Berkeleyside’s favorite books of 2021

Our annual selection of the books we enjoyed most in 2021.

Credit: Daria Nepriakhina, licensed under CC0 1.0

Every year since 2010, Berkeleyside editors have compiled a best books list. It’s not that we read the majority of new books released in a particular year, it’s just that we love books and want to share the joy we get out of reading them. This year is no exception. In addition to Frances Dinkelspiel and Lance Knobel’s picks, we have selections from Tess Mayer, the head of the Berkeley Public Library; Yang Huang, a novelist who published My Good Son this year (she also works at UC Berkeley); and Mal Warwick, who reads hundreds of books a year and critiques them on Mal Warwick’s Blog on Books. Please share your favorite books in the comments.

Tess Mayer, Director of Library Services, Berkeley Public Library

As a newcomer to Berkeley, I enjoy our year-round farmers’ markets, and I recently came across the book Six Seasons: A New Way with Vegetables by Joshua McFadden (with Martha Holmberg). This book supports the aspiration to cook with seasonal vegetables and to use what is sitting in your fridge.

Published this year, Katie Kitamura’s novel Intimacies is an unusual and powerful read. Spare and direct in its language, the author explores themes of psychological remove, love, and alienation to an emotionally compelling effect.

One excellent work of non-fiction from 2021 is Futureproof: 9 Rules for Humans in the Age of Automation by Kevin Roose, a journalist at the New York Times. Roose examines the accelerating impacts of automation and AI on the world and how human actors can shape these developments to improve outcomes for humanity. Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by New Yorker writer Patrick Radden Keefe is a fascinating examination of the Sackler family and their company, Purdue Pharma.

I will be gifting the younger athlete in my life the rest of Jason Reynolds’ Track series now that they have finished Ghost with rave reviews. The series captures the stories of four very different middle school students and the ways in which they navigate challenges in their lives off and on the field.

When I’m looking for escapism, I enjoy a good romance, and I read two terrific ones this past year: While We Were Dating by Jasmine Guillory and Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers. Popular Oakland writer Guillory has already written a slew of entertaining and funny books and manages to combine the breeziness of a romance with resonant insights about individuals navigating relationships and their own self-development. Rogers’ frequently poetic book explores both unexpected love and forging one’s identity in the world.

Yang Huang, novelist and short story writer

As we entered the second year of the pandemic, life grew more precarious in a divided America. I needed a stronger anchor in reality than fleeting news stories, and for this I turned to history books. America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the United States by Erika Lee is a comprehensive study of xenophobia deeply rooted in American society. If the book feels repetitive at times, it is because history repeats itself! The silver lining is that progress comes slowly but not surely, hinging on the choices that people make in the present day.

During these stressful times, good fiction delights and gives us hope. Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu is a wildly inventive novel satirizing racial stereotypes in Hollywood. It comes from a personal lens with a moving immigrant family story.

In A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, George Saunders gives a craft lecture by teaching four Russian masters’ short stories. It is a loving and nuanced guide for both readers and writers, with deep insights into literature and life. A great companion book would be How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee. Both books affirm that storytelling is essential for imagination and human survival.

I have admired Lucy Jane Bledsoe’s novels. Her story collection Lava Falls portrays empowered and vulnerable women who scramble for ways to believe in themselves and the world. I look forward to her new novel No Stopping Us Now, coming in 2022.

The Five Wounds by Kirstin Valdez Quade is a mesmerizing novel about a fierce, loving, but struggling Latinx family in a rundown New Mexico town. The vibrant characters feel like my own family; I want to hold them close and never let them go.

I am a slow reader and long to be immersed in people’s lives unlike mine. Joan Lester’s Loving Before Loving is an extraordinary memoir about her experiences with racism, sexism, and activism and finding the courage to be herself. I am absorbed in Meg Waite Clayton’s The Postmistress of Paris, a haunting story about an American heiress who helps artists hunted by the Nazis escape from war-torn Europe. I cannot wait to read Carolina De Robertis’ sublime novel The President and the Frog, and a great many more in the coming year.

