Happy New Year! Here’s hoping 2022 will be filled with lots of happy reading and that we see the end of this pandemic.
After a flurry of posts at the end of 2021, I took a few days off at the beginning of 2022. Over on the Book Cougars Podcast, Emily and I recorded our annual Top 10 episode with our BookTuber friend Russell of Ink & Paper Blog.
Here are my Top 10 reads of last year, in no particular order.
Country Place by Ann Petry (1947). A fantastic novel that’s just as powerful as Petry’s best-selling novel The Street, which was the first novel by an African American woman to sell over 1 million copies. A Country Place is set just after WWII in a small seaside town in Connecticut. It focuses on a young man who has just returned from four years at war. He and his wife married very young and some things have changed while he’s been away. There’s a cast of characters that show how times are changing. Or not.
Clark and Division by Naomi Hirahara (2021 SoHo Press, editor and author Juliet Grames sent a copy to the Book Cougars thinking it would be up our alley and it sure was). I devoured this novel! Clark and Division is the best sort of historical mystery, one that teaches and makes you think as it entertains. The mystery is unique and solidly plotted with characters that I could see walking around in their city setting. I wrote a post about the novel that you can read here.
Bleak House by Charles Dickens (1853). I didn’t know anything about this novel before starting and that made it all the more wonderful. I mainly read the paper edition, but also listened to an audio version narrated by Simon Vance, who did an amazing job. His character voices were super and I also appreciated his British cadence which brought sentences to life in ways my 21st-century American reading brain couldn’t. I also watched the BBC adaptation starring Gillian Anderson. I plan on reading another Dickens novel in 2022.
A Solitude of Wolverines by Alice Henderson (2020 William Morrow). I haven’t been this excited about a new mystery series since I started reading Louise Penny. The great outdoors, championing animals in the wild, and a competent, kick-ass woman field biologist. A must-read for fans of Nevada Barr. I wrote a post about the novel here. The second book in the series, A Blizzard of Polar Bears, came out in late 2021 and I devoured that one, too. I was so excited to talk with Henderson on Episode 141 of the Book Cougars.
O Beautiful by Jung Yun (Nov 2021, St. Martin’s Press). There are not enough stars to give this novel. It’s the story of Elinor, a 40-something women who has made a career change from modeling to journalism. She’s on her first big assignment, to write about the oil boom in North Dakota for a major national magazine. Elinor is half Korean and half white, and has never fit in wherever she is.
The radical changes in ND, learning why she got the assignment, intense interactions with locals, and reconnecting with a sister with whom she has a strained relationship all contribute to Elinor’s internal conflict and the story’s tension/plot. Violence against women, toxic masculinity, environmental destruction, racism, economic hardship, and family conflict are just some of the themes. Emily and I were thrilled to talk with Jung about her new novel on the Book Cougars Episode 142.
The Only Wonderful Things: The Creative Partnership of Willa Cather & Edith Lewis by Melissa Homestead (2021 Oxford UP). Shows how deeply Edith Lewis shaped Cather’s writing— she wasn’t “just” Cather’s life partner of 40 years, but her literary collaborator and editor. Their life together AND Lewis’s own influential career in advertising are detailed. Homestead explains that the rise of Cold War hysteria over homosexuality was a big reason why Cather’s first biographer dismissed the importance of Lewis in Cather’s life. He was also influenced by Cather’s early but estranged friend Dorothy Canfield Fisher who was homophobic.
This joint biography is hugely important not only for Cather studies, but for lesbian studies as well. Homestead shows that Cather and Lewis weren’t in the closet (a 1960s concept), they just weren’t radicals or activists so their lives weren’t open in that way. If you plan on reading one of the older biographies out there on Cather, you must read this one as well. Emily and I talked with Homestead on Epsiode 128.
The Doctors Blackwell: How Two Pioneering Sisters Brought Medicine to Women and Women to Medicine by Janice Nimura (2021 W.W. Norton). In 1849 Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman M.D. in U.S. Her younger sister Emily followed and, as Nimura details, was the more brilliant physician. This joint bio shows what these two women went through to achieve their goals, and how their different temperaments played out in their medical practices. Elizabeth didn’t really like touching patients and was more concerned with big picture issues, whereas Emily was focused on patients. Nimura details the medical treatment of women in the 19th century and how attitudes evolved towards women in medicine and treatments for women. This was one of the Book Cougars readalong picks and we got to talk with Nimura on Episode 139.
Leaving Coy’s Hill by Katherine Sherbrooke (2021 Pegasus Books). This is historical fiction of Lucy Stone’s life (1818-1893). Stone was an abolitionist, suffragist, feminist who at a young age was appalled to learn that married women have no rights including the right to her property or children. Lucy vowed to never marry. And then along came Henry Blackwell (1825-1909), brother of Elizabeth and Emily, the subject of the previous book. Spoiler alert: she marries, but their vows do not include the traditional “obey” sentiment. Also, she doesn’t take her husband’s name which was inconceivable in the mid-19th century and caused quite the brouhaha.
My imagination was deeply captured by the depictions of Lucy’s solo travel on the abolitionist speaker circuit. How determined and brave she was. The extent of northern racism surprised even Stone when she was shocked to learn blacks were not allowed in a Philadelphia venue where she was scheduled to give a speech.
Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts by Rebecca Hall and Hugo Martinez (2021 Simon & Schuster) part memoir, party history. This graphic nonfiction book is about Hall’s challenge to research the enslaved women who led slave revolts. Legal record keepers of the period didn’t bother writing down the name of enslaved women leaders. Wake also imagines how some of the revolts went down.
I couldn’t help mention two other graphic novels that I loved.
Shadow Life by Hiromi Goto and Ann Xu (2021 First Second). A graphic novel about Kumiko, an older women who leaves the facility her daughters put her in and strikes out on her own. Death is pursuing her, but she’s not ready to let it catch her. Along the way Kumiko makes friends, reunites with an old lover, and everyone learns a thing or two in the end.
Garlic & the Vampire by Bree Paulsen (2021 Quill Tree Books). A charming story written for middle school aged readers. This is the story about an anxious little garlic bulb named Garlic who is chosen (for obvious reasons) to investigate whether or not vampires have moved back into an abandoned castle. I also enjoyed the vampire and protections against them that Paulsen introduces.
Dogs! I couldn’t pick just one of the books about dogs that I read in 2021, so I included both. Yes, I am a cheater. Woodrow on the Bench: Life Lessons from a Wise Old Dog by Jenna Blum (2021 Harper). This is the story about the last year of Woodrow’s life, Blum’s 14-year-old black lab. I ugly cried several times. Blum was a guest on the Book Cougars, Episode 143.
Dogs on the Trail: A Year in the Life by Blair Braverman and Quince Mountain (2021 Ecco). My dog Beatrice Dashwood is a retired sled dog so I’m attracted to books about these friendly and hardworking dogs. Braverman and Mountain show a year of sled dog life and how training changes with the seasons. There are fantastic photos of the dogs at work and play. I currently have it faced-out in my office where I can see it from my desk. It makes me smile. Co-author Quince Mountain is the first openly transgender musher to race in the Iditarod.
That’s my top Ten(ish) Reads of 2021. Of the 15 books mentioned above, 10 are fiction and 5 nonfiction. Women writers definitely dominated, at least on this list. I’ve yet to compile stats for all my 2021 reading.
What were some of your favorite reads of the year? If you’re a blogger, feel free to leave a link.