Books I read (and listened to) in 2021, with commentary

Sarah Orman
22 min readJan 10, 2022


On December 31, 2021, I got roped into making a list of books that I read and listened to in 2021. By “roped in,” I mean that my father, brother, and sister-in-law emailed their lists, so I felt compelled to do the same. No one responded to each other’s lists — we just gave a collective digital ‘huh’ and moved on. But I did not move on, because now I had this list of things I’d read over the past year, and I wondered what else I could do with it. So, Dear Reader, here is the list, with a few comments about each item. May you find something of interest.

A caveat: In that way that people in a long relationship section off certain traits as “yours” and “mine,” my husband is the maker of Top 10 or Top 100 lists, and I am not. This has become such a defining feature of my marriage that I don’t know what would happen if I ever gave in to the annual temptation to rank my favorite books, movies, meals, or whatever. So I present these titles to you in no particular order, not even chronological or alphabetical. Allow the chaos to wash over you — it’s going to be okay, I promise.


  1. Lives of Girls and Women (1971) — Alice Munro. I am ashamed to admit — but no, I will not be ashamed because there is no shame in reading — that I have only recently discovered the multifaceted brilliance of Alice Munro. I had read her short stories before, but I didn’t get serious about Munro until I took a writing workshop last summer where the instructor, Tom Jenks, assigned us the wonderful short story, “A Real Life.” After that class, I became infatuated. Her only novel, Lives of Girls and Women, is a revelation. Munro is so funny! Did you know she could be so funny? Real depictions of young women coming of age (first sex and weird relatives and all) are rare and should be celebrated. After Lives of Girls and Women, I read her 2001 short story collection, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, and felt like I could read Munro forever. And I probably could, but then I got distracted.
  2. Wayward (2021)Dana Spiotta. I had high hopes for this novel about a woman in her 50s who leaves her husband and teenage daughter to move into a fixer-upper all by herself. I found it disappointing, but I don’t necessarily blame the book. I loved reading about the main character alone in her house — it’s just that there are a lot of subplots, and I didn’t want to read about anything other than this woman alone in her house. Also, I kept wondering, why doesn’t she get a dog?
  3. Matrix (2021)Lauren Groff. As I read this book, I enjoyed imagining Groff, during the Trump administration, writing a novel entirely populated by badass 12th century nuns. If there is a man in this book, I don’t remember him. Matrix doesn’t have a traditional plot structure; it’s more like a chronology of events in the life of a fictionalized Marie de France, who was a real French nun and poet most famous for her series of poems called “The Lais of Marie de France.” (You can hear Groff talk about the creative origins of her book here. It’s a long video and the quality is not great, but Groff is a really engaging speaker.) I enjoyed the mysterious grandeur of the religious setting and reading about how the nuns lived. In general, I am always here for interesting books about women at work. Matrix scratched that itch.
  4. Anything Is Possible (2017)Elizabeth Strout. This was my favorite read of the year. I have long believed that a reader’s experience of a book is informed by the situation in which the book was read — and vice versa. Case in point, I met my husband while I was halfway through the super romantic Oscar and Lucinda. I read Anything Is Possible after what was, for me, the most difficult night in 2021, and it was exactly the book I needed to read, full of real human beings with all their foibles and cheesy phrases and anxieties that come out in all the weirdest ways. I loved it so much, that after the first reading I started over at the beginning and read the whole thing again. It’s like a Faberge egg of a book, in which even the tiniest details serve a great purpose. One of the stories in this book of interlinked stories (a genre that I have loved since J.D. Salinger and wish that more writers would employ) involves a woman who finds a kindred spirit in a memoir — a book that understands her. This book understood me. I will always be grateful.
  5. The Searcher (2020)Tana French. I started reading the latest Tana French novel on New Year’s Eve, making it the first novel that I finished in 2021. All of her novels are wonderful, and this one is a departure from her Dublin mystery series. This was the first novel I’ve read by her that features an American protagonist, and I enjoyed its American Western feel. (It is no coincidence that the book shares a title with a John Wayne movie.) I won’t give away any spoilers, but there is a well-executed twist in the narrative — the kind that makes you want to go back and read the whole thing from the beginning once you’re in on the reveal. Also, kudos to Tana French for her canine characters. I read this novel right after we got a puppy, so I was especially alive to the centrality of dogs.
