I didn’t hesitate in adding the book to my 2021 Top 21 Reading List. Ironically, it was the last book on this list that I read. What stood out for me in the novel was Baldwin’s powerful storytelling. He managed to vividly capture the relationship between the Church and the African American community, how the Church has both the power to unite and to divide. While religion was central to the story, the novel’s concern never deviated from the characters. Baldwin did a great job of fleshing out the characters that populated his debut novel. Yes, he drew inspiration from his own life.
Bewilderment by Richard Powers
American writer Richard Powers first caught my attention back in early 2020 when I encountered his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Overstory, one time I passed by the bookstore. However, the book cover made me feel as though the book was not for me. A year later, I would encounter Powers again after his latest novel, Bewilderment, was shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize. Without more ado, I acquired a copy of the book. Sadly, Bewilderment did not win the award even though I was rooting for it. You see, the novel engaged me. The story is set in the dystopian not-so-far future but it was riddled with elements of the contemporary it was not difficult projecting the present. What floated to the surface were Powers’ strong political sentiments but these did not hamper my appreciation of the story. I found something raw and beautiful in how Powers treaded volatile relationships, such as that of a father and son, science and politics, and of man and nature.
A Passage North by Anuk Arudpragasam
Speaking of the 2021 Booker Prize. When the longlist was announced, the majority of the names were new to me. It was only Kazuo Ishiguro whose works I previously read. Nevertheless, I set out on a journey to read all of these books, and luckily, before the year ended, I managed to cross out 10 of the 13 books. There were several that stood out but there was something about Anuk Arudpragasam’s A Passage North that reeled me in. While Bewilderment was steeped in politics, A Passage North was brimming with Sri Lanka’s contemporary history. Both books, nevertheless, won me over. What stood out for me in A Passage North was Arudpragasam’s language. He reeled me in and captured my interest despite the long sentences and paragraphs. To be honest, when I started reading the novel, I forecasted that it would be shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Guess what? A couple of days later, it was indeed announced as one of six shortlisted works. Unfortunately, neither of my favored books won the award.
The Push by Ashley Audrain
Over the past few years, a new breed of writers has been rising above obscurity and publishing their debut works. There were some that failed but there were several that stood out. Among those that stood out, personally, was Ashley Audrain’s The Push. It was while browsing for books to include in my 2021 Top 10 Books I Look Forward To List that I first came across the novel. It has been listed by many as an “anticipated 2021” release. I jumped into the bandwagon and made it part of my own list. The Push was, at the onset, about parenthood and everything that it entailed, both the good and the bad. It also had elements of tenterhook that kept me at the edge of my seat. More than that, it kept me thinking. Was it all in the main character’s head or was it real? It was a riveting experience that I can hardly believe that it was just a debut novel.
Watership Down by Richard Adams
There’s a funny backstory about my first encounter with Richard Adams’ Watership Down. I have told it several times but I am once again repeating it (HAHA). I wasn’t too keen on adding the book to my reading list despite encountering it in several must-read lists. I had the notion that the book was about the war; “watership” conjured images of warships for reasons I can’t begin to explain. Nevertheless, when I learned that it was actually a story about rabbits, I immediately acquired a copy of the book and added it to my 2021 Top 21 Reading List. I was glad it was part of my 2021 reading journey for it was one of the books that I found unique. Adams made life in the undergrowth flourish with his descriptive storytelling. He captured me from the onset and the adventure reminded me of The Lord of the Rings. It was truly a spellbinding experience.
Beauty is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan
Crossing the border to our South East Asian neighbors. Prior to 2019, I have never heard of Eka Kurniawan. However, his translated works were making the round in both the bookstore and the online booksellers. It didn’t take time for me to consider delving into the Indonesian writer’s prose and what better way to start this journey than with his debut novel, Beauty is a Wound. This complex story started off in the most memorable way: a woman named Dewi Ayu, dead for over two decades, rose from her grave. What ensued was a story that was brimming with magical realism, family dynamics, and historical details. Beauty is a Wound was nothing but an easy read. Nevertheless, this labyrinthine work gave me a deeper insight into Indonesian literature and culture. It is an exotic literary rendering that kept me reeled in from the start. Beauty is a Wound has opened a new gate into my adventure into the realms of literature and it made me look forward to reading more works other Indonesian, and consequently, South East Asian writers.
