I read a LOT of books again in 2021. These are few of my favorites, but not necessarily the ones I rated highest since this year I picked books to feature around this year’s blog themes. So… here are ten books that sparked my imagination and helped me live a more intentional life (and a few honorable mentions)…
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The Midnight Library by Matt Haig: Starting off with what is by far the most popular book on this list as well as one of the newest, The Midnight Library is both uplifting and wonderfully imaginative. I know some people who thought it was just ok, but many more who loved it and were deeply moved by it. With a strong vibe of It’s A Wonderful Life and Sliding Doors, I recommend this book for anyone who needs a good dose of hope.
The Happy Runner by David and Megan Roche: I read a lot of running books to help me through the end of last year when I started half marathon training and found it to be much harder the second time around (thanks in no small part to the time that had passed and the physical toll another pregnancy plus pandemic stress took on my body…) This book starts with talking about how the finish line for all of us is death… I was a bit taken aback at that but as I read on it turned out this book was so dang optimistic that it was just the perspective I needed during some really tough runs. The actual running advice comes LATE in the book and gets super technical/kind of dry to read about but overall the book really inspired me to stick with my training more than I would have otherwise.
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.W. Schwab: This book spans 1700s France to modern day America as the titular character prays to on of “the gods that answer after dark” , to escape an impending marriage. In a typical “deal with the devil” way, she gains immortality with a terrible consequence—no one will remember her. Not just in the long term. Not much else about this book is typical though. The scenes are gorgeous and the way the story interacts with art, history, and questions about relationship is so beautiful.
The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green: A book of non-fiction essays that evolved from one of my favorite podcasts was just as good in written form as it was hearing it audibly when I came late to discovering it just when I needed it most during the pandemic. It might be even better because, as one of the few books I actually bought last year instead of borrowing from the library, I can mark it up with all the marginalia I want and return to it again and again and again. The book is based on the conceit of rating absurd things on a five star scale- From sunsets to plague to Diet Dr. Pepper. I will never stop gushing about the beauty contained in these short essays that combine humor, struggle, and a deep hope and love for humanity.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern: This book came out in 2011, a time when all I was reading related to my thesis for my graduate program so I completely missed this gorgeous novel until ten years later. It is hard to describe so I’ll use the book’s own description: “The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night. ” This book is insanely imaginative. It is not quite a full on fantasy but too fantastical to be labeled magical realism. The imagery is some of the best I’ve ever read. The only draw back is that the plot moves a bit slowly to fully immerse you in the mood and imagery of the world. The characters are lovely once you get to know them and the magic contained therein made my imagination spark to life in ways it hasn’t in years. It is a book I simultaneously would love to see as a movie and yet hope they never make into a movie because I don’t think any actual representation could do justice to what’s contained in this novel.
Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande: This non-fiction book is about how we die and how we think of quality of life. I honestly think it should be required reading. It was a very hard read, especially in the midst of the ongoing healthcare crisis in our country and watching very close friends have to make these decisions with their families, but it has prompted some very important questions that my husband and I continue to discuss about what intentions we have should hard medical choices confront us.
Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood: I am a sucker for The Tempest and this imaginative re-telling made me desperate to direct it again some day. If you have only experienced Atwood through The Handmaid’s Tale then be prepared for something quite different- more traditional narration and more standard fiction instead of dystopian thriller. If you are familiar with The Tempest then you may feel things coming from miles away, but familiar or not this book is moving for the same reason Shakespeare’s original masterpiece is- wrestling with the very human moments of loss, vengeance, forgiveness, and wonder.
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott: If you write or want to, this is basically required reading. While many of her exercise seems to be geared more toward novels, many of the points she makes apply just as well to creative nonfiction or playwriting. If you have absolutely no interest in writing, this book is still full of humor and might inspire you to pick up a pen or open up a new document on your computer, or even just approach how you read the writing of someone else in a fresh new way.
Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia: I read several books by Silvia Moreno-Garcia in 2021 but this was definitely my favorite. It is a gorgeous dark fairy tale based on Mayan mythology. The characters are intriguing, the protagonist and her quest kept me turning pages, and the descriptions again deeply imaginative in a way that makes it hard to strictly classify as dark fairy tale vs. myth vs. magical realism vs historical fantasy. It does not care what genre you are looking for, it just is in its own unique telling.
Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik: If Gods of Jade and Shadow skirted the genre of dark fairy tale, this one embraced the form and ran with it. Based on the fairy tale trope of impossible challenges and turning things into gold, Spinning Silver follows Miryem, a woman born into a family of money lenders who becomes fierce at her job to make up for her father’s struggle to effectively collect debt from people. Throw in the Staryk (think ice creatures slightly reminiscent of the Game of Thrones Night Kind and his buddies), a creepy suitor, the power of names, and how communities come together or fall apart and you have an excellently crafted tale whose only drawback for me was having mixed feelings about the ending… but since I don’t want to put spoilers in this post you’ll have to talk about that with me after you’ve read it…
The poems of Kate Baer and Mary Oliver: It is perhaps not very original to be choose work by these two poets, Mary Oliver in particular, but they came at the perfect moments last year during some of the hardest struggles and highest highs. Read their work. Online, in a book, posted up on your bathroom mirror, wherever and however you can.
What happened to you? by Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Bruce Perry: This is a book I actually gave five stars too on my Goodreads while other books mentioned above only got four, but I wouldn’t say it inspired me so much as clarified a lot and gave me so much to unpack. I’ll just re-share my Goodreads review here: “This book is amazing and reminded me of why I almost majored in psychology and took a whole other life path… It has hard subject matter and it provoked tears several times, but it is also filled with incredible hope and made me aware of more work I need and want to do dealing with my own past and my own brain as well as the way I hope to approach other people.” Truly recommended reading for everyone.
A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders: Another five star book that ended down here. Saunders uses the short stories of four Russian authors- Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol, to teach lessons on, as the subtitle of this book says, writing, reading, and life. I am someone who already truly enjoys Russian literature from those authors so this was an easy sell for me. Yet I still didn’t expect how much profound beauty Saudners unpacked and the care with which he did it. There is so much that echoes sacramental living that spoke to my Catholic worldview as well. It is in honorable mention instead of listed above since I already have a book on writing and life in that section and also because I know many do not share my love of Russian literature or the short story form.
What books from the past year inspired you or sparked your imagination? Always looking to add to my list…