  6. Mrs. Dalloway (1929) Virginia Woolf. I reread this modernist novel as part of a creative writing seminar last summer. I was happy to encounter Clarissa Dalloway again. Like Woolf’s essay, “A Room of One’s Own,” Mrs. Dalloway makes more sense to me now in middle age than when I first read it in my early 20s. I had completely forgotten about the close friendship between Clarissa and Sally, which I loved rediscovering. Woolf’s style can be intimidating, and a certain level of attention is required to follow the thread of her narrative as it spools out across different characters’ minds. But I don’t think modern readers should be afraid. In the age of the Internet and the hive mind of social media, readers might find themselves relating to the fragmented reality of Mrs. Dalloway even better than Woolf’s contemporaries.
  7. All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers (1972)Larry McMurtry. This was also a reread, inspired only in part by McMurtry’s death in March 2021. Even before McMurtry died, I wanted to revisit this novel about a young writer in Austin, Houston, and San Francisco. I’ve been thinking a lot about the books I read in my adolescence by male authors like McMurtry, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Ken Kesey, Tom Wolfe and Henry Miller. I’m not saying these authors have anything in common except that they were all influential on me at an impressionable age, when I was still figuring out how to be a woman in the world. There are a lot of good things about All My Friends, but its portrayal of female characters does not age well: basically, all the female characters are ice queens, nymphomaniacs, or earth mothers. The casual racism throughout the book is also hard to read. On the other hand, there is a gripping scene on a rural Texas highway in which the protagonist, Danny Deck, becomes the target of police violence because of his long hair. (He gets off easy compared to his Latino companion.) There are also parts about leaving Texas for San Francisco that resonate with me, having done the same. This book has a place in my heart because of what it says about Texas in the 1970s, which was the world I was born into.
  8. Night Boat to Tangiers (2019) and That Old Night Music (2020) Kevin Barry. I have my brother to thank for telling me about this Irish author. Night Boat is a novel about two Irish men trying to track down one of the men’s daughters, a hippie who is bumming around Spain and Morocco with a dog on a rope. Having attended a hippie college, I remember girls with matted blonde dreads and mangy-looking dogs on ropes at my school in the Pacific Northwest. It was sort of fascinating to imagine this archetype in a different setting. But most of the book is about the two Irish men and their regrets. That Old Night Music is a collection of short stories, some more memorable than others. Barry writes beautifully — I think you could design a seminar around his use of the weather. Usually I prefer to read books with beautiful writing so that I can savor each sentence at my own pace. But in Barry’s case, I recommend listening to any audio version that he reads because his Irish growl is resonant and magnificent. For a sample of his storytelling, here is a New Yorker podcast in which Douglas Stuart, author of another book on this list, reads his short story, “The Fjords of Killary.” (Note the otter!)
  9. Hamnet (2020); The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox (2006); and I am, I am, I am: Seventeen Brushes with Death (2017) by Maggie O’Farrell. In addition to Kevin Barry, O’Farrell was the other author from the British Isles whom I discovered in 2021. (This is a yearly occurrence for me — 2020 was Kate Atkinson and Deborah Levy.) I can’t say enough how much I love her books. It’s not just her masterful style, but the topics she tackles: motherhood, illness, miscarriages, mental health. Her books put these often glossed-over issues front and center. Hamnet, her award-winning novel about Shakespeare’s wife and son, has been praised for a lot of reasons, but my favorite thing about the book is how the protagonist’s stepmother learns that her daughter is pregnant because her sanitary cloths are missing from the monthly laundry. I also find her approach to balancing writing with family life very inspiring: O’Farrell has three children whom she homeschooled during the pandemic, but she told The Guardian in this interview, “If I’m able to spend an hour a day with my book, then I can just about stay sane.”
