In the first edition of Feeling Our-shelves this year, we each list our six favorite books we read in 2021 (in no particular order). Read on to find out what they’re about and the reasons why we loved them.
Little Fires Everywhere – Celeste Ng, 2017
Little Fires Everywhere is the dramatic story of how two very different families become intertwined to the point of near destruction. The events unfold as the two families take different sides on a publicly disputed adoption case in their town.
The Richardson parents and their four children are rich, white and privileged, while Mia Warren and her 15-year-old daughter Pearl are just the opposite. Accustomed to a nomadic life, Mia and Pearl finally settle in Shaker Heights, Ohio, where Pearl becomes friends with one of the Richardson children. Mia is hired by the overbearing mother, Elena, as a maid in their mansion.
The themes of race, class, sexuality, family and, most prominently, motherhood, combined with Ng’s talent for storytelling, makes Little Fires Everywhere a memorable and emotional read.
The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown, 2003
While Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code, has claimed his novel is factual, that has been consistently disputed. “There is a lot in it that’s very interesting and true,” Elaine Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton University told National Public Radio in 2006. But she said she was unaware of any historical evidence to support some of the ideas central to the book’s storyline.
Despite this, the theories on religion, the Bible and history that Brown conveys in his novel are amusingly convincing.
The Da Vinci Code follows symbology expert Robert Langdon and cryptologist Sophie Neveu as they attempt to solve and protect a centuries old secret regarding the Holy Grail. Although the plot is a little predictable and the writing cringeworthy at times, The Da Vinci Code is packed with action, danger, plot twists, mystery, crime, riddles and clues that make it fun to read.
I particularly enjoyed the incorporation of real art in the novel; being able to picture the pieces in my head as the protagonist revealed hidden symbolism behind the works made for a unique reading experience.
East of Eden – John Steinbeck, 1952
An underrated classic (in my opinion) East of Eden is the decades-long tale of the lives of close friends Adam Trask and Samuel Hamilton. Set in the first half of the 20th century in Salinas Valley, California, the reader learns about Trask and Hamilton’s pasts and follows the developments in their present lives, and the growth of their children.
Complicating the plot, Cathy Ames is introduced. She’s a manipulative, dangerous, unpredictable character who weaves her way into Trask’s life and changes the course of the story.
As with most long books — East of Eden has 602 pages —there are some slow parts. But Steinbeck’s writing style ensures that the whole novel is captivating. Steinbeck’s way of masterfully tying the past and future together left me thinking about the story for days after I finished it, and the characters’ conversations on philosophy are equally as engaging.
Pope Joan – Diana Woolfolk Cross, 1996
Pope Joan is the remarkable, albeit mythical, story of a woman who served as the Pope in a male disguise during the 9th century.
The reader follows Joan’s life: from her early desire to learn against the orders of her abusive father, to leaving home in order to get an education, disguising herself as a monk, becoming a doctor, and eventually being elected Pope, proving to be an effective and just leader.
Pope Joan’s existence can’t be known for certain. According to Smithsonian Magazine, most historians believe her story was created by early critics of the Catholic church. But, some historians continue to dig for evidence of her life. “The implications of Joan’s story, whether fictional or real, reveal much about the early church’s dismissive attitude toward women,” Meilan Solly wrote in Smithsonian Magazine. As a sucker for historical fiction, I loved Cross’s interpretation of Pope Joan’s story.
Wordslut – Amanda Montell, 2019
In Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language, author and linguist Amanda Montell examines how gender roles and misogyny are perpetuated by the ways we use language to communicate with each other.
Some topics she touches on are the changing meanings of words over time and misogynistic swear words, as well as why high-pitched, feminine voices are perceived as incompetent, while deep masculine voices are ideal. She explores the differences between how women use language to communicate with each other versus how men do, and stereotypes about the way women speak.
Before reading Wordslut, I thought that I had already noticed how societies’ views on women are present in the way people speak. After reading Wordslut, I began to notice many more subtle instances of internalized misogyny in common conversation.
The Woman Destroyed – Simone de Beauvoir, 1967
The Woman Destroyed consists of three short stories, each about a woman going through difficult times in their lives and in their relationships. One prominent theme is the internal battle that women sometimes go through when they get older, trying to find their new role in a society that deems post-menopausal women as undesirable and expired.
I read The Woman Destroyed in a few days. At the time I thought the book was nothing special, but then I found myself thinking of the stories days and weeks after the fact. The second story in particular was a standout. It was not written in a conventional way, but Simone de Beauvoir did an excellent job sharing her message through the emotions of the suffering character.
