Favorite YA of 2021
Favorite Fiction and YA of 2022

Favorite Nonfiction of 2021

My goal the last couple of years has been to read more nonfiction and it's proven more difficult than I would have guessed. But I think I finally turned the corner this past year. Whereas audiobooks were key in 2020, lunchtime nonfiction reading changed the game for 2021. For several months, I would eat lunch and then read one chapter out of a couple of nonfiction books I had going.

I've long been a proponent of reading several books at once. It keeps things interesting and it keeps things moving, especially if you're not quite feeling one book or another needs more time to digest before you can move forward. I've almost always had at least one nonfiction read in the mix. This was the first time I made a dedicated, diligent effort to make continual progress on the ones that need to be read at a slower pace, instead of letting them sit at the bottom of the books stacked on my nightstand. The ones that held my attention the whole way through? Well, I still read them at lunchtime as well and if I was especially gripped, I'd read more at bedtime too.

I have to say I'm especially impressed by the nonfiction on this year's list. At least one is on my lifetime favorites list, plus a couple of resources I already refer to regularly. The memoirs were out of this world good. It makes me hopeful about this next year's nonfiction possibilities.

(If you want even more nonfiction recs, I recommend listening to The Stacks Podcast. Traci's interviews and book discussions are incredible. She's put so many great books on my radar, including a couple from this list.)

You can find my full reviews with content notes on Goodreads. I've included a link for each review. Feel free to give it a Like while you're over there!

This post contains affiliate links.


How the Word Is PassedHow the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America by Clint Smith

An absolute masterpiece. Smith explores the way we tell the story of enslavement and the way those narratives can help or hurt us. Beautifully written, he deftly balances his experience of visiting notable places, such as the Whitney Plantation and a Confederate cemetery, with robust research and his own family history. I was glad he included New York City and Gorée Island so we could have a fuller picture of the pernicious reach of enslavement. I haven't stopped recommending this one. It's among the best books I've ever read. (Content notes.)








Between Two KingdomsBetween Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted by Suleika Jaouad

What a gift of a memoir! Gripping and poignant, the author shares her experience being diagnosed with leukemia at age 22 and then figuring out a new normal after the cancer went into remission. It’s divided into two parts, the titular two kingdoms: life with cancer and then life after cancer, which includes a road trip at age 27 visiting various people she’d corresponded with during treatment. This might be the first cancer memoir I’ve read by someone who went through it in their 20s. As such, it touches on things those other cancer memoirs don’t, like the impact on fertility and what it’s like to face a terminal illness when your adult life is supposed to be beginning. Her perspective was so valuable. Jaouad is a gorgeous writer. Her honesty and vulnerability stopped me in my tracks at times. I’ve walked alongside those who have cancer from both my personal and professional lives and I believe I'm good at doing so but this brought me to a closer, better understanding of what it’s like to walk in their actual shoes.

My library hold of this book came in in the midst of grieving a friend who died of cancer. I wasn’t sure about the wisdom of reading it now—would it hit too close to home? But I found it to be a surprisingly comforting companion, full of insights to my friend’s experience but also the process of grief. My experience of grief changes from year to year and season to season and this loss is no exception. In addition to grieving the ways cancer inherently changes one's life, Jaouad experienced the death of fellow patients and friends. I particularly appreciated the way she touched on rituals and meaning making. I suspect my own loss is the reason I cried while reading this. Yes, sad, hard things happen but I would not describe this as a sad book. It’s about growth and finding a way forward as much as it is about illness. It’s a much-needed exploration of survivorship and what it looks like on the other side. (Content notes.)



Seeing GhostsSeeing Ghosts by Kat Chow

I've been looking forward to Kat Chow's memoir ever since she announced it and it exceeded all expectations. A gorgeously written, luminous exploration of grief. It has a nonlinear structure with snippets of essays, some longer than others, and even this is reminiscent of how grief functions. Her mother died of cancer when she was 13 and I was fascinated by the way she sometimes experienced her grief by imagining or sensing her mother’s ghost. There’s so much to admire in how Chow chose to explore her own experience of grief, as well as her family history as a child of immigrants.