Mal Warwick, Mal Warwick’s Blog on Books

Mal has produced a more extensive list of his favorite books of 2021 but reduced it to one in each category for Berkeleyside – nonfiction, mystery and thriller, speculative fiction and fiction.

One Mighty and Irresistible Tide: The Epic Struggle Over American Immigration, 1924-1965 by Jia Lynn Yang

On as many as a dozen occasions in the course of the 20th century, the U.S. Congress attempted to write the rules for immigration. Twice the result was major legislation signed by the president. The first was in 1924, with the passage of a racist bill that strangled the flow of immigrants for four decades. The second passed in 1965, reopening the floodgates. One law sharply reduced the percentage of foreign-born residents. The other dramatically increased it once again — and, in the process, changed America’s ethnic composition. Now, in One Mighty and Irresistible Tide, journalist Jia Lynn Yang traces the history of that second bill. Her account casts light on today’s immigration debate. It’s both eye-opening and timely.

Yang shows how each of the two major immigration laws was grounded in the governing obsession of its time. In the 1920s, she writes, looking back from the 1950s, “immigration debates had centered on the struggle to control the race and nationality of Americans.” Then, the pseudo-science of eugenics held sway. Members of Congress were “guided by the fear that the United States had to maintain a certain ethnic makeup to protect its democracy. Concerns over Communist infiltration by immigrants had played a supporting role in passing the 1924 law. Now they were taking center stage.” The immigration debate had shifted focus. But the opponents of reform remained resolute in their desire to keep the entry of immigrants to a minimum. Their efforts notwithstanding, Congress passed the Hart-Celler Act of 1965, which eliminated the racist national origins formula as a factor in immigration. Read more

Red Widow by Alma Katsu

A Russian businessman dies on a plane from JFK to Washington National Airport. It seems to be a heart attack. But Lyndsey Duncan knows better. It was clearly poison. And the man was no businessman. He was, instead, a high-ranking officer in the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, the FSB. A 10-year CIA veteran, Lyndsey had recruited Yaromir Popov as a high-level asset when in Moscow on her first overseas assignment. The man had proven to be the most productive agent in the agency’s recent history, and Lyndsey had gained stature and notoriety as a result. But she has thrown it away by an affair with an MI6 officer on her next assignment, in Beirut. 

Lyndsey’s now back in Langley, under investigation for collusion with a foreign intelligence officer. So she is shocked when Eric Newman, Chief of Russia Division, calls her back from administrative leave. He places her in charge of an investigation to find out who in the CIA has revealed Popov’s identity to the Russians. Because the poison that killed Popov was often used by the FSB. Thus begins the long, complex saga of Alma Katsu’s revealing novel of contemporary espionage, The Red Widow.

2034: A Novel of the Next World War by Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis

A squadron of three U.S. destroyers sails on a “freedom of navigation” mission in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. Nearby a smaller vessel is gushing smoke, and Captain Sara Hunt, the squadron’s commodore, orders her warships to veer off course to investigate. They find a small craft packed with electronic surveillance equipment, which they seize. And this ill-considered act in March 2034 triggers a succession of shocking events that unfold over the next four months. Not the rapid-fire, tit-for-tat exchange of strategic nuclear weapons conjured up in the most common fantasy of a Third World War. Just a slow-motion disaster with its own tragic and far-reaching consequences. Thus begins 2034: A Novel of the Next World War. It’s the most frightening book I’ve read in many years.

While Sara Hunt’s squadron is engaged off the China coast, another drama is unfolding half the world away. U.S. Marine pilot “Wedge” Mitchell’s F-35 is on a provocative test flight into Iranian airspace over the Strait of Hormuz. Suddenly, all the electronics that control the aircraft stop working. The plane is under someone else’s control, and slowly it circles on its way down to the massive Iranian military base at Bandar Abbas

For Sandeep Choudhury, the U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser working in the White House, these two events appear unconnected. But he will soon learn they are both the product of a Chinese-Iranian alliance. And they represent the opening salvos in a complex and risky plan hatched within China’s Central Military Commission. 

