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Favorite reads of 2021

Late every fall I try to think back over the books I've read that year and share the ones I've loved most, the ones that have stayed with me, changed me. This year was particularly difficult, with such an amazing group of titles published. Books that dig deep into the world and offer something new, something inspiring. Here are the ones that have stayed with me the most.
Horodno Burning by Michael Freed-Thall
Early in this novel, we meet a girl who loves to read and a boy who loves stories but cannot read. Their life together, in the 19th century Pale of Settlement where Jews were confined, form the center of this thoughtful and moving historical novel. The characters' persistence in trying to live good lives as anti-Semitism intensifies, political activism grows, and disaster seems inevitable offers insight into an immigrant history, our current world, and the power of books and reading to make a difference. A timely and timeless story.
Blue Desert by Celia Jeffries
This debut novel is unflinchingly adventurous, unashamedly feminist, and deeply human. The story seamlessly weaves between two narratives: 18-year-old Alice living with the Tuareg tribe in wartime Sahara and 78-year-old Alice in London. Jeffries brings the story to a compelling and satisfying conclusion without sacrificing the lyricism of the prose, the lush grounding in the natural world, or the heartbreaking complexity of her characters.
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
I wasn't so sure about this book as I began reading. Was it a novel, I wondered, these very loosely linked vignettes about Black British women? But as the voices grew and the women connected, I was drawn totally into their world and their lives. This is an amazing and fierce piece of writing, and an important story for us all to read.
North by Brad Kessler
A monk, a Somali refugee, and a disabled veteran walk into a bar. No, they don't. They meet in a Vermont monastery, and the resulting novel is both profoundly moving and deeply story about community, activism, and perseverance. I loved this book as much as the author's earlier novel, Birds in Fall.
The President and the Frog by Carolina De Robertis
This is one of those books that defy description. It's about a former president of a Latin American country, a revolutionary who spent many years in prison, and his interview by a Swedish journalist. It's also about his memories of conversations with a frog during his brutual captivity. Sounds odd, right? But I found it profoundly fascinating and moving and provocative.
Bewilderment by Richard Powers
So much has been written about this novel, pro and con, but I totally loved it. It takes Powers' large understanding of how human beings are destroying the planet and condenses that big story into the difficult and tender relationship between a father and son. Read it and tell me what you think?
Imperfect Alchemist by Naomi Miller
I love it when a novel takes me far away in time and culture to a place I haven't visited before. That's what happens here, with Mary and Rose and their herbs and drawings and plays. What a rich world; what a delightful story to live inside. This is historical fiction at its best, exploring patriarchy and the lives of women through a sixteenth century lens.
Sinking Islands by Cai Emmons
This is a wonderful read, lyrical and so important. I think I liked this novel even more than Weather Woman, which has many of the same characters, but it isn't necessary to read first. Emmons offers us a global ensemble cast of characters who discover not only their power but also their connection to the earth and each other. We need this book. And if you'd like to know some backstory about the author and the book launch, check this out.
Daughters of Smoke and Fire by Ava Homa
This debut novel is a gem. It's part Kurdish history, part love story, part cautionary tale about family and culture in the face of genocide and resistance. Leila is a complex main character, with the contradictions we all carry within - wanting both safety and adventure, security and justice, family and the wider world. The story has brutality and tenderness, pain and resistance, fury and hope. Highly recommended!
Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy by Anne Sebba
Ethel Rosenberg was my mother-in-law, although I never met her. I married her son Robby 17 years after the execution. (So, I know this story well and I am not unbiased.) In this biography, Sebba examines Ethel through the lens of history and feminism, looking beyond the usual myths. Ethel is portrayed as a neither victim nor dupe, but rather as a deeply political woman and devoted mother who was betrayed by family and country. If you'd like to read more about my thoughts on this book, check out this essay in Lilith Magazine.
Admit This to No One by Leslie Pietrzyk
This collection of short stories set in Washington, D.C. could be taken from the newspapers, if newspapers dug underneath the news for the juicy kernels of truth about our political center and the people who live and work there. The reviews call the stories "biting" and "cuts like a razor," and that's true, but there is also humor and empathy. I'm trying to learn to write better short fiction, and this collection is a wonderful teacher.

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