favorite books of 2021

I can summarize my 2021 in three independent clauses packed in one sentence: I moved out of my parents’ house, I started using a Diva cup, and I bought a Kindle.

There were also bouts of depression and 80-hour work weeks but, well, those things that are not as fun to write about.

So let’s stick with the fun stuff. Buying a Kindle was definitely one of the best things I did in 2021. Most of the books I read last year, I read on my Kindle. And in the spirit of populating this blog with year-end kinembular, I will share with you some of my favorite books I read last year.

Tell the Machine Goodnight by Katie Williams

Tell the Machine Goodnight revolves around a hi-tech machine that can determine what exactly a person needs to do to be happy. Eat tangerines. Buy a dog. Cut off your finger. The instructions appear joke-y and arbitrary, but many people, including main character Pearl, swear by the machine’s effectiveness. The novel follows Pearl and the cast of characters surrounding her, each with their own stories that tackle different thematic threads, from familiar domestic tensions to subtle meditations on happiness. But what I like most about the book is its milieu. The idea of a “happiness machine” sounds absurd, but it also feels like a plausible evolution of today’s pop psychology. Think personality tests and how HR departments use them to appraise employees. Some people buy into it, some don’t. And even though the book barely grazes through the consequences of profit-oriented science, it does spark questions on how contentment is measured, for whom do we measure it, and who, other than ourselves, benefit from securing our own happiness.

Love is a Mix Tape by Rob Sheffield

Love is a Mixtape was the first of several books that made me cry in 2021. In this memoir by music journalist Rob Sheffield, each chapter begins with a tracklist from a mix tape that Rob and his wife made. What are mix tapes, you ask? Okay, zoomer: mix tapes are similar to Spotify playlists, except you don’t compile and stream the songs using a phone or a computer. You record the songs on cassette tapes (see book cover) and you play them using a cassette player. Cassettes are an old tech that aren’t as hip as vinyl, but there’s a generation of music lovers out there whose most cherished memories were captured on these tapes. “Every mix tape tells a story. Put them together, and they add up to the story of a life,” writes Rob, and so he shares the story of how he and his wife met, how his wife died too soon at age 31, and how he coped with the grief that followed, all seamlessly woven with the tunes that they loved, from David Bowie to Yo La Tengo to Weezer. It’s a damn good memoir, and I strongly recommend it to people like myself who have blown an unnecessary amount of time making a playlist, be it on cassette or CD or elsewhere.

Bluets by Maggie Nelson

Bluets is Maggie Nelson’s short — or long, depends on how you gauge it — meditation on the color blue. The feeling of being blue, the album Blue, the blue of the sky, you name it. The topic is rather ordinary, but the sadness in the text is palpable. Its frail limbs reach out to the reader, and reading the book feels a lot like being embraced by someone else’s gloom. Sitting in my office before teaching a class on prosody, trying not to think about you, about my having lost you. But how can it be? How can it be? Was I too blue for you. Was I too blue. I look down at my lecture notes: Heártbréak is a spondee. Then I lay my head down on the desk and start to weep.—Why doesn’t this help? If only I could give Tita Maggie a hug! Technique-wise, Tita Maggie does what few is capable of doing: she marries autobiography with lyric poetry, and that, to me, is what makes Bluets so commanding and affective. 10 out of 10, will read again.

Daisy Jones and The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Daisy Jones and The Six is far from perfect, but it is right up my alley. It has music and drama and intrigue, all braided into an oral history of how a group of musicians with big hair and bell-bottom jeans made music and snorted drugs and did pretty much what every musician with big hair and bell-bottom jeans did in the 70s. It’s awesome! The novel is written as a transcript of a rock documentary, so it reads like a juicy Rolling Stone interview or a pasabog Behind the Music episode. The book is also replete with nuggets of details inspired by real stories from real bands, like there’s this one bit where the drummer spills a juicy hunch about their keyboardist’s alleged affair with a lighting tech — I mean, Christine McVie from Fleetwood Mac, anyone? “You Make Loving Fun”? I can go on and on about this, but the point is that I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and I forgave all the cheesy and corny parts because that’s how rock n’ roll works — it is cheesy and corny at times, but that doesn’t make it any less sublime.