Her mother’s death was naturally a ripple effect of loss throughout their family, strikingly seen through her father now needing to be the primary caretaker. He is not suited for the role, nor did he step up to the plate, possibly due to an undiagnosed mental illness or neurodivergence. He hoards and lets the house deteriorate. He resists most of his daughters’ advice or help, while insisting they respect him since he’s their father. It was often hard to read these parts and I really felt for them. Chow writes with compassion and grace about their relationship, even in the struggle.

I’m so glad she wrote this book. (Content notes.)



Somebody's DaughterSomebody's Daughter by Ashley C. Ford

Ashley Ford is a tremendous writer. I’ve been looking forward to reading her debut memoir and it did not disappoint. Difficult to read at times—it deals with her trauma around abuse, rape, and sexual assault—and my heart ached for what she experienced but there’s such open-eyed grace woven in throughout. What I appreciated about her writing prior to this book and what remained true as I read this is her perspective as someone whose father was incarcerated. Very moving in places. I’ll be keenly interested to see where her career goes from here. (Content notes.)








Crying in H MartCrying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner

A powerful and poignant grief memoir. At times, I was amazed by just how raw and honest the author was regarding some of the stories she shared. But overwhelmingly, I was lost in the pages of her story. Grief and loss don’t magically heal complex relationships, like the one Zauner had with her mom, especially given the stress of being a caregiver. There’s much she had to navigate and negotiate, even in terms of how present she should be once her mom was diagnosed.

I appreciated how she wove in stories from the past and present and how they illustrated an aspect about herself or her mom and then how that evolved after her mom died. Grief changes us and I found her reflections about what this meant for her Koreanness, and the way she sought to find connection through food, to be quite moving. I’m not sure that I’ll want to watch the adaptation but I’m very glad I read this. (Content notes.)






One LifeOne Life by Megan Rapinoe

I didn’t know a ton about Megan Rapinoe before reading this, outside of peripheral sports coverage and a few articles. This really exceeded my expectations and my admiration for her now knows no bounds. I loved learning more about her soccer career, of course, but the best part was hearing about her activism. Highly recommend listening to the audiobook, which she narrates. (Content notes.)









Hurts So GoodHurts So Good: The Science and Culture of Pain on Purpose by Leigh Cowart

A phenomenal exploration of the link between purposeful pain and pleasure. I’ve read my fair share of BDSM romance and erotica but I hadn’t thought much beyond the sexual application of masochism. Sure, we all joke about various things making us masochists but it’s so much broader than that. Some masochism is viewed as “normal” (eating hot peppers, running marathons, ballet dancing), while other forms are viewed as deviant or abnormal. There’s value in asking why and what purpose that serves. I will never think about it the same way again.

Cowart had me thinking through the times in my life when I have purposefully chosen pain in a brand new light, particularly when I was on the crew team in college. One of my proudest moments happened when I got a navel piercing twenty years ago and an employee watching exclaimed, “she didn’t flinch!” Or how about how nonchalant I’ve been while getting tattoos? There might be more of a masochist in me than I originally thought.

The exploration is careful to distinguish the “on purpose” part from abuse. Masochism is inherently consensual. If it’s not consensual, it’s abuse. But the author took the book a step further by exploring when pain on purpose is okay and when it can become harmful and the sometime difficulty in distinguishing between the two.

This won’t be for everyone, especially those with certain triggers. At the same time, I hope people can look past their associations and assumptions about masochism and give this one a chance. Cowart has such an engaging narrative voice and I really appreciated their approach. (Content notes.)



Minor FeelingsMinor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong

A fascinating essay collection that touches on a range of issues, anchored by reflections on artists, authors, and their work. Hong’s writing is gorgeous and I can’t get over what she did with her prose and the multiple meanings of language. (Content notes.)









Sisters in HateSisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism by Seyward Darby 

Not an easy read but an important one nonetheless. By profiling three women in white supremacist movements, one of whom has gotten out, Darby shows the important yet complicated role women play in their growth. White women are typically viewed as nice and less threatening, thus enabling them to get away with more when it comes to propaganda and spreading hate. And yet misogyny is an intrinsic part of white supremacy movements and so women can only have so much power within them. This is an intersectional analysis not only of women in today’s current hate groups but those of the past. It was disturbing to read about the ways seemingly innocuous movements like tradlife are actually gateways toward white nationalism. The three profiles show the people in these hate groups are searching for meaning and purpose but also power and the way propaganda fuels those needs. As difficult as it was to read about such horrible rhetoric, it’s important for me as a white woman to be aware of what’s out there and to use it to interrogate my own beliefs, instead of just writing these people off. This isn’t a problem that’s going to disappear any time soon, thanks to the ways Trump emboldened white nationalists.

