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Five of Jen's Favorite Reads of 2021 (Part 2)

by Jen Moyers (@jen.loves.books)

Oh, friends. We've come to that post that causes me so much joy and so much agony: a list of favorites. My problem is assembling books for a list. Oh no. My problem is narrowing that list because, really, I could go on forever.

I'm quoting myself here, from last year's list of five (so far): "So, here's my methodology. I looked back at my monthly wrap-up posts in IG, and I ONLY allowed myself to jot down the titles of my five-star reads." Then, I put together my list from the middle of the year (you can revisit that here) and from our Awards episode (it will be out on Wednesday), and I marked those books off of my list so that I can spread the love around.

Then, I narrowed to a list of five (plus some bonus books I can't help including at the end of this post).

As always, I feel as if I could have pulled five different, equally worthy books from the year of reading, but I like this five SO much.

Mona Awad's All's Well ( |

From the publisher:

"From the author of Bunny, which Margaret Atwood hails as 'genius,' comes a 'wild, and exhilarating' (Lauren Groff) novel about a theater professor who is convinced staging Shakespeare's most maligned play will remedy all that ails her--but at what cost?

"Miranda Fitch's life is a waking nightmare. The accident that ended her burgeoning acting career left her with excruciating chronic back pain, a failed marriage, and a deepening dependence on painkillers. And now, she's on the verge of losing her job as a college theater director. Determined to put on Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well, the play that promised and cost her everything, she faces a mutinous cast hellbent on staging Macbeth instead. Miranda sees her chance at redemption slip through her fingers.

"That's when she meets three strange benefactors who have an eerie knowledge of Miranda's past and a tantalizing promise for her future: one where the show goes on, her rebellious students get what's coming to them, and the invisible doubted pain that's kept her from the spotlight is made known.

"With prose Margaret Atwood has described as 'no punches pulled, no hilarities dodged...genius,' Mona Awad has concocted her most potent, subversive novel yet. All's Well is a 'fabulous novel' (Mary Karr) about a woman at her breaking point and a formidable, piercingly funny indictment of our collective refusal to witness and believe female pain."

Why it made the list:

This is my first book by Awad, and it just blew me away. (The audio, read by Sophie Amoss, is phenomenal.) This book balances humor and drama, joy and pain. It features Shakespeare (a point for me!) and features the same mix of death, romance, and the paranormal that my favorites of his plays offer. Miranda is an incredibly complex figure, and I veered wildly between extreme empathy and extreme frustration in my reactions to her and her decisions. What a ride. All's Well is on the Tournament of Books shortlist, and it's going to be moving up in my bracket for sure.

Louise Erdrich's The Night Watchman ( |

From the publisher:

"Based on the extraordinary life of National Book Award-winning author Louise Erdrich's grandfather who worked as a night watchman and carried the fight against Native dispossession from rural North Dakota all the way to Washington, D.C., this powerful novel explores themes of love and death with lightness and gravity and unfolds with the elegant prose, sly humor, and depth of feeling of a master craftsman.

"Thomas Wazhashk is the night watchman at the jewel bearing plant, the first factory located near the Turtle Mountain Reservation in rural North Dakota. He is also a Chippewa Council member who is trying to understand the consequences of a new 'emancipation' bill on its way to the floor of the United States Congress. It is 1953 and he and the other council members know the bill isn't about freedom; Congress is fed up with Indians. The bill is a 'termination' that threatens the rights of Native Americans to their land and their very identity. How can the government abandon treaties made in good faith with Native Americans 'for as long as the grasses shall grow, and the rivers run'?