Shoko’s Smile by Choi Eunyoung

Everyone and their mothers are into K-drama these days, but no matter how hard I try, my sorry ass always ends up falling and stumbling out of the wagon. I have tried watching the popular ones, from Reply 1988 to Itaewon Class, but I simply couldn’t sit through 20+ hours worth of TV. So instead of looking for Korean dramas, I looked for books by Korean authors instead. And then came Shoko’s Smile. It is a stunning collection of short stories, simple in language but clear in its convictions. The main characters are Korean women whose stories portray a specific aspect of the Korean psyche that is, frankly, unfamiliar to me. From my limited exposure to Korean culture, I have carried the impression that Koreans consider themselves superior over everyone else — they hate the Japanese and they think Southeast Asians like myself are lower-tier beings. I’m sure there’s some truth to these notions, but Shoko’s Smile does not reflect these biases. Choi Eun-Young’s stories sit on the intersections between different cultures, on the junction between the personal and the political, and on the sweet midpoint between the individual and the family. I cried, many times. What a lovely, lovely book.

Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner

Michelle Zauner is the lead singer and overall leader of Japanese Breakfast, a poppy shoegaze-y band that I barely listen to. She is also a Korean-American who grew up in the States but spent several summers of her youth in Seoul. She has a complicated relationship with her mother, as many of us do, but she and her mom share a strong bond over food. Crying in H Mart is Michelle’s memoir. Where Love is a Mix Tape uses mix tapes as motif, Crying in H Mart uses food. Ate Michelle writes mouthwatering descriptions of Korean dishes as she shares tales about her summers in Korea, her attempts to make a living as a musician (to her mom’s disappointment), and her coming to terms with the eventual death of her mother. It is difficult to say, though, if the author has fully come to terms with the loss. This is not a memoir that tries to search for the proverbial rainbow after the rain; instead it portrays grief as something that one bears and endures. The book punched me straight in the gut, and while it did not convince me to stream Japanese Breakfast’s music endlessly, it for sure turned me into a Michelle Zauner fan. 

Temporary by Hilary Leichter

Hilary Leichter’s Temporary is, according to my own sloppy and lazy description, “very twee.” It reminds me of movies like Amélie and Saving Sally, and if you have watched those movies and have read this book, I am 83% sure you will agree with me. That said, I was genuinely delighted by the book’s conceit — it is whimsical and bizarre and funny, even though the topic-at-hand, the precarity of employment under a capitalist framework, is not something to laugh about. The main character is a temp worker who takes on different jobs in the wackiest places, encounters different creatures with the wackiest personalities, and survives through the wackiest disasters. The world-building is top-notch. I wished the conclusion went a different way, but I otherwise enjoyed the multiple snippets all throughout the text that provide astute observations on labor conditions, all of which ring true even in, or especially in, our non-whimsical, non-twee (read: real) world.

Someone Who Will Love You in All Your Damaged Glory by Raphael Bob-Waksberg

What first caught my attention was the title. Someone who will love you in all your damaged glory — yes po opo! And then I learned who the author was, the same dude who created Bojack Horseman, a sitcom that I loved. I was sold, and boy was I glad I read the book. It is a collection of short stories, which, while all about love, do not necessarily follow the cornier conventions of the romance genre. The book actually showcases clever plays on form, particularly postmodern techniques. Almost half of the stories are flash fiction, sequenced alternately with the full-length pieces. There is one story that is, in my opinion, plotless (“The Serial Monogamist’s Guide to Important New York City Landmarks”), and there’s another story that is told in bullet points (“Lies We Told Each Other [a partial list]”). Many of the stories employ the second-person point of view, engaging the reader not as a passive witness but as an active character, someone whose response to the stories is imperative to forming the stories’ so-called “meaning.” The book is a fun read overall, and I recommend it not only to the hopeless romantics and the bitter cynics, but also to those who enjoy reading short fiction in its various forms.

There are other books that I loved in 2021 which I am too lazy to write about tonight. There’s Bae Suah’s Untold Night and Day, a surreal piece of mindfuckery from one of South Korea’s most celebrated authors. There’s also the short story collection You Know You Want This by Kristen Roupenian, the same author who wrote the viral short story “Cat Person,” and then there’s Pop Song by Larissa Pham, a memoir that is similar to Bluets in vibe but contains longer musings on art and sex, often interspersed with discussions on critical theory, which I dig. For something more plot-based and, dare I say, more straightforward, there’s Jami Attenberg’s All Grown Up, Leila Slimani’s The Perfect Nanny, and Jean Hanff Korelitz’s The Plot. Many of my core beliefs were also affirmed after reading The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything by James Martin, so that deserves a mention too.

So, in gist, if we were to use books as a barometer with which we measure the quality of an entire year in our lives, I’d say 2021 was a good year for me. It was so-so otherwise. There were peaks and valleys, mostly valleys with unexpected sinkholes, and I’m just happy I got out and survived. And if you’re reading this, it means you survived too. Virtual, virus-free hugs to all of you!


Featured photo by wu yi on Unsplash

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