Toward the end of the book, Darby mentions Lana and her family moved to a Mennonite town and the people there were grappling with how or if to respond to known racists choosing to move there and what that might say about them. And yet because Lana and her husband don’t make any big waves, the town ultimately doesn’t do much and the wary complacency was chilling to read and explains so much about an under-explored piece in this discussion. What do you as an individual do when the white supremacist is your neighbor? Additionally, in the conclusion Darby mentions white liberals or progressives who made racist statements about her book’s subject matter. These are people who probably think they’re not racist and yet they said things that would have been echoed by the people Darby profiled. It’s the insidious nature of racism and how much it’s been embedded into our structures and systems. Too many white people think they’re fine because they’re not overt racists like Lana and Ayla but they’re a part of the problem too. This is why I’m glad that the conversation has turned toward being anti-racist. It’s imperative to keep the conversation going so we can battle the gaslighting and propaganda that unfortunately continues on. (Content notes.)



AceAce: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex by Angela Chen

What a tremendous resource! I’ve become more familiar with the ace spectrum through reading romance but I haven’t felt like I fully understood asexuality before this. Chen does a great job of giving an overview through sharing her own experience, as well as that of many others. She also anchors this book in intersectionality and for that reason alone, I highly recommend it. This is especially important because asexuality first became known in white communities. It’s necessary to consider how centering whiteness impacts someone who is BIPOC or disabled and how asexuality intersects with stereotypes about different marginalizations.

There’s also an emphasis on asexuality as a liberation lens that benefits us all and I fully agree with this. This book gave me a lot more to consider regarding societal messages around sex and the ways we can need to improve. “The goal of ace liberation is simply the goal of true sexual and romantic freedom for everyone. A society that is welcoming to aces can never be compatible with rape culture; with misogyny, racism, ableism, homophobia, and transphobia; with current hierarchies of romance friendship; and with contractual notions of consent.”

I’m so glad I read this book and have a feeling I’ll be recommending it frequently. Chen notes this book is geared toward people who aren’t ace but she also hopes aces will see their experiences reflected on the page as well. (Content notes.)



What Fresh Hell Is This?What Fresh Hell Is This?: Perimenopause, Menopause, Other Indignities, and You by Heather Corinna

I’m a cishet woman in my early 40s and I’m 99% sure I’ve started perimenopause so the release of this book was quite timely. The author is a queer nonbinary sex educator and there's a chapter from a trans woman, making for a super inclusive read. I’m glad I'll be able to recommend this widely without any reservations. It’s written in a conversational style and normalizes everything but also gives permission to be pissed off about it. It was reassuring to hear about what to expect and I learned a lot. My symptoms have been pretty mild so far (hope I didn’t just jinx myself) but I feel better equipped for if and when that changes. Cannot confirm or deny how many times I’ve brought up perimenopause in conversation with my friends while reading this. It made for great discussions! We should all be talking about this much more and I hope this book will help change the narrative. (No content notes.)

Note: I preordered another menopause book that released a week or two before this one but had to set it aside due to the gender essentialism. WFHIT is proof that it's possible to write a book on this topic that is both informative and inclusive. 



The Body Keeps the ScoreThe Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk

What a powerful resource! I’ve meant to read this for many years and I’m so glad it finally came off my TBR. The mind-body connection is strong and there is much wisdom to glean from these pages, even if you haven’t experienced what we think of as extreme trauma. It gave me a few ideas to try for my own mental health and I'm grateful for that. This is more geared toward professionals and there’s an emphasis on how van der Kolk came to understand and then research trauma and what has proven effective in his practice. I was fascinated to read about the different studies, some of which I remember learning about in grad school when I got my MSW but much was new to me. van der Kolk makes a compelling case for us to be more mindful of the impact of trauma and to figure out ways of prevention. I found this to ultimately be hopeful, though we still have so much further to go. (Content notes.)






Favorite Nonfiction of 2021