And no one has a clue that the actions they all take will help set off the Third World War. 

The Bad Muslim Discount by Syed M. Masood

Anvar Faris and Safwa lead very different lives growing up. In Karachi, Pakistan, now the world’s seventh-largest city, Anvar lives a life sheltered from violence and poverty with his parents and older brother. He’s the black sheep in the family, the bane of his mother’s existence because he fails to follow the strict Muslim rules she imposes on everyone else. By contrast, living in Baghdad with her brother Fahd and her stern father, Safwa experiences the American invasion as a child. Then her father, who years earlier had answered the call to jihad in Afghanistan, is captured and tortured by U.S. troops. Abu Fahd (“father of Fahd”) turns cruel after his release and forces her to live under the veil and devote her life to caring for her dying older brother.

In Syed Masood’s fast-moving account about two young Muslim immigrants, we follow these engaging teenagers as they establish shaky new lives in San Francisco. Eventually, the two families both end up as tenants in a rundown old apartment building owned and run by an Indian Muslim immigrant. There, Anvar and Safwa’s lives intersect in tragedy. 

Frances Dinkelspiel, executive editor of Cityside

The book I raved about all year, the book I recommended to everyone I knew, both readers and fellow writers, was After the Last Border: Two Families and the Story of Refuge in America by Jessica Goudeau. The winner of the prestigious J. Anthony Lukas prize for nonfiction, After the Last Border is a novel-like telling of two women who emigrate to the U.S. and settle in Austin, Texas. One came from Myanmar when this country was welcoming and supportive of refugees. The other arrived from Syria during the Trump presidency and found herself separate from her adult children because of Trump’s Muslim ban. She also found much less institutional support and had to fend much more for her family. Goudeau collects so many details about the intimacies of these women’s lives that you feel you are in their living rooms watching them move around. The level of reporting her is top-notch.

I was also deeply impressed by Empire of Pain: A Secret History of the Sackler Family by the New Yorker writer, Patrick Radden Keefe. I could not put the book down. But I would like to highlight a less well-known book about the opioid crisis, Death in Mud Lick: A Coal Country Fight Against the Drug Companies that Delivered the Opioid Epidemic by Eric Eyre. It’s an amazing tale by Eyre, who was a reporter for the Charleston Gazette-Mail in Charlestown, West Virginia, when he discovered that pharmaceutical companies had shipped 9 million hydrocodone pills to a small pharmacy in Kermit, population 392. Over a six-year period, companies shipped 780 million hydrocodone and oxycodone pills to the state. Eyre won the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting in 2017 for his look at how cynical pharmaceutical companies, including but not limited to Purdue Pharma, put profits over people’s health. Eyre expanded his work into this incredible book. (Just six months after the paper won the Pulitzer, in a reflection of the challenges of local news, the newspaper declared bankruptcy. Eyre now works for a nonprofit digital startup called the Mountain State Spotlight.)

I was unexpectedly moved by this memoir of illness and recovery. I am not alone because Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted by Suleika Jaouad has been a massive hit. At 22, right after graduating from Princeton, Jaouad moved to Paris, dreaming of becoming a foreign correspondent. But she finds herself overcome with fatigue and itching all over. She returns home and eventually is diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. Between Two Kingdoms is Jaouad’s recounting of three and a half years of difficult treatment and how she coped emotionally as she split up from her long-term boyfriend. She writes about her experience in a New York Times column called “Life, Interrupted,” and later embarks on a 15,000-mile journey through 33 states to visit some of the people who wrote her in response to that column. The journey restores Jaouad’s sense of self.

