Thomas’s Top Ten 2021 Reads

Hello friends and foes and folks who I don’t know! It’s that time of year: time for Thomas to share their top ten books of 2021 as if anyone cares, haha it’s okay though, I’m used to people not caring, okay I’m kidding I do have people in my life who care about me, anyway. This year I finished 94 books, and I feel proud of myself for doing that amidst defending my dissertation, applying to my final internship/residency year of my PhD program, and maintaining healthy relationships with my friends and myself. Similar to last year, I felt a bit more impressed with my fiction reads than my nonfiction reads, perhaps because my top three fiction selections featured amazing friendships and romances between people of color. As always, I included links to my full Goodreads reviews of each book and you can see previous years’ lists at the bottom of this post.

Top 5: Fiction

5. Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri. A powerful short story collection about Indian Americans spanning Cambridge, Seattle, India, and Thailand. Jhumpa Lahiri has a remarkable talent for capturing nuanced relational dynamics between parent and child, brother and sister, wife and husband, and more. Her use of specific detail and straightforward yet poignant dialogue helped immerse me in these characters and their lives. Lahiri interweaves issues of cultural differences and intergenerational conflict throughout these stories while maintaining the three-dimensionality of her characters. I loved and literally cried while reading “Hell-Heaven,” the standout for me in this collection, and I also felt deeply moved by “Year’s End” and the title story, “Unaccustomed Earth.”

4. You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat. Zaina Arafat does an excellent job of constructing both a superbly messy and heartrendingly redeemable main character in You Exist Too Much. Throughout the novel we follow an unnamed bisexual Palestinian American woman who faces a love addiction, which includes pursuing unavailable older women, unrealistically idealizing potential romantic partners, and rejecting opportunities for healthy intimacy. Through seamless flashbacks and flashforwards, Arafat shows how society’s glorification of romance and the protagonist’s difficult relationship with her mother predisposed her to her present day self-destructive behavior. I so appreciated how Arafat portrayed the process of recovery, its setbacks as well as its moments of hard-won triumph.

3. Yolk by Mary Choi. A raw, funny story about Jayne Baek, a twenty-year-old Korean American woman who moves to New York City and soon learns that her older sister, June, has cancer. Mary Choi infuses many important themes in Yolk: loving yet combative mother-daughter and sister to sister dynamics, body image and disordered eating issues, and trying to figure out one’s 20’s Asian American woman. I felt most impressed by Choi’s complex characterizations of Jayne and June, the former as more neurotic and insecure and the latter more intellectualizing and abrasive, as well as how they both grow throughout the novel. I also deeply enjoyed Jayne’s romance with Patrick, a swoonworthy yet realistic Asian American man.

2. Tell Me How to Be by Neel Patel. A stunning, nostalgic, and irreverent dual-perspective novel about Akash Amin, a gay R&B song writer living in Los Angeles, and his mother, Renu, a widow of one year who decides to return to her hometown of London after having raised her two sons in the U.S. Midwest. I loved how Neel Patel portrayed both Akash and Renu struggling with unresolved shame and longing, especially his use of flashbacks to humanize and provide context to the pair’s present day hurtful behaviors. There’s a lot of pain in this novel, from racism and homophobia and other oppressive forces. There’s a lot of hope and healing, too, for both Akash and Renu. Also, yay for Akash pursuing romance with another man of color!

1. When We Were Infinite by Kelly Loy Gilbert. A beautiful and at times devastating novel that follows Beth Claire, a biracial Asian American high school senior and her tight-knit East Asian friend circle. The main inciting incident of the book occurs when Jason, a member of their friend group who had been pulling away, takes an action that shocks Beth and their circle for the remainder of high school and beyond. Similar to her novel Picture Us in the Light, Kelly Loy Gilbert’s prose gorgeously captures human emotion without ever feeling overly sentimental. Gilbert tackles so much here: what it feels like to live with anxiety, the effects of parental neglect, and the bittersweet feeling of moving on to the next stage of your life. At this book’s center is Beth’s superbly-characterized friend group, whose love and support for one another made me tear up multiple times.