  10. Still Life with Tornado (2016); Please Ignore Vera Dietz (2010); Switch (2021); Dig (2018); and Ask the Passengers (2012) by A.S. King. If you have encountered me during my A.S. King phase, which spanned the pandemic years and is ongoing, then chances are I have already talked your ear off about how amazing she is. Please feel free to skip ahead. These books are categorized as YA, but don’t let the label throw you off. Think of her as a cross between Judy Blume and Kurt Vonnegut, maybe? One of the things I love about King is that, unlike in some YA novels, her parent characters are often just as important as the teenagers. I tend to listen to her books on my iPhone while I walk my dog. Still Life with Tornado is about a 16-year-old girl named Sarah who starts to encounter versions of herself at other ages. Eventually, 10-year-old Sarah, 21-year-old Sarah, and 40-year-old Sarah team up to help 16-year-old Sarah out of a rough spot. It was not cool how this book caused me to weep openly while walking down a public street, but King is worth it. If you live in Pennsylvania (hi, fam!), then you will love the specificity of her settings, which span rural, suburban and urban parts of the state. If you enjoy YA books that unite Greek philosophy and LGBTQ+ identity, Ask the Passengers is for you. If you enjoy thinking about ways to abandon time, Switch is strange and awesome. (I could not sell the rest of my family on this audiobook, but I’m still savoring the weird brilliance of the plot, which might be her most Vonnegut-inspired.) If you, like me, just love reading about girls and women in food service jobs, both Ask the Passengers and Vera Dietz are ideal. And if you identify as a white person, I implore you to read Dig at your earliest convenience.
  11. The Children’s Bible (2020) — Lydia Millet. In this novel, a bunch of teenagers go with their parents to a vacation rental in the country while the world erupts in climate change-induced chaos around them. Sometimes listening to a book enhances the experience, and sometimes that is not the case. I wish that I had read this book instead of listening to it. The reader had a way of voicing the teenagers that sounded bored and affected, which is, of course, how a lot of teenagers sound in real life, but I found it distracting, although I did appreciate her voice in the part where a character sings. I liked The Children’s Bible. The religious allegory totally worked for me. Some people in my book club wanted to know more about what exactly was going on in the outside world. Personally, I didn’t mind the lack of specificity. I suspect this sense of unnamed catastrophe will be a hallmark of climate change fiction going forward.
  12. Lost Children Archive (2019) — Valerie Luiselli. This novel is an experimental collage of essays, transcripts, catalogs, and even polaroid pictures. The plot involves two sound documentarians from New York who leave the city with their two children to drive to the border of Mexico and Arizona. It’s basically the story of a family road trip, but told in a new way. There are some very real family moments here, and a lot of interesting ideas about borders, separation, and documentation. Ultimately, I found myself wishing that there was more of a traditional storyline, but I did enjoy reading about the difference between a “documentarian” and “documentarist.”
  13. Shuggie Bain (2020) — Douglas Stuart. This Booker Prize-winning autobiographical novel about an alcoholic mother and her gay son in working-class Glasgow is bleak and beautiful. Much has been said about the sad parts of the book, but not enough about its brilliant use of 80s American pop songs, which feature prominently in at least two pivotal scenes. I don’t know about you, but whenever I read something I am always searching for phrases worthy of tattooing on my body. The most tattoo-worthy phrase of 2021 was spoken by Shuggie’s mom, Agnes, after Shuggie is spotted by the neighborhood kids teaching his mom the routine from Janet Jackson’s control in front of the window: “If I were you, I’d keep dancing.” (Also, I totally forgot this until I picked up the book just now but I kept a list of unfamiliar Glaswegian slang words at the end of the book. The list includes: stour, snib, sleekit, boak, oose, foustie, and hoaching.)
  14. Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2013) Elena Ferrante. I have been reading the My Brilliant Friend series approximately forever. This was my favorite one so far. I can’t put my finger on why exactly, other than I just seem to love each one more than the last, perhaps because the friendship at the center of the novels gets more and more complicated with each new phase of life that they enter. I’ll be sad when I’m done with all four books, which could be why I’m taking so long.
  15. Ask Again, Yes (2019)Mary Beth Keane. I downloaded this audiobook from the library because I used to work with Mary Beth at Sterling Lord Literistic in New York. I have always remembered how kind she was to me when I was the new girl at the agency, and her dedication to becoming a novelist. To my great delight, I absolutely loved her novel about Irish-American cops in New York. Reviewers have compared Ask Again, Yes to Tolstoy, and I think it’s a valid comparison. There’s a broad scope to Keane’s plot, which encompasses multiple generations in two different families, and her approach to themes like trauma and forgiveness is both timeless and specific in a way that reminds me of the best kinds of 19th century novels. I’m so happy for my former colleague.