"Since graduating high school, Pixie Paranteau has insisted that everyone call her Patrice. Unlike most of the girls on the reservation, Patrice, the class valedictorian, has no desire to wear herself down with a husband and kids. She makes jewel bearings at the plant, a job that barely pays her enough to support her mother and brother. Patrice's shameful alcoholic father returns home sporadically to terrorize his wife and children and bully her for money. But Patrice needs every penny to follow her beloved older sister, Vera, who moved to the big city of Minneapolis. Vera may have disappeared; she hasn't been in touch in months, and is rumored to have had a baby. Determined to find Vera and her child, Patrice makes a fateful trip to Minnesota that introduces her to unexpected forms of exploitation and violence, and endangers her life.

"Thomas and Patrice live in this impoverished reservation community along with young Chippewa boxer Wood Mountain and his mother Juggie Blue, her niece and Patrice's best friend Valentine, and Stack Barnes, the white high school math teacher and boxing coach who is hopelessly in love with Patrice.

"In the Night Watchman, Louise Erdrich creates a fictional world populated with memorable characters who are forced to grapple with the worst and best impulses of human nature. Illuminating the loves and lives, the desires and ambitions of these characters with compassion, wit, and intelligence, The Night Watchman is a majestic work of fiction from this revered cultural treasure."

Why it made the list:

This is one of three Erdrich books I read this year, and honestly, I could have chosen any of them. (I also re-read Tracks and read The Sentence, which is on the Tournament of Books shortlist.) This book has a ton of characters, yet somehow, they all seem fully formed. This is an amazing work of historical fiction, yet it also feels incredibly timely as Erdrich takes on issues that still resonate on reservations today. And of course, on the sentence level, her writing is unparalleled. This one will stick with me (as do all of her books). Here's my review.

Patrick Radden Keefe's Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty ( |

From the publisher:

"The Sackler name adorns the walls of many storied institutions--Harvard, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Oxford, the Louvre. They are one of the richest families in the world, known for their lavish donations to the arts and the sciences. The source of the family fortune was vague, however, until it emerged that the Sacklers were responsible for making and marketing a blockbuster painkiller that was the catalyst for the opioid crisis.

"Empire of Pain begins with the story of three doctor brothers, Raymond, Mortimer and the incalculably energetic Arthur, who weathered the poverty of the Great Depression and appalling anti-Semitism. Working at a barbaric mental institution, Arthur saw a better way and conducted groundbreaking research into drug treatments. He also had a genius for marketing, especially for pharmaceuticals, and bought a small ad firm.

"Arthur devised the marketing for Valium, and built the first great Sackler fortune. He purchased a drug manufacturer, Purdue Frederick, which would be run by Raymond and Mortimer. The brothers began collecting art, and wives, and grand residences in exotic locales. Their children and grandchildren grew up in luxury.

"Forty years later, Raymond's son Richard ran the family-owned Purdue. The template Arthur Sackler created to sell Valium--co-opting doctors, influencing the FDA, downplaying the drug's addictiveness--was employed to launch a far more potent product: OxyContin. The drug went on to generate some thirty-five billion dollars in revenue, and to launch a public health crisis in which hundreds of thousands would die.

"This is the saga of three generations of a single family and the mark they would leave on the world, a tale that moves from the bustling streets of early twentieth-century Brooklyn to the seaside palaces of Greenwich, Connecticut, and Cap d'Antibes to the corridors of power in Washington, D.C. Empire of Pain chronicles the multiple investigations of the Sacklers and their company, and the scorched-earth legal tactics that the family has used to evade accountability. The history of the Sackler dynasty is rife with drama--baroque personal lives; bitter disputes over estates; fistfights in boardrooms; glittering art collections; Machiavellian courtroom maneuvers; and the calculated use of money to burnish reputations and crush the less powerful.

"Empire of Pain is a masterpiece of narrative reporting and writing, exhaustively documented and ferociously compelling. It is a portrait of the excesses of America's second Gilded Age, a study of impunity among the super elite and a relentless investigation of the naked greed and indifference to human suffering that built one of the world's great fortunes."

