This past year had us considering a potential addition to the list of long–haul COVID–19 symptoms: existential despair. In yet another year marked by isolation, all of us felt the temptation to curl up in bed and disappear at some point. Luckily, in our darkest moments, we had books to keep us company.
As an antidote to all the bleakness of 2021, Street's offering a list of our favorite reads from the past year. Our picks run the gamut from comfort reads to journalistic deep dives, from thought–provoking fiction to fresh takes on classic guilty–pleasure genres. Here are the books that soothed us, surprised us, and left us ready for 2022.
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Upon my sister’s recommendation, I picked up Everything I Never Told You over the summer to indulge in our shared guilty pleasure: YA novels. Set in 1970s Ohio, Chinese–American author Celeste Ng’s debut novel explores parental expectations and family dynamics in the context of an interracial marriage. A tragic incident—namely, the drowning of the family's middle child, Lydia—unravels secrets that had once kept their family afloat. An overwhelming sense of grief plagues the family from beginning to end, resulting in an honest narrative about guilt, blame, and resentment. The novel unapologetically embraces detail in its descriptions and, even though it’s a short read, the characters stay with you for much longer.
–Cindy Zhang, Film and TV editor
Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner
Michelle Zauner, also known as indie rock singer Japanese Breakfast, defies the expectations of shitty celebrity memoirs through Crying in H Mart, a heart wrenching account of grief, family, and identity. Beginning with the line, “Ever since my mom died, I cry in H Mart,” Zauner explores her Korean heritage, complex relationship with her mother, and the aftermath of epic loss through memories of family, love, sacrifice, and especially food. Through an all–too–relatable depiction of her overbearing yet intensely loving mother and her struggles with being Korean in a predominantly white town, Zauner details how her present identity was created through both immense suffering and all–encompassing love. With Crying in H Mart, Zauner steps to the fore as not only an iconic and deeply introspective voice in music—she’s quickly proving herself to be master of prose as well.
–Kira Wang, Style editor
The Overstory by Richard Powers
Richard Powers’ Pulitzer Prize–winning The Overstory is a piercing tale that grows from the ground up—a sweeping love story centered around people’s passion for those with whom we share our planet. While there may seem to be no obvious connection between a chestnut, maple, and mulberry tree beyond the obvious botanical characteristics, Powers weaves their paths together in a way that will leave you questioning every work of nature you see. Through the seemingly separate lives of nine totally different yet equally dynamic characters, we learn the innermost thoughts of those with the desire to protect the precious greenery murdered by global tree harvest. As the book alternates between different points of view, weaknesses are revealed, people get hurt, and corporate America gets richer. A call for action, The Overstory will teach you to be the voice of those with nobody to speak up for themselves.
–Alana Bess, Ego editor
Family Lexicon by Natalia Ginzburg
What can we say about Natalia Ginzburg that hasn’t already been said? The Turinese writer, often heralded as the doyenne of Italian literature, deserves all her flowers: her playful prose tickles, provokes, and impresses like no other. Family Lexicon, beautifully translated by Jenny McPhee, is the perfect introduction to her work. Blending autobiography and fiction, the book tackles the eternal themes of childhood, loss, and self-becoming. By turns heartwarming and heartbreaking, Family Lexicon offers an account of Ginzburg’s family history, complete with all the bickering and roughhousing you would expect. Ginzburg’s life has been marked by near–constant tragedy, from her family’s persecution in Mussolini’s Italy to the death of her husband at the hands of the police—yet she has emerged all the stronger. From a woman who has seen it all, Family Lexicon is a resolute affirmation of courage, resilience, and, ultimately, joy.
–Irma Kiss Barath, Arts Editor
Guest House for Young Widows: Among the Women of ISIS by Azadeh Moaveni
Guest House for Young Widows: Among the Women of ISIS is an engrossing chronicle of the lives of 13 women, each involved in some capacity with the terrorist organization ISIS. With careful reporting, Azadeh Moaveni presents each of their life stories, offering refreshingly feminine and incredibly nuanced perspectives that those interested in Middle Eastern geopolitics would find fascinating. The book articulates untold tales, granting readers the unique opportunity to step into the psyches of each woman and understand her motivations and values, whether she is a teenager, housewife, or highly educated student. It weaves the stories together critically and thoughtfully, touching on themes including repression, pride, propaganda, and devotion in a manner that educates, represents, and engages.
–Jessa Glassman, Arts beat
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
Though the title might have you mistake it for some pseudo–self–help memoir lauding the wonders of “rest,” My Year of Rest and Relaxation couldn’t be further from it. Narrated by a nameless, bitter, nauseatingly privileged twenty–something Ivy League grad in Manhattan, Ottessa Moshfegh’s 2018 novel turns the “rest is productive” mantra on its head. Its antiheroine is on a mission to fill herself with the perfect cocktail of drugs to sleep for a year and escape her grief and utter disdain for the world, with the hope of emerging from her pharmaceutically–induced hibernation somehow “renewed.”
I first read the book for a class, but re–read it in the midst of finals stress, when I fantasized incessantly about ridding myself of all earthly responsibility, crawling in bed, and sleeping indefinitely. The narrator is misanthropic and absolutely repulsive, but at the same time, I found myself constantly finding lines that could have come out of my own mouth. It’s chock–full of violent, visceral descriptions of grief, but all told in a deeply sardonic tone and punctuated with absurdly funny and obnoxious characters—the kind of book that will make you laugh while absolutely shaking you to your core. Fast–paced, darkly funny, and absolutely devastating, it’s the perfect read for the indoor days of mid–winter when all of us are plagued by cynicism and a sweet lust for endless sleep.
–Meg Gladieux, Features Editor
The call of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation has never been quite so strong. In a turn of events that the author couldn’t have predicted, the proposition of the novel’s decidedly unlikeable protagonist now feels less irrational and increasingly tempting: to enter a state of hibernation and emerge galvanized and rejuvenated. It’s wellness culture, minus the wellness, minus the culture. Luckily for most of us, the experience of reading My Year of Rest and Relaxation offers its own kind of respite. In a perfect world, you’ll finish the novel on some beach somewhere, and when you do, the sun might seem to shine just the teensiest bit brighter than it did before.
–Walden Green, Culture Editor