  16. The Jetsetters (2020)Amanda Eyre Ward. This novel about a woman of a certain age on a European cruise with her estranged grown children is so much fun. The plot is fast-paced and funny; it obviously deserved to be a Reese Witherspoon Book Club Pick, and I’m super happy for Ward, a local Austin writer and one of my writing teachers, for receiving that honor. But since you already know it’s a good read, I want to call out three specific aspects about Ward’s writing: First, she is really good at writing food scenes. It is a pet peeve of mine when novelists can’t do eating right. I could taste the lamb and tzatziki in this novel; all of the characters felt like real people with real appetites. And speaking of appetites, the second thing that I love about this novel is that Charlotte, the heroine of a certain age, has a sex life. How refreshing! Finally, the third thing that I love about this novel is Ward’s great care in depicting Charlotte’s grief after the death of a close friend. (This is not a spoiler as it happens in the very beginning of the book.) It was nice to read about a matriarch who is a complicated and three-dimensional human being.
  17. The Liar’s Dictionary (2020)Eley Williams. This is a lovely and clever novel. I read it for book club and thoroughly enjoyed the humor and wordplay. Let’s be honest — the plot sort of falls apart and Williams doesn’t quite land the ending, but on the other hand, how badass is she to make her nerdy lexicographer story culminate in a literal trainwreck and explosion? Also, kudos for writing about Monique Wittig in a novel. The Liar’s Dictionary is a good example of a book that plays with ideas and doesn’t take itself too seriously.
  18. The Overstory (2019)Richard Powers. I was late to read this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Its scope and unusual structure of overlapping vignettes reminded me of Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. The Overstory is more grounded in reality than Mitchell’s book, though there are moments when the plot almost veers into science fiction. I was glad that I read The Overstory after already having some familiarity with the work of forest ecologist Suzane Simard, who is the real-life basis for one of the novel’s characters. (I’d like to read Simard’s latest book, Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest, in 2022.) The Overstory was obviously a huge success, but one thing I haven’t heard anyone talk about is the book’s legal analysis of property rights, which features prominently in one of the vignettes. This is a good book not only for people who like to read about nature but also the law! I listened to the audiobook read by Suzanne Toren, who is truly talented. There are characters in the novel with many different accents, including one hearing-impaired character. I was impressed with the specific voice that Toren created for each character.
  19. Such a Fun Age (2019)Kiley Reid. This novel about a young Black babysitter and the (maybe) well-intentioned but (definitely) misguided white woman who employs her was by far the most fun I had listening to an audiobook in 2021. The reader, Nicole Lewis, is phenomenal. I especially love her little girl voice. From a plot perspective, it must be said that there is a massive conceit at the center of the story. You kind of just have to go with it. But I have recommended this audiobook to some very picky readers and they enjoyed listening to it as much as I did. If I could give awards, I would award Reid the Jodi Picoult Prize, by which I mean “best use of a plot formula to get some important ideas into the right hands” (which, in this case, probably means the white hands.) By the way, if you liked Such a Fun Age, you might also enjoy this podcast discussing Reid’s novel and the term “Karen.”


  1. Dancing at the Pity Party (2020)Tyler Feder. I read this graphic memoir with my daughter after finding it listed in the New York Times Book Review as a positive example in an article about why there should be more books for children about Judaism that don’t just talk about the Holocaust. It’s a very heartfelt book about grief and the relationship between a Jewish mother and daughter. We both enjoyed it.
  2. Cheeky (2020) — Ariella Elovic. Another graphic memoir that I read with my 10-year-old daughter, this book focuses on celebrating the different parts of Elovic’s body and all their functions. The author is Jewish and writes about the friends she has from attending Jewish camps as a kid, so like Dancing at the Pity Party it also turned out to be a positive story about Jewish identity as well as body positivity. A twofer! We loved it. I wish there had been books like this when I was my daughter’s age.
  3. How to Write an Autobiographical Novel (2018) — Alexander Chee. This collection of essays has a lot to say about the process of writing about one’s life. The titular essay is actually a list of tips for writing an autobiographical novel, in a manner of speaking, but Chee packs a lot of emotional experience and actual memoir into the advice format. (Does that make it a meta memoir?) As much as I enjoyed the parts about writing, my favorite part of the collection is an essay about the time when Chee was a waiter for William and Pat Buckley in the 1980s. Wow. That’s all I can say. You just have to read it.
  4. Hunger (2017)Roxane Gay. I read a lot of memoirs because it’s always so interesting to me how someone chooses to make their own life into a story. Hunger stands out because Gay doesn’t really seem to be trying to make her life into a story; rather, her primary purpose is conveying to the reader what it’s like inside her unusually sized body. Her writing is plain and direct. Since I had been reading a lot of more literary or experimental memoirs, reading Gay was like drinking a glass of ice water after a couple of martinis. I could have read more about some of the events in Gay’s life that she only alludes to, but I respect her boundaries. She gave me a lot to think about in terms of the impact of sexual violence and what it’s like to move through the world in a nonstandard body.