Crossing the Mangrove by Maryse Condé
Prior to 2019, I have never heard of Guadeloupean writer Maryse Condé, who I first heard of in the lead-up to the announcement of the winners of the 2018/2019 Nobel Prize in Literature. Her name was a resounding favorite amongst bettors and also literary pundits. Unfortunately, she did not win the award but the chance encounter made me curious about her prose, especially after I learned that she is considered by many a “royalty” in the reals of Caribbean literature. I didn’t hesitate to buy the first novel by Condé that I encountered. Crossing the Mangrove made it to my 2021 Top 21 Reading List and was also a part of my first ever South American Literature reading month. Crossing the Mangrove placed the literary microscope under a Caribbean village that was unsettled by the death of a stranger in their midst. The genius of the story lies in how, through this death, the members of the community examined their own concerns, and in the process, that of their community as a whole.
The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño
Certainly, South American literature made its mark on me in 2021. The Chilean writers left the biggest impression on me and one of those who made a deep impression was Roberto Bolaño. I have been looking forward to reading one of his works after I kept encountering him and his works in several must-read lists. Who is this writer? Thankfully, I was able to acquire some of his works in 2020, one of which, The Savage Detectives, found itself in my 2021 Top 21 Reading List. Ironically, the plot was rather thin in The Savage Detectives; it was a contrast to its hefty appearance. Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading it despite its heft. The novel was divided into three parts and the middle part, carrying the book’s title, was its heftiest. Rather than tell the story in a straightforward manner, Bolaño built it through a series of interviews with different individuals that have encountered the titular savage detectives, one of which was the author’s alter ego.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie earned my admiration with Half of a Yellow Sun, a novel I read in early 2019. The story, steeped in historical context, kept me hooked and made me want to read more of Adichie’s prose. I didn’t have to wait long to read my next Adichie, Americanah, a book that has been positively recommended by fellow readers. Whilst on the surface it was the story of young lovers Ifemelu and Obinze, what reeled me into their story was Adichie’s flowing, deep, and insightful dissection of the contemporary American attitude towards race. This was further complemented by the equally lush portrayal of the plights immigrants and “American Dreamers” experience. Ifemelu’s part of the story was longer, deservedly so for it contained more tumult and crises. Americanah was marketed as a romance novel but there was less romance and more social commentary. However, Adichie’s writing struck the perfect balance between literature and social commentary.
Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton
For the second year running, African literature month made its way to my reading calendar. There were several books that stood out and one of them was Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, a book that I would have not dreamt of reading had I not encountered it in must-read lists. Yes, it was listed as one of the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Unfortunately, like most of my books, the book was left to gather dust on my bookshelf until I decided to add it to my 2021 Beat the Backlist Challenge. The Apartheid has become synonymous with contemporary South African history. It was a blemish on their history. Cry, the Beloved Country was published before the apartheid was implemented. However, this story of fathers and sons magnified the conditions that eventually led to the apartheid. It was a memorable read for gave me deeper insights on a historical event I only read about.
Flights by Olga Tokarczuk
I guess Ten is not enough so I am adding two more. Like Maryse Condé, I have never encountered Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk until her name floated as one of the potential winners of the 2018/2019 Nobel Prize in Literature. Unlike the Guadeloupean writer, Tokarczuk was declared one of the two winners; the other was Austrian Peter Handke. This immediately made me want to dive into her narrative. My first Tokarczuk novel was Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. The novel gave me glimpses of her genius and made me look forward to reading Flights, which I have also listed as part of my 2021 Top 21 Reading List. What I did not expect about Flights was its unusual structure. Rather than providing a straightforward and formulaic story, Tokarczuk gave fragments which the readers will take command of in weaving into a cohesive whole. What I also like about it is the sea of information that enveloped me. It was indeed a unique literary work.
The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta
While Chilean writers impressed me in my dive into South American literature, it was the Nigerian writers who captivated me in the African literature stretch of my 2021 reading journey. Apart from Adichie and Nobel Laureate in Literature Wole Soyinka, a name that stood out was Buchi Emecheta, a writer who I encountered only in 2021. I didn’t have an inkling of who she was when I randomly bought The Joys of Motherhood from an online bookseller. I would eventually learn that she was a Titan in modern Nigerian literature and was even the inspiration of some contemporary writers, among them Adichie. The Joys of Motherhood captured me with the story of Nnu Ego and her struggles, from rearing her children to raising them. Her story was juxtaposed to the rich details of Nigerian culture, society, and history. Filled with local colors and flavors, The Joys of Motherhood is a profound story that resonates with a universal message.
2021 was brimming with good and memorable reads. Here are others that kept me invested. How about you fellow reader? What are your favorite reads in 2021? I hope you could share it in the comment box. For now, happy reading!