As for novels, my favorite of 2021 was Maggie Shipstead’s Great Circle, the story of an early 20th-century female aviator. The 500-page novel focuses mostly on Marian Graves, who survives a 1909 shipwreck that kills her mother but spares her twin brother. They are raised by a kindly uncle in Montana, where Marian first learns to fly. As Shipstead details Marian’s trips in the air and the battles she faces as a woman, she takes readers on a journey through a changing 20th century. Marion disappears in a plane a la Amelia Earhart, and years later a disgraced Hollywood actress plays her in a biopic. The novel is sprawling but delightful.

Lance Knobel, CEO of Cityside

The most unusual book I read this year was also the oldest. Impostures is a translation by Michael Cooperson of 50 untranslatable stories by Al-Hariri, written in the early 12th century CE. Why untranslatable? Apparently, the original stories were exercises in extreme wordplay, written in rhyming prose. Some of the stories are meant to be read both backward and forward, others have Georges Perec-like games where letters are omitted (Perec’s La Disparation avoids the letter e), and a host of other contortions.

Cooperson’s dazzling solution is to write each of the 50 stories in a different style (which apparently map well onto the literary pyrotechnics of the original. So the first story, for example, is written in the style of Huckleberry Finn; the reversible story has a speech which can be read both ways, with the whole chapter written in the style of Jerome K Jerome (an author whose name can be reversed); another like a Canterbury Tale; a Walter Scott-style story; a Gilbert and Sullivan romp; a Spanglish chapter; one in cowboy lingo; and on and on.

In lesser hands, this could be tiresome, or a clever academic exercise. But I rocketed through Impostures, both enjoying the stories and constantly wide-eyed at the humor and cleverness of Cooperson’s literary gymnastics. Nice bonus: the hardback is a beautiful edition from New York University Press.

More straightforward was Mike Duncan’s Hero of Two Worlds, a biography of the Marquis of Lafayette. If you don’t know Duncan as the world’s premier history podcaster, you’ve been missing something (his series Revolutions, in its 10th and final season, just reached episode 80 and counting on the Russian revolution, surpassing his French revolution coverage which was only 54 episodes!). Lafayette figured in both Duncan’s podcasting on the American and French revolutions, so he took a few years to research and write the biography on the side. It’s an extraordinary life: the youthful dilettante who came to America to “help” the rebel cause. Unlike his confrères, however, Lafayette actually turned out to be a good soldier and a great leader. Lafayette went on to become an important figure in the French revolution, in the campaign to end slavery, in the revolution of 1830, and more. Lafayette once was one of the most famous people in the western world. Duncan makes clear why he captured the imagination of so many.

Tonight is Already Tomorrow by Lia Levi is a short novel telling the story of a family of Genoese Jews whose lives are upended by fascism, war and the Holocaust in the 1930s and ‘40s. Think of a chamber music version of Giorgio Bassani’s Finzi-Contini symphony. Levi’s writing – translated by Clarissa Botsford – is spare and deeply affecting.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future does a great job of providing hope that we can find a path to solve our climate crisis. It’s set in the near future where a devastating heatwave in India spurs action by the bureaucrats at the UN agency dubbed The Ministry for the Future. Some of the policy twists and turns are dubious – I’m not sure India moving to a local agrarian economy holds that much promise – but you’d have to be a hard-hearted reader not to be swept along by the progress humanity can make thanks to determined leadership (with a push from very targeted eco-terrorism).

Finally, you can find sheer escapism in Mick Herron’s hilarious Slough House series about a group of washed-up MI5 spies who are shuffled off to enforced inactivity at the grimy Slough House – an “administrative oubliette.” The first book in the series, Slow Horses, was published in 2010. I read the first four books this year (Slow Horses, Dead Lions, Real Tigers and Spook Street) and look forward to gobbling up the next three soon (maybe during this coming holiday week). Think The Office meets John Le Carre.

Frances Dinkelspiel is co-founder and executive editor of Cityside. Email: frances@citysidejournalism.org.