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The Best Books From The Worst Year

Updated: Nov 5, 2021

Like many of you, I've spent the past year (and counting) hiding at home, daydreaming about pre-pandemic days and wondering with trepidation what the future has in store. Time and again I found an escape from my own suddenly terrifying yet mundane existence by getting lost in a good story. And now I'm happy to tell you that I've come up with a list of my favorites works of fiction from this past year.

Enjoy, and happy reading!


1. Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

The coronavirus has come. And all the toilet paper in the world is gone. The future remains to be seen.

I wrote that in my journal on March 14, 2020. And then I grabbed a book off of my shelf and started to read, having no idea what I was getting myself into. The book I chose at random turned out to be Station Eleven, a story about a global pandemic that wipes out most of the world's population in a matter of weeks, and how the remaining people forge a new society in the ashes of what once was.

This isn't your average post-apocalyptic story. It's beautifully written and deeply touching, and the characters come to life as people I wish I knew.

The material was also eerily relevant to current times, as the real world shut down in the face of COVID-19.


2. Daisy Jones and The Six, by Taylor Jenkins Reid

It's what we all want from art, isn't it? When someone pins down something that feels like it lives inside us? Takes a piece of our heart and shows it to us?

This book broke my heart, and yet I couldn't put it down. As a daughter of musicians, and as someone who is all too familiar with the impossible heartache of addiction, I felt particularly connected to the characters in this story.

Rarely has anyone so poignantly captured the essence of the music industry in the 1970's, and the many complex layers of addiction. This book tore me up inside, but in a good way.


3. Salvage The Bones, by Jesmyn Ward

Seeing him broke the cocoon of my rib cage, and my heart unfurled to fly.

This one is pure poetry. The writing is so beautiful that I had to stop many times and simply re-read certain sentences to savor the way the author strung the words together.

The story follows a Black family in rural Mississippi as they struggle to survive even before Hurricane Katrina comes along and wipes away what little they had. It's a story that covers a lot of ground -- The pain of female adolescence, the confounding sadness of losing everything when you had nothing to begin with, racial relations in the rural South...even the complexity of illegal dog fighting rings.

All good fiction stems from truth, and this book is the perfect example. It transported me to a place I'd never been before and made me see things in a new light. And that is the greatest power of any good writing.


4. The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can't be trusted—? What if the heart, for its own unfathomable reasons, leads one willfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, civic responsibility and strong social connections and all that blandly held common virtues and instead straight toward a beautiful flare of ruin, self-immolation, disaster? If your deepest self is singing and coaxing you straight toward the bonfire, is it better to run away? Ignore all the perverse glory your heart is screaming at you? Or is it better to throw yourself headfirst and laughing into the holy rage calling your name?

Every once in awhile a book comes along that completely changes your life. Donna Tartt's The GoldFinch is one of those books. It's long, it's wordy, it's complicated. But if there is one book I've read that sums up the human condition in all its complexity, pain, and beauty, this is it.


5. The Tattooist of Auschwitz, by Heather Morris

We stand in shit but let us not drown in it.

I was supposed to tell you about my favorite fiction in this post, but (incredibly) this one is based on a true story.

It's a tale that describes the horrors of Auschwitz in painfully raw detail, while at the same time revealing the power of human resilience.

It also happens to be a beautiful love story.

If this one doesn't pull on your heartstrings I don't know what will.


6. The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett

This past year has been quite an eye-opening experience in the U.S, and not just because a global pandemic has changed our lives in ways we could never imagine.

For the first time in my lifetime, we are actually talking about race and racism in this country. I mean real talk, not just the typical "bad things happened but we've moved on" crap we've all been fed over the years.

And yes, we still have a long way to go.

But I've always believed that the first step in overcoming ignorance is to hear the stories of others. What better place to start, then with this multi-generational family saga about identical twins, driven apart when one decides to abandon her culture and history and pass as a white woman?

This book is a page-turning, engaging, entertaining lesson on the complexity of race and Blackness in this country. Everyone should read it.

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- Teresa B. Schumacher

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