Best Reads for the 2nd half of 2021

All 5 stars!

The first half of my 2021 reading year was all about novels.  The second half was (nearly) all memoir! I’ve always been drawn to listening to different voices and opening my heart to many, varied experiences. I hope you find some titles you’ll enjoy. 🙂

Tiya Miles, All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake

A finalist for the 2021 National Book Award, All That She Carried is my favorite book of the year.

When Rose, an enslaved woman in 1850s South Carolina, feared her daughter Ashley would soon be sold, she found and filled a sack with a few precious items to nourish and protect her. Dr. Miles paints a richly hued portrait of the times and traces the journey of the sack over the years through Ashley’s lineage and into a display case at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC).

Especially valuable: Dr. Miles’ fascinating descriptions in the latter part of the book about the methods she used to research and fill in the huge gaps in archival records that exist in our knowledge of the lives of enslaved people, research that enlivens our understanding.

So interesting for many aspects of history—a very personal history of slavery and oppression, of family history, of culture, identity, self-expression, and creativity—All That She Carried is above all a story of love that endures.

Ps—In mid-November, I was fortunate enough to see a wonderful talk Dr. Miles gave for NMAAHC about the book—one of the many terrific opportunities for online learning I’ve enjoyed so much during the pandemic.

(Thank you, Susan! A treasured experience to have read and contemplated this with you. :)))

Chanel Miller, Know My Name

Miller has written an exceptional memoir of her life experience after being sexually assaulted on the Stanford University campus—her trauma and personal struggles, hiding her experience from friends, the disorienting, life-crushing trial, the pain of her family, and the culture-transforming moment when her victim impact statement was posted on BuzzFeed and instantly went viral, viewed by 11 million people in 4 days.

Ultimately, her statement was read on the floor of Congress, inspired changes in California law and a recall of the judge in the case,  and thousands of people wrote to thank her for giving them the courage to speak up about their own experiences for the first time.

I shied away from reading this initially due to the deeply disturbing nature of sexual abuse, but now view it as a must-read. It’s a stunning, clear-eyed, honest piece of writing about suffering that all too many of us women around the globe experience.

George Takei, They Called Us Enemy

A superb graphic memoir of George’s Takei’s childhood in American concentration camps, when 120,000 Japanese were taken from their homes and imprisoned during World War II.

Harmony Becker’s drawings, the graphic presentation, and the writing by Takei, Justin Eisinger, and Steven Scott bring the story richly to life, with all the nuances of feeling. I’ll long remember Takei’s moving portrait of his father—his nobility, calm strength, and grace in the worst of circumstances. Do read this!

Ly Tran, House of Sticks

Ly Tran has written a beautiful eye-and heart-opening memoir of her life emigrating as a toddler from a small town on the Mekong River in Vietnam to NYC in 1993.

She lived in unimaginable poverty, working at home as a child with her family in a sweatshop situation. Though denied eyeglasses by her father, she was so bright she managed to do exceptionally well in school. Gradually overcome by mental illness, she was ultimately championed by good people who loved and admired her. I won’t say anything further, but you will have likely guessed the ending since she wrote this extraordinary book. This book has stayed with me, and I think it always will.

Kerry Egan, On Living

This is great! And I’m really fond of Kerry Egan thanks to her deeply honest memoir and the stories she shares from her life and hospice work as a chaplain. The complexity of the human spirit displayed as death draws near coupled with the quiet presence she brings to her work makes for an exceptional and valuable view of love and compassion. (Thanks, Scott!)

Sy Montgomery, The Soul of an Octopus

What a terrific book! Sy Montgomery writes an engaging and touching story of her experiences with octopuses both in the New England Aquarium and in the wild, along with the wonderful specialists and volunteers she met along the way.

One Goodreads reviewer called it more a love letter than a science book—so true!—yet it’s also peppered with jaw-dropping facts about octopuses and their extraordinary skills, so you learn a great deal as the story progresses. I won’t remember the facts, but I will remember the octopuses Montgomery grew to love and who grew to love her.

Suleika Jaouad, Between Two Kingdoms

An extraordinary, highly engaging memoir of cancer at an early age, the evolution of a life, of a woman, of a writer.

Jaouad wrote a blog for the New York Times called Life, Interrupted during her cancer treatment. “Cancer doesn’t just put your life on hold,” said Ms. Jaouad, who was diagnosed with leukemia a year after she graduated from college. “It’s not like you get to skip back a few months and pick up exactly where you left off. I wasn’t going to get my old life back.”

I really enjoyed reading about her 100-day solo road trip post-treatment and look forward to reading whatever she writes next. 🙂

Ps—I just recently learned that the boyfriend she mentions toward the end of the book, with whom she’d been friends since they were teenagers, is Jon Batiste, the super popular musician! And—that she’s back in the hospital with a (very unlikely) recurrence of her leukemia 6 years after the first course of treatment. SO challenging. Please send her lovingkindness and good, healing energy.

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

In October 2021, on the 125th anniversary of their Book Review (impressive!), the New York Times invited readers to choose the best book published during that period of time. In November, they put forth a list of the 25 most nominated books, and readers were again invited to vote. More than 200,000 ballots were cast, and the winner was…To Kill a Mockingbird.

When I saw that the audiobook version narrated by Sissy Spacek was available to instantly borrow from my public library, I couldn’t resist! And it’s just perfect. If you’ve never read this classic, or haven’t read it in a long time, listen to this! It’s the best.

Lewis Mehl-Madrona, Coyote Medicine: Lessons from Native American Healing

If you’re interested in indigenous wisdom, harmony with nature, and healing, you’re likely to find this book as fascinating as I did. 🙂

This is Lewis Mehl-Madrona’s journey from medical school and internship, where he was plagued by the failures of conventional medicine, to learning and absorbing the wisdom of native healers, and eventually combining the two streams into one to best serve the needs of people suffering.

He shares metaphorical, spiritual stories from a variety of native traditions, often used in healing ceremonies, which are full of wonder! And some of the extraordinary results of his healing work with very ill people brought tears to my eyes. Would that this hybrid was the standard of care for chronic illness!

This book is also partly a personal memoir. His vulnerability and generosity in sharing his own fears, failures, and ultimately, growth add greatly to the value of this fine work.


Photo Credit: Lucija Ros