Kafka on the Shore – Haruki Murakami, 2002
Kafka on the Shore follows two characters and their converging storylines: Kafka Tamura, a teenage schoolboy who runs away from home in an attempt to avoid an oedipal prophecy and in search of family, and Satoru Nakata, an elderly man who has been left mentally handicapped due to a childhood incident.
Murakami provides a complex and intricate story in a fictional Japan where people speak with cats, spirits are active in the narrative, and prophecy is a prominent influence on one’s life. Kafka on the Shore presents themes such as fate, the nature of consciousness and the collision of different worlds. Kafka on the Shore is my go to recommendation anytime someone is looking to branch out of their usual genre bubble.
Conversations with Friends – Sally Rooney, 2017
Conversations with Friends follows the lives of Frances and Bobbi, two best friends and ex-lovers who become entangled in the lives of an older married couple, Nick, an actor, and Melissa, a photographer.
Living in Dublin as college students, Frances and Bobbi navigate their relationships with Nick and Melissa, each other, their complicated families and their own selves. Conversations with Friends shows us the complications that egotism and insecurity can create in relationships and how they change from youth into adulthood.
Sally Rooney presents extremely unlikeable yet relatable characters, which provides a sense of comfort when struggling to navigate one’s own relationships. If you haven’t given any of Rooney’s novels a chance yet, 2022 is the year to do it.
My Policeman – Bethan Roberts, 2012
Set in 1950’s England, My Policeman tells the heartbreaking story of Marion, Tom and Patrick. Marion is a schoolteacher who is smitten with Tom the moment she meets him, and Tom is a policeman whose heart belongs to Patrick, a museum curator.
During a time when same sex relationships were shunned by society and the law, Tom navigates his relationships with Marion and Patrick, leaving all three of them broken in the process. Roberts depicts an emotionally complex relationship with a foundation of selfishness, selflessness, greed, and compromise.
My Policeman left me completely crushed and I highly recommend this read. Bonus points to this novel since Harry Styles is starring as Tom in the upcoming movie!
Exciting Times – Naoise Dolan, 2020
Naoise Dolan’s debut novel Exciting Times tells the story of Ava, an Irish socialist millennial living in the mid-2010s who moves to Hong Kong in order to find happiness. But all her problems aren’t solved upon arrival. She remains unhappy as a grammar teacher for rich children and finds herself in a love triangle with Julian, an English banker, and Edith, a Hong Kong-born lawyer.
Exciting Times is reminiscent of a Sally Rooney novel, right down to the characters’ poor communication skills, self-destructive relationships, and explorations of sexual and romantic power dynamics. Dolan’s dry wit and first person narrative throughout the novel were refreshing and I can’t wait to read whatever she releases next!
Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1866
This timeless classic is popular for a reason. Dostoevsky tells the story of Rodion Rasklonikov, a university dropout who commits murder at random without any regrets and seemingly gets away with it.
Crime and Punishment follows Rasklonikov’s slow descent into madness as he becomes increasingly paranoid. The novel is a commentary on philosophy, class and morality. All of its themes are still extremely relevant now, over 150 years after the book was originally published. After reading Crime and Punishment, I can confidently say that I will be reading more of Dostoevsky’s work in 2022.
Play It as It Lays – Joan Didion, 1970
Play It as It Lays follows Maria, an ex-actress and model who is severely depressed and residing in a mental institution. The novel takes the reader through Maria’s life throughout Los Angeles, the Mojave desert and Las Vegas in the style of non-linear flashbacks. For the most part, the story follows Maria through her downward spiral, eventually leading to her being institutionalized.
Play It as It Lays is a page turner, packed with the dramatic details of Maria’s life and the chaos that leads to her self-destructive behavior. Didion’s writing is emotional and aesthetically powerful – two qualities that have encouraged me to continue reading both her fictional and non-fiction works this upcoming year.
Editor’s note: Didion passed at the age of 87 on Dec. 23, 2021. May she rest in peace.
Lili’s honourable mentions
Misogynies – Joan Smith, 1989
Black Swans – Eve Babitz, 1993
Sapiens – Noah Yuval Harrari, 2011
Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion – Jia Tolentino, 2019
Reanna’s honourable mentions
The Secret History – Donna Tartt, 1992
Valley of the Dolls – Jacqueline Susann, 1966
My Year of Rest and Relaxation – Ottessa Moshfegh, 2018
Daisy Jones & The Six – Taylor Jenkins Reid, 2019