  5. The Fire Next Time (1963) James Baldwin. This book is comprised of two long essays discussing race in America. I especially enjoyed the insights about Christianity and Islam in the second essay, “Letter from a Region of My Mind.” I read this book for a creative writing workshop in which we mainly discussed Baldwin as a stylist, but I was grateful for the insight into an aspect of the American experience that I know very little about.
  6. The Art of Solitude (2020)Stephen Batchelor. Batchelor is a British guy who used to be a Buddhist monk and now lives in the South of France with his wife when he is not traveling around the world taking hallucinogens in shamanistic ceremonies. My copy of his previous book, Buddhism Without Beliefs (1997), is heavily underlined. This book was a harder read, as it is sort of an odd combination. Some chapters are essays about Montaigne and Emerson, while others are memoiristic accounts of Batchelor’s experiences with various substances. It did not make me want to try ayahuasca. But I did enjoy many passages on the nature and value of solitude, and it felt like a good thing to read during a pandemic.
  7. The Secret to Superhuman Strength (2021) Alison Bechdel. For my birthday this year, my husband got me all three of Alison Bechdel’s memoirs, because this new one had just come out and he knew that I was sad about not owning Fun Home (2006) and Are You My Mother? (2012), the former of which I loaned out and never got back (grrr) and the latter of which I checked out from the library. I just adore Alison Bechdel’s brain. I’ve read all three of her graphic memoirs, and though Are You My Mother? is still my favorite, I love that she’s getting brainier and brainier with each installment. She almost lost me at some points of The Secret to Superhuman Strength, maybe because I haven’t read Jack Kerouac. But she has an amazing gift for convincing the reader to connect abstract ideas in ways that seem at first totally idiosyncratic. Reliving the Trump years with Bechdel was tough, but I’d go with her anywhere.
  8. The Collected Letters of Anne Sexton (2004) — Anne Sexton. This book has been with me since I was a teenager, and I don’t know what inspired me to pick it up in 2021. I think it was the first time that I’ve ever read a whole book of letters by one person, and I hope it won’t be the last. (I’ve got my eye on Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence of Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop.) You can learn so much about how a person thinks and what their world was like from their correspondence with friends, family, and colleagues. I recently heard a New York Times book editor mention that thousands of emails he’d saved from authors over the years went poof into the ether because of a routine IT update. It made me sad to think that literary biographers and readers might not have these types of collections for the writers of today.
  9. Why Fish Don’t Exist: A History of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life (2020) — Lulu Miller. What a delight! I don’t want to tell you what this book is about, because I listened to the audiobook without knowing a thing and absolutely loved it. Miller is a science reporter for NPR, and her experience with sound is evident in the audiobook, which she reads. For example, when you come to the one footnote in the book, Miller says, “Welcome to my the only footnote in my audiobook!” Honorable mention for making creative use of the spoken format.
  10. Love and Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning (2017) Claire Dederer. At age 45, I’ve noticed that the word “reckoning” comes up often in conversations with other women around my age. I tried and failed to read Dederer’s first memoir, Poser: My Life in 23 Yoga Poses (2010), but Love and Trouble was right up my alley. In this book, Dederer grapples with the onset of a second adolescence in her mid-40s. Although she seemingly ‘has it all’ — a good husband, successful writing career, thriving children — she suddenly craves escape. Most of the memoir consists of alternating chapters that compare the middle aged and teenaged versions of Claire, but there are also several clever flights of fancy, like the illustrated map of teenage Claire’s personal Seattle and a letter to Roman Polanski on the occasion of Claire’s daughter’s 13th birthday, for which she has earned a seat in feminist Valhalla as far as I’m concerned.
  11. Somebody’s Daughter (2021)Ashley Ford. Ford’s memoir is advertised as the story of a young woman with an incarcerated father who learns, after she herself is raped, that the reason her father is in prison is because he raped someone. While that sounds harrowing, the experience of reading the book is not harrowing, which I think is because Ford focuses mainly on depicting her family members with grace and compassion. I appreciated the way she writes about her imperfect relationship with both of her parents. But the scene that I will take to my grave is the one where her grandfather pulls live frogs from a bucket and dismembers them on the kitchen table right in front of young Ashley, leading to her first panic attack. This is why I read!
