I’m sharing the 5 books that helped me become better person in 2021. Because they helped me see something in a new way, or expanded my empathy toward others, or what have you. And listen, I want to be clear, that I think reading anything–be it romance novels, murder mysteries, or the Vermont Country Store catalog–helps you be a better person because it’s self-care, and you never know where you’re going to get the inspiration or insight that opens something up for you. But these are the books that I felt really made a lasting impression.
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The first, and probably my favorite, as I missed this book for weeks after, is An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones
The writing in this book is so gorgeous–a lot of the story is conveyed in letters from one character to another and the empathy given to each character’s experience just feels like nutrition–like a shot of wheatgrass in this time when it’s easier than ever to judge people who you deem to be different from you.
Tayari Jones embeds a lot of nuggets of wisdom–little moments of profound clarity–that feel like a delightful surprise–like an easter egg in a video game–and never heavy handed.
But really how this book changed me is that it gave me so much empathy for men.
Yes, it’s written by a woman and one of the primary characters is a woman. But that woman, Celestial, is in love, and is loved by, two men. And we get to know these two men so intimately.
You know, since the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings and the Me Too movement, I have really felt like I’d had it up to here with men. Which, while understandable, is tough, considering men are half the population, I also love men, and am married to a man and mother to a boy who will be a man. An American Marriage helped me stop making broad generalizations about the problems I have with men and to remember their potential for vulnerability, and how the patriarchy harms them too.
Here’s a passage that sums up with I mean:
“He stood again and cried, not like a baby, but in the way that only a grown man can cry, from the bottom of his feet up through his torso and finally through his mouth. When a man wails like that you know it’s all the tears that he was never allowed to shed, from Little League disappointment to teenage heartbreak, all the way to whatever injured his spirit just last year.”
As Tayari Jones herself wrote on Goodreads:
“ All the men in this book struggle trying to be whole and emotionally engaged. They don’t really have roadmaps to help them navigate all of their feelings. They learn as they go.”
So may we all.
The second title is Becoming Duchess Goldblatt, by Duchess Goldblatt.
The first thing you need to know is that Duchess Goldblatt is not a real person. She’s a made up Twitter handle who has found a big following with her outlandish and joyful advice.
The second thing you need to know is that you don’t need to know who Duchess Goldblatt is to love this book.
Becoming Duchess Goldblatt is a memoir written by the woman who made her up
A woman whose real identity who never learn, although we do come to learn the innermost details of her life, including her loneliness and her grief, which is what drove her to create Duchess Goldblatt in the first place. The character was the diversion, the pep talk, and the commitment she needed to see her through–and lead her somewhere wholly unexpected. Including becoming besties with Lyle Lovett!
This is my favorite kind of memoir–it’s a story about healing that you don’t see coming. By sharing the steps along the way, Her Grace (the nickname the Duchess so modestly gives herself) helps us open up the healing we need, too.
Funnily enough, the third book on my list is the only straight-up self-help title on the list. And it is Quit Like a Woman by Holly Whitaker
This book, y’all. This. Book! Is vital reading for women no matter your relationship to alcohol. It’s a story of self renewal with awesome tools to help you do it, too. Plus it’s almost uncomfortably eye opening to put together the pieces of how the patriarchy and our obsession with wine are interconnected. Metaphorically, you’re like Marty Feldman when you’re reading this thing, with his great big eyeballs open wide! Just really gets you thinking about what we rely on alcohol for, the costs of that reliance, and what’s available if we remove the haze of alcohol and find and receive those things via more restorative means.
I read this book last January, when I was already doing a dry January and it helped me keep going through most of February. Full disclosure–I am back on the sauce now, but way less than I was before. I’m keeping it to 3 or 4 drinks per week, mostly on the weekends.
My fourth title is The Alchemy of Us, by Ainissa Ramirez
I discovered this book because one of its quotes was featured in the acrostic in the Sunday magazine of the New York Times. I woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t get back to sleep so I took myself down to the basement playroom and did that acrostic–and the quote from the book was about how humans used to sleep in two large chunks. There was early sleep, until about midnight, and then second sleep a couple hours later. It made me feel a lot better about my middle of the night exploits.
So I bought Alchemy of Us and was delighted to read its combination of STEM and history. Ramirez tells the story of several important advances in technology–from clocks to copper wires to silicon chips–and the little known inventors behind them, many of whom were people of color and/or women. This book makes you think not only about how our technological advances shape our culture and world, but also how the people who shape those technological advances aren’t typically celebrated or even known unless they are white and male. Ainissa Ramirez is also a great follow on Twitter, where she continues to share stories and facts about the things we use and the people who create them.
And finally, the fifth book that helped me be a better person in 2021 is Things We Lost in the Water by Eric Nguyen.
This is the story about and a mom and her two young sons leaving Saigon during the Vietnam war. The father is supposed to come with them but as they are heading on to the boat that will carry them toward their new life, he lets go of her hand and stays on the shore in Vietnam. The mom is jobless, unhomed, and wholly responsible for her boys. They eventually land in East New Orleans and we watch the boys acclimate and grow up–one joins a Vietnamese gang to stay connected to his roots and the other reckons with his homosexuality. All the while, the mother keeps sending letters and tapes back to the father, who never responds.
I read this on vacation, and it is perhaps not a vacation read–it’s not light! It is moving, however, and it’s so important to read stories of different types of people, written by the people who experienced those stories. This book opens your eyes and heart to the Asian-American immigrant experience, something we need plenty of all the time but is especially important during the COVID pandemic.
And those are my books that I felt really challenged me to see things differently in 2021
I definitely read other books, too, which I keep track of on GoodReads.com – if you’re on good reads I’d love to be connected with you there! Come find me and send me a friend request; I will excitedly accept.
And be sure to come back tomorrow, when I’m interviewing writing teacher Becky Karush, who is also the host of the Read to Me podcast. Becky is going to get you SO EXCITED to read–and she gives some great ideas on how to make time for reading, too. Don’t miss it!