My honorable mentions in fiction go to I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez, The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris, and A Woman Is No Man by Etaf Rum.

Top 5: Nonfiction

5. The Asian American Achievement Paradox by Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou. An insightful book about 1.5 and 2nd generation Chinese and Vietnamese adults that unpacks how immigration laws, institutions such as schools and community resources, and culture interact to influence these Asian Americans’ educational achievement in the United States. I most appreciated how Drs. Lee and Zhou upend the model minority Asian stereotypes and highlight the complexity and heterogeneity of the Asian American experience, as well as how they humanize the parents of their participants. While the authors ground their book in rigorous research, their writing feels accessible and even fun to read.

4. House of Sticks by Ly Tran. A moving memoir about a young Vietnamese girl who immigrates with her parents and three older brothers to the United States, where she then joins her family in sewing ties and cummerbunds piece-meal on their living room floor so they can make ends meet. Ly Tran writes with great self-awareness about what it felt like growing up in the United States and navigating the cultural differences between her parents’ Buddhist faith and her more unfamiliar school environment. In addition to her honesty about her mental health issues, I found her writing about her father so impressive, how she articulates the impact of his hurtful behaviors while acknowledging how his trauma from the war affected him.

3. Polysecure by Jessica Fern. This book does an excellent job of explaining and destigmatizing polyamory while also applying the core tenets of attachment theory so that readers can maintain and improve relationships of all kinds in their lives. With a warm, inviting, and intelligent writing style, she discusses how trauma affects our attachment styles and provides specific strategies we can use to both self-soothe and to develop healthy bonds with other people. She applies attachment theory to consensual nonmonogamy in a way that feels both understandable and comprehensive. Would recommend this book to anyone interested in attachment and relationships, not just to those who identify as polyamorous or nonmonogamous.

2. Undoing Border Imperialism by Harsha Walia. A powerful, revolutionary book about dismantling borders and imperialism. Harsha Walia details how border imperialism includes the displacement of impoverished and colonized communities and the securitization of the border against migrants whom empire and capitalism have displaced, the criminalization of migrants and their stigmatization as alien or other, the creation of a racialized hierarchy of citizenship, and the state-backed exploitation of migrant labor. Walia incorporates the the narratives and wisdom of various activists and on-the-ground movement organizers to emphasize the importance of collective action and community care.

1. Sigh, Gone by Phuc Tran. A deeply honest and heartrending memoir about Phuc Tran’s experience growing up in the United States as the son of Vietnamese immigrants. His use of vivid, specific scenes throughout the book kept me engaged and I found the overarching theme of using literature and punk rock to cope with his difficulties compelling. I loved the way he wrote about his parents as three-dimensional people and how racism affected all of their lives, while not defining his experience of his family just through the lens of racism. From his initial desire to fit in to his journey into growing into his own person, I rooted for Tran throughout this memoir and found inspiration in his self-reflectiveness and willingness to probe his past for insight.

My honorable mentions in nonfiction go to A Knock at Midnight by Brittany Barnett, Decolonizing Methodologies by Linda Tuhiwai Smith, and Regretting Motherhood by Orna Donath.

What were your favorite reads of 2021, and what do you look forward to reading in 2022? Did you read any of the books on this list, and if so what did you think of them? I am always on the lookout for books by people of color and queer people of color related to relationships (e.g., friendship, family, romance), social justice, and mental health/illness. Hope everyone has a wonderful New Year (I’m spending mine with one of my bffs who’s visiting while also prepping for residency interviews) and until next post!

Last year I said I’d find a way to conglomerate these however I have not gotten around to doing so, so, here are past years’ top ten lists too if you’re interested: 2020 | 2019201820172016 | 2015 | 2014

10 Comments

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10 responses to “Thomas’s Top Ten 2021 Reads

  1. omg! yes!!! i love reading and sometimes find it hard to decide what to read next! I am going to be digging into your recommends! Thanks for sharing!