  12. Lucky (1999)Alice Sebold. Talk about harrowing — I have to take a deep breath before diving into Sebold’s memoir about the time in college when she was raped. I read this book earlier in the year. Months later, I was shocked to read the news that Anthony Broadwater, who served 16 years in prison for raping Sebold, was exonerated in the fall of 2021 after a judge found serious problems in the original prosecution of the case, which included Sebold’s testimony and lineup identification. As you might imagine, a Twitter storm resulted with armchair ethicists blaming Sebold for “dining out” on Broadwater’s wrongful conviction in terms that probably felt similar to the sentiment behind the title of Sebold’s memoir: that she is lucky as a result of the worst night of her life. I can only imagine what it must feel like for Sebold to have those wounds reopened, but I hope she takes some solace in knowing the wrong man is no longer behind bars.
  13. A Swim in the Pond in the Rain (2021) — George Saunders. More people wanted me to read this book in 2021 than any other book! I guess that’s because I am a widely known fan of Saunders, Russian literature, and books on writing. My mother-in-law was kind enough to give me the book, so I put aside my pedantic feelings about Gogol being Ukrainian and settled in. I will admit that I didn’t reread all the short stories, which I studied in school. But I did get a lot out of Saunders’ chatty writing advice. Saunders, who teaches creative writing at Syracuse University, has now started a newsletter called “Story Club, ” where he’s sending out the same types of story analysis and writing advice but not just about Slavic authors.
  14. Upstream: Selected Essays (2016) — Mary Oliver. I can’t get enough of Mary Oliver’s poetry, so of course I read her collection of essays as soon as I realized it existed. Here you can read her thoughts about Walt Whitman, the creative life, and walking in nature with dogs. She also writes about her own education as a reader and writer: “I did not think of language as the means to self-description. I thought of it as the door — a thousand opening doors! — past myself. I thought of it as the means to notice, to contemplate, to praise, and thus, to come into power. . . . I saw what skill was needed, and persistence — how one must bend one’s spine, like a hoop, over the page — the long labor. I saw the difference between doing nothing, or doing a little, and the redemptive act of true effort. Reading, then writing, then desiring to write well, shaped in me that most joyful of circumstances — a passion for work.”


  1. The Dead and the Living (1983); Odes (2016); and The Golden Cell (1992) by Sharon Olds. Reading a whole book of one poet’s poetry was a new thing for me during the pandemic. I’ve had these books on my shelves for years and would pull one down and read one poem every now and then. During the Freeze in February of 2021, when it seemed like my mind could not sustain attention on any one thing for more than five minutes, I turned to these books and read all three like I was chain smoking, lighting the next volume with the embers of the last one. First of all, Olds cracks me up. Sometimes when I am in the middle of some completely unrelated task, like watching TV or doing the dishes, I remember her description of the hymen in “Ode to the Hymen” as a “one-time piñata” and it never fails to make me chuckle. I also love her poems about her children, like “Looking at Them Asleep”, which ends with the tattoo-worthy line: “When love comes to me and says/ What do you know, I say This boy, this girl.”
  2. Otherwise: New and Collected Poems (1997)Jane Kenyon. These poems were collected and edited by Kenyon and her husband, Donald Hall, before Kenyon’s death from cancer in 1995. I came to it sideways; I think I was reading Donald Hall essays in the New Yorker and then learned about his second wife. The book feels sort of like a portrait of a marriage in addition to being a collection of Kenyon’s poems. I enjoy reading both Kenyon and Hall, though their writing sometimes makes me yearn to live in a farmhouse in New Hampshire.


In addition to books, in 2021 I started keeping track of poems, short stories and essays that I read and want to remember. My favorite story discovered this year was “A Love Story” by Samantha Hunt, which was first published in 2017 but I found only recently. Honorable mention to “A Lot of Things Have Happened” by Adam Levin, which I just read. (A tiny part of me used to think I could live in New York again, but that part is now as dead as the rat by the end of Levin’s first scene.) I also keep thinking about the mastery of “All Aunt Hagar’s Children” by Edward P. Jones, which I’d read before but got to study in a writing class this year.

This essay by Merritt Tierce is outstanding. (Her autobiographical novel, Love Me Back, about working as a waitress in an upscale Dallas steakhouse, is worth reading.) And if you’re still reading this, you deserve this poem about things to love.



Sarah Orman

Writer and editor in Austin, Texas. Follow me on Substack @sarahorman for twice-a-month dispatches about books and writing. More info at