Why it made the list:

I read a lot of great nonfiction this year, but Empire of Pain feels like one of the most important books I read. After appreciating so much about Beth Macy's Dopesick a few years ago, I found this view of the opioid crisis from a very different perspective so, so illuminating. Patrick Radden Keefe helps to humanize the Sackler family, which somehow makes their choices even more horrifying than when they're attributed to a faceless company. These are individual people who made horrible decisions, knowing exactly what they were doing to other people. This is not a light read, but it is an essential one. (Here's my full review.)

Lulu Miller's Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life ( |

From the publisher:

"David Starr Jordan was a taxonomist, a man possessed with bringing order to the natural world. In time, he would be credited with discovering nearly a fifth of the fish known to humans in his day. But the more of the hidden blueprint of life he uncovered, the harder the universe seemed to try to thwart him. His specimen collections were demolished by lightning, by fire, and eventually by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake--which sent more than a thousand discoveries, housed in fragile glass jars, plummeting to the floor. In an instant, his life's work was shattered.

"Many might have given up, given in to despair. But Jordan? He surveyed the wreckage at his feet, found the first fish that he recognized, and confidently began to rebuild his collection. And this time, he introduced one clever innovation that he believed would at last protect his work against the chaos of the world.

"When NPR reporter Lulu Miller first heard this anecdote in passing, she took Jordan for a fool--a cautionary tale in hubris, or denial. But as her own life slowly unraveled, she began to wonder about him. Perhaps instead he was a model for how to go on when all seemed lost. What she would unearth about his life would transform her understanding of history, morality, and the world beneath her feet.

"Part biography, part memoir, part scientific adventure, Why Fish Don't Exist is a wondrous fable about how to persevere in a world where chaos will always prevail."

Why it made the list:

I found Why Fish Don't Exist because of an episode of RadioLab podcast, and their recs typically are hits with me, but I could not have guessed just how much I would love this book and that I would still be thinking of it months later. A beautiful blend of historical research and memoir, the book explores the nature of knowing, of certainty, and of science. It considers what happens when you don't have enough confidence in what you believe . . . and what happens when you have too much. This is another book that feels all too timely in its consideration of a the power of one individual who asserts his correctness in the face of evidence to the contrary. (You can read my review here.)

L. M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables ( |

From the publisher:

"Eleven-year-old Anne Shirley has never known a real home. Since her parents' deaths, she's bounced around to foster homes and orphanages. When she is sent by mistake to live with Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert at the snug white farmhouse called Green Gables, she wants to stay forever. But Anne is not the sturdy boy Matthew and Marilla were expecting.

"She's a mischievous, talkative redheaded girl with a fierce temper, who tumbles into one scrape after another. Anne is not like anybody else, the Cuthberts agree; she is special, a girl with an enormous imagination. All she's ever wanted is to belong somewhere. And the longer she stays at Green Gables, the harder it is for anyone to imagine life without her."

Why it made the list:

Well, I just love this book so much. I couldn't leave it off of my list. I've read this book multiple times since childhood, and somehow, I just never get tired of it. I could pick it up again today and re-read it and feel the same warmth, the same happiness, the same joy. It's a beautiful, beautiful book. (Here is my review.)


A few more . . .

Because I can never leave out anything, here are a few of the other five-star reads from the year that I thought about including:

John Green's The Anthropocene Reviewed ( | | My Review) - It hurt not to put this one on the main list, but Ashley is covering it on Wednesday's episode, so I restrained myself.

Ali Hazelwood's The Love Hypothesis ( | | My Review)

Peter Heller's The Guide ( | | My Review)

Hope Jahren's Lab Girl ( | | My Review)

Toni Jensen's Carry: A Memoir of Survival on Stolen Land ( | | My Review)

Amber McBride's Me (Moth) ( |

Barack Obama's A Promised Land ( | | My Review)

Jeff Zentner's In the Wild Light ( | | My Review)


(A note to our readers: click on the hashtags above to see our other blog posts with the same hashtag.)

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