  2. You just have some excellent books there, and a total that is amazing given the heaviness of your academic schedule. My 2021 list (18 books!) is up now and I think reflects the diversity of what I read. Happy reading in 2022!

    • Thanks so much Liz! Maybe one day I’ll get to 180+ like yourself, though I’m not putting pressure on myself to do so. Yay for our shared love for books.

  3. sleepy potato

    Lemme tell you, I do care about your year-end wrap-ups because they so happen to be a definitive list of what I should definitely read next. And I honestly don’t know how you do it with your schedule. :0

    I managed to read about maybe 15 new books and reread a bunch of romances that unrealistically portray healthy and loving relationships. I think you know about my new book place, I got a small haul the other month I’ll be posting about soon.

    Happy New Year, Thomas! Let this one be even more nourishing than the last, with lots of love – Devina

    • Awww thanks so much for stopping by Devina! Sending lots of warmth and care your way too. I hope that the 15 new books and rereading the romances brought some satisfaction, meaning, and/or entertainment to your life. I actually don’t have the link to your blog/post at hand, so please feel free to comment it and I’ll do my best to check it out. It means a lot to me that the books I recommend may influence your reading choices.

      • They were satisfying. However, having a limited palette of sorts allowed me to focus and eventually outgrow the reading block I’ve had for the past t 2-ish years, I’m not judging myself as harshly. I didn’t get around to updating it yet, unfortunately, but here it is: https://localbadgereads.wordpress.com/ Did another smol haul that’s doing some good things for my psyche. ^-^

  4. Lahiri is so great; I think, IIRC, the year I read The Lowland, it was on my list of faves too. Neel Patel’s novel, I really loved too; I just felt like I wanted to keep company with the characters for ages (past the end of the book). I read his short stories too and they have a similar feel, but explore a variety of viewpoints in relationships (so many it allllmost feels a little like an MFA project to demonstrate his versatility…but they’re good though). For queer love stories, have you ever read Casey Plett? She’s got a very everyday style and tone and I feel like her characters are all about love, looking for it and (sometimes) finding it, but often still looking. You’ve probably read Bryan Washington’s Memorial? Randall Kenan’s short stories? ANYway, I’m glad you had so many great reads in your year and look forward to hearing what you find in 2022. I added Sigh, Gone to my TBR thanks to your rec; it sounds sooo good.

    • Omg yay for your vast knowledge of books! Yes I’ve heard of the Lowland, I’ve put it off for now because I’ve heard it’s depressing and I read a bunch of Lahiri in 2021 (or at least two books) so perhaps I’ll check out the Lowland in 2022. Yeah I think that Neel Patel’s novel is a step up from his short story collection, like I feel like he really immersed himself in these characters and used all the space a novel could give him to help them thrive in their three-dimensionality. Thanks for your recommendation of Casey Plett, I’ve been focusing more on books by people of color though maybe I’ll check out some of her work later! I did read Memorial and gave it three stars. I hope you enjoy Sign, Gone and am curious to read what you make of it. (:

      • I wasn’t always bookish; when I was very young, and living in very small towns, books became my besties, and I owe them a lot for their loyal friendship over the years. Heheh The Lowland is beautifully and delicately constructed but it is laden with grief, true. I hear you on trying to redress various historical and ongoing power imbalances by weighting your reading stack to compensate: me too! Last year I doubled the number of WOC that I’d read in the previous year but, at the same time, I was reading fewer queer writers, fewer Québécois writers (whose voices here are overshadowed by AngloCanada’s prominence in the publishing and political scene), fewer rural writers, so I’m tweaking things a little this year, yet again. Currently I am lost in the strange worlds of Marlon James: now there’s some mythology that you would have fun unravelling, I think…maybe?

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