Books Read in 2021

I rediscovered my love of reading earlier this year.

Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner, 2021. ( cw: death of a parent, cancer, grief, medical content; minor alcoholism, car accident, abortion, racism )

I’ve been meaning to read Michelle Zauner’s memoir for a while. I really her band, Japanese Breakfast, and if the albums Psychopomp and Soft Sounds from Another Planet are about grief and loss, Jubilee, Zauner says, is about joy.

So then why are these lyrics from “Posing in Bondage” the ones that stick out the most?

When the world divides into two people
Those who have felt pain
And those who have yet to

Crying in H Mart wants you to know what you’re in for from its opening line: “Ever since my mom died, I cry in H Mart.” And: “Sobbing near the dry goods, asking myself, Am I even Korean anymore if there’s no one left to call and ask which brand of seaweed we used to buy?”

There’s a bit of me that wants to compare this with Elizabeth Miki Brina’s Speak, Okinawa, which is still the best book I’ve read this year, if only for the superficial: they’re both memoirs by second generation Asian American womenZauner was born in Seoul but her family moved to Oregon when she was nine months old; Brina is Okinawan American. “Asian American” is a political identity, and I absolutely recognize how weak this comparison is. searching for and connecting with their mothers’ cultural heritages. But Brina’s book is about sturctural forces: imperialism, war, racism and sexual violence, and how they overlay on the personal: intergenerational trauma, addiction, and self-shame (and at the end, a glimpse of the long, intense process of unpacking and healing). Zauner starts with the interpersonal and stays there, living in it, until the weight of all of it becomes unbearable and you’re left sobbing.

The Left Hand of Darkness (Hainish Cycle #4) by Ursula K. Le Guin, 1969. ( cw: some death, torture, confinement )

The truth is, I’ve avoid Le Guin for years. Shortly after college, I read her short story “Coming of Age in Karhide,” set on the same planet as The Left Hand of Darkness, and for personal reasons it destroyed me. But enough time has passed, or rather I’ve made enough progress in my life, that I wanted to try reading Darkness.

Gethenians spend most of the month unsexed and androgynous, but once a month go through kemmer and become either male or female, partly based on the context of surrounding relationships. I think lines like “the King is pregnant” are supposed to be shocking, world-upside-down revelations? But I was mostly: “cool, hey Crusader Kings, it’s that easy.”

Still, Genly Ai’s arc, how he can’t move forward until he stops thinking of Gethenians as Terran analogues, as “mostly male” or as metaphors, until he really started accepting their “bisexuality,” that still shone.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, 1989. ( cw: death of a parent; some antisemitism )

I’ve been trying to figure out what to write here for a while now, and I’m still not sure? I’m not saying The Remains of the Day was bad; I’m saying the opposite even!

I keep thinking about how the book flips from incredible subtlety to really making sure you’ve figured out the metaphor. At one point it introduces a character who lays it out and then Stevens sits on a bench and repeats that stranger’s words in his thoughts and continues to think about it for pages. And then it flips back to subtext and missed meanings and avoiding the thing of it all. It’s kind of gorgeous, in a way.

The Tombs of Atuan (Earthsea Cycle #2) by Ursula K. Le Guin, 1970. ( cw: confinement; some death )

This book has a gigantic, underground maze! What else do you want??

I read A Wizard of Earthsea earlier this year and while it was a fun fantasy book, I think some of its age shows. It was groundbreaking at the time (a school for wizards!). And though it was radical in its blink-and-you-miss-it way, it wasn’t feminist.

But Tombs. Oh, gosh. What a moody, beautiful book. Where Ged’s character frustrated me, Tenar’s was brilliant, tragic, and sympathetic. This moment stands out:

“Now,” he said, “now we’re away, now we’re clear, we’re clean gone, Tenar. Do you feel it?”

She did feel it. A dark hand had let go its lifelong hold upon her heart. But she did not feel joy, as she had in the mountains. She put her head down in her arms and cried, and her cheeks were salt and wet. She cried for the waste of her years in bondage to a useless evil. She wept in pain, because she was free.

What she had begun to learn was the weight of liberty. Freedom is a heavy load, a great and strange burden for the spirit to undertake. It is not easy. It is not a gift given, but a choice made, and the choice may be a hard one. The road goes upward toward the light; but the laden traveler may never reach the end of it.

Tenar has rejected the identity assigned to her at birth, the only one she knew, the thing that everyone told her she was. She rejected it and now faces the work of finding herself. That resonates.

Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino, 2019. ( cw: sexual assault, rape, misogyny; some eating disorders )

I’ve wanted to read Trick Mirror since reading Tolentino’s essay about the pressures on women to constantly self-evaluate and self-optimize. It caught me at a time where I was doing exactly that.

But I’m really confused about how I feel about this book? I found myself flipping from highlighting whole paragraphs at a time to yelling “I am begging you to take intro to X studies!”

Maybe it’s the target audience; Tolentino may be a Millennial Didion, but I think she’s writing for Gen X (the average reader of The New Yorker, where she’s a staff writer, is in their late 40s). It’s Extremely Online and simultaneously not at all.

But I think it’s that Trick Mirror is a couple years old, and so much has happened in the meantime that any kind of cultural reflection feels wildly incomplete. How do you write about the internet, or accelerated capitalism, or sexual assault, or whiteness, without examining any of the increasingly awful things that have happened in the last year and a half? This is my fault for waiting so long to read it, I suppose. Is this just what’s going to happen to cultural criticism as so much goes on in our lives?

This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, 2019. ( cw: death, grief; some violence, blood, body horror, suicide )

I am shocked that TVTropes doesn’t have an entry for This Is How You Lose the Time War, because it is made of tropes. It demands genre savvy reading; how else are you to make sense of two time traveling agents, Red and Blue, whose missions are to cultivate and prune the branching strands of time? (How do you win the time war? By eliminating every future where your enemy exists and leaving only those where you do.) Enemies to Lovers: yes, from the first pages, an epistolary romance, as Red and Blue write letters to each other across space and time. But still, the flip is so gorgeous (I laughed out loud at “Ha-ha, Blueser,” smiled at “Blueberry,” weakened at “Dearest Lapis”), that soon you’re looking and waiting for each new letter just as Red and Blue do.

Did I mention it’s gay? Queers in Space? And how. And then you start to feel the story head into Bury Your Gays, with bonus Gayngst-Induced Suicide, and it’s so frustrating, because the tropes are so tired, and you want them to be happy, to win, and then there’s a scene with Blue:

If Blue were a scholar—and she has played one enough times to know she would have loved to be—she would catalogue, across all strands, a comprehensive study of the worlds in which Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy, and in which a comedy. It delights her, whenever visiting a new strand, to take in a performance not knowing how it will end.

She is not delighted now. She watches the performance with all of the tense fervor of awaiting prophecy.

She leaves before the end.

It’s too obvious! There’s no subtlety! But somehow it still works, and the moment is devastating, achingly beautiful, because you’ve just been told that even though you think you know how it ends, this book has time travel and you don’t know how it ends. I read the last fifth of the book through tears, and when finished I laughed, and cried, and did both at the same time for hours. This is not a device, it is not hyperbole; This Is How You Lose the Time War reduced me.

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka, 2011. ( cw: abusive relationships in basically every form, racism, xenophobia, misogyny; some adult/minor relationships, infedelity, suicide, death of a child; minor alcoholism )

I added The Buddha in the Attic to my reading list after reading an interview with Elizabeth Miki Brina, author of Speak, Okinawa. I wonder if Otsuka’s historical novel inspired the structure of some of Brina’s chapters, written in the first person plural. It’s a notable stylistic choice; It’s impossible to reflect on Buddha without mentioning it.

It’s collective, it emphasizes the group, and suddenly the stories aren’t about a singular abusive relationship or one microaggression, but part of structural misogyny, abuse, and whiteness. But simultaneously it’s also individual, specific: tens and hundreds of moments that are each inhabitable and each real and not abstract at all.

And suddenly I’d be pulled out by the names and details: that’s my great grandmother’s name. Is this her? That’s my grandmother’s name. Is this her? That’s where they lived and worked on a farm; is this them? Of course it probably isn’t, except it doesn’t matter, because it’s a shared story, and so it is them.

The Books I Did Not Finish

The Merciful Crow by Margaret Owen, 2019. ( cw: death, violence, gore )

I should have paid more attention to the content warnings for this. The setting is grim, dark, and fascinating, but some of the gore elements just got to be a little too much for me and I bailed.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, 2014. ( cw: a friggin’ pandemic )

I was generally aware that Station Eleven is about a pandemic, but NPR’s list of 50 best sci-fi and fantasy books of the last decade suggested that “A story in which art (and particularly Shakespeare) helps humanity come back to itself after a pandemic wipes out the world as we know it might be just the thing we need.”

So I tried it. And then put it down just a few pages later. Nope nope nope nope go straight to book jail do not pass go. Maybe this will be the right story to read at some point, but that point is not now, not yet, not while the pandemic is still very much going on.

Other Books

A few to migrate to the new format:

Some private content has been omitted.