Like most, the last twenty months upended any sense of normalcy for my family and me. And while 2021 brought with it a glint of hope that life would begin to settle, in many ways that has been delayed. Yet, amidst the isolation, the anxiety, and the constant noise ever present on our timelines these days, books kept me tethered.
I gathered virtually with friends for a weekly online book club where we drank cocktails and talked about the assigned week’s reading, which, more often than not, turned into talking about life and how we could care for one another. I met new friends through a mutual love for certain authors and their books. I wrote about books I’d read and how they had shaped me long after the final page. And in the quiet moments of the night, they helped me feel a little less alone before tucking into bed.
Reading is never a private act. You commune with the author, their creation, and a rich history of the written word that has brought people together for ages. And if you love something, you share it. 2021 delivered a bounty of standout books, so with that in mind, here are the ten books I loved most from this year. I hope they keep you tethered as they did me.
Every place tells a story, and for many American landmarks, that story includes slavery. Whether it’s Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello Plantation, which once housed nearly 400 slaves, a Confederate monument, or an overlooked landmark on one’s commute to work, the places around us bear witness to the lives lived before us. With How the Word Is Passed, author and poet Clint Smith explores some of the country’s best-known historical sites and monuments to uncover how the the memory of slavery is being shared, for better or worse. From his hometown of New Orleans to well-known sites like Galveston, Texas, and the home of Robert E. Lee, Smith explores the intricacies of each story, muddying the waters of black-and-white discourse with a narrative saturated in thorough research. How the Word Is Passed is a crucial work urging readers to face the history of slavery in America with a collective sense of grief that drives us to seek a better future together by understanding our past.
Razorblade Tears by S. A. Cosby
Ike Randolph and Buddy Lee have only two things in common—a criminal record and a recently murdered son. Ike, a Black man, has spent years building a legitimate business and steering clear of his criminal past, whereas Buddy Lee, a White man, holds little regard for legal boundaries and maintains contacts from his days as a convict. Following the funerals of their boys, the two strike up an unlikely partnership to track down those responsible for killing their sons and get some answers no matter how many teeth and bones they have to break along the way. Cosby’s latest is as moving as it is brutal, stepping into every social crossroads imaginable in a story driven by the love of a father for his son.
Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We've Left Behind by Grace Olmstead
When Grace Olmstead left her hometown of Emmett, Idaho, for an East Coast education, she had no plans of returning. Leaving meant advancing, approaching greater degrees of importance, but it also meant unknowingly contributing to the burden of a community simply trying to stay alive. Equal parts memoir and investigative journalism, Uprooted examines modern life in today’s farming communities, detailing how governmental policies and big agriculture threaten their survival, and asks reader to consider what we owe the places that raise us.
Ever feel like you live in an unaccommodating world, pushing you toward unsustainable output, unachievable goals, and constant anxiety about your future? It’s because you do. And at the core of that dilemma is a simple question: to whom do you belong? When we answer that question incorrectly, we craft a utilitarian world, one obsessed with innovation and productivity that treats us more like machines than human beings. Noble reminds readers that we do not belong to ourselves. We belong to Christ, and when we center our lives on that truth, only then can we experience peace, belonging, and rest on this side of glory.
Carved in Ebony: Lessons from the Black Women Who Shape Us by Jasmine Holmes
History has long overlooked the contributions of women, especially when they are Black or other persons of color. With Carved in Ebony, Jasmine Holmes recounts the lives of ten Black American women and the influence their legacies have had on shaping both history and faith as we know it today. But don’t mistake this book for a bland exercise in history. Alongside her meticulous research, Holmes weaves in her own experiences as a Black American woman, sharing the obstacles she has faced and the ways these women have focused her gaze toward the future. Carved in Ebony pays respect to forgotten lives well lived and offers a broadened grasp of history to those willing to embrace it.
Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr
Anna is a thirteen-year-old orphan living in the ancient city of Constantinople as it groans under siege from an enemy army. In present day Idaho, Zeno, a former POW in the Korean War instructs a group of children rehearsing a play. And years in the future, Konstance lives aboard an intergalactic spaceship travelling to a new home with the final remnants of humanity. Though separated by centuries, each of them is connected across the span of time by an ancient story discovered in the crumbling ruins of an abandoned library. In this follow-up to his widely beloved novel, All the Light We Cannot See, Doerr has crafted an ode to stories and those who safeguard them that is at once enchanting and immersive. It is another gorgeous read from a brilliant writer.
No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood
Broken into a long series of paragraphs, No One Is Talking About This follows an influencer on the social platform referred to as “the portal.” Her fame affords her a lavish and visible lifestyle, but leaves her untethered, exchanging who she is to feel as though she has a say in what happens around her. All of that changes instantly after she receives a text from her mother that pulls her into non-pixelated grief, loss, and love that clothe her in tragedy while magnifying what truly matters. Lockwood writes with a sharp, satirical wit, critiquing the modern obsession with media, highlighting the connection between abundance and grief, and inviting readers to reckon with their waking hours and consider where they’re seeking permanence.
Happy Now: Let Playfulness Lift Your Load and Renew Your Spirit by Courtney Ellis
Back in October, Lisa Lucas, senior vice president and publisher at Penguin Random House, tweeted, “Where are all the joyful book proposals?” Clearly she missed Courtney Ellis’s latest, Happy Now. Known to Fathom readers for her bi-weekly column, The Lift, Happy Now marks her third release and couldn’t have arrived at a better time. With hurt and loss seemingly ever present, Ellis invites readers to discover the power of playfulness and shows how play requires intentionality and is a critical ingredient in a joy-filled life.
A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life by George Saunders
Everyone seems to offer a master class these days, but few have mastered the art of teaching fiction better than George Saunders. Best known for award-winning works, like Lincoln in the Bardo and Tenth of December, and his professorship at Syracuse’s competitive MFA program, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain brings the classroom to your bookshelf with a study of the Russian short story. Examining tales from the likes of Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and more, Saunders demonstrates how fiction works both as a technical craft and a formative exercise, instructing readers on how best to spend the time we’ve been given.
Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by Patrick Radden Keefe
When Arthur Sackler financed the purchase of the Purdue Frederick Company with his two brothers in 1952, it had built its success on producing ear wax removal and laxatives. Less than fifty years later, it became a catalyst for America’s opioid crisis as the manufacturer and distributor of Oxycontin. While many have gone to great lengths in documenting the development of the drug and its highly addictive qualities, Empire of Pain marks the first study of the family behind its creation, detailing their legacy of shaping pharmaceutical advertising and amassing a fortune at the expense of public health. Keefe’s work is a landmark examination of corporate responsibility and personal accountability, as well as an illustration of Upton Sinclair’s famous quote: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”