The best reads of 2021-so far

Catherine Coles
Coles’ Notes

In my experience, 2021 has been one big reading rut. Looking back on the first half of the year, I am surprised at how few books I have read and truly enjoyed. Perhaps it’s just bad luck, or a symptom of distraction on my part, but I hope I fare better this summer.

It would be unfair to suggest, however, that that 2021 has been a complete write off. Here are a few of my personal reading highlights so far:

Homeland Elegies (2020) by Ayad Akhtar is a difficult book to describe except to say that it is bold. It is part family drama, part satire, part social and political commentary, and it has some autobiographical influences. I heard it described somewhere as J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, except from a Muslim-American perspective – and I can definitely see the connection. It follows an Ivy-educated, American-born-Pakistani, ambivalent-Muslim, Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright named Ayad Akhtar (clearly the autobiographical influence is not so subtle) who ruminates on the subject of cultural identity in a post-9/11 America and how the country has become a Capitalist Autocracy. It’s a bit cheeky at times, and definitely self-important, but it has so many moments of brilliance.

House Lessons (2020) by Erica Bauermeister is a memoir-in-essays that details the author’s century-home renovation, as well as the personal and familial transformations that took place parallel to her creation of the perfect ‘home.’ It’s a simple, easy-going book in which each chapter details steps in the discovery, purchase, and renovation of the large, trash-filled, historic home that Bauermeister fell in love with. It also ventures a bit into history and architecture, discussing how the structure and layout of a house affects the way the inhabitants within live and interact with each other. It reminded me quite a bit of Open House by Jane Christmas (which was one of my favourites last year), although I’d say this one is a tad more mellow.

Punch Me Up to the Gods (2021) by Brian Broome is a heavy, beautifully written memoir that is getting a lot of buzz this summer. It details Broome’s observations, in the present day, as he sits on a bus and watches a father and his toddler son interact. Using the little boy, Tuan, as an anchor, Broome reflects upon his own childhood and coming-of-age marred by the construct of black masculinity. A gay black man growing up in rural Ohio in the late-1970s and early-1980s, Broome struggled to find belonging. This created within him a deep sense of loss that would follow him deep into adulthood. Punch Me Up to the Gods is by no means a hopeful, uplifting read (so steer clear if that is important to you) but I if you are in the mood for something poetic and raw, it should do the trick.

The Exiles (2020) by Christina Baker Kline is a historical novel about British penal colonies in Australia in the 19th Century. It tells the story of two British convicts, Evangeline and Hazel, who are forced to set sail on a months-long voyage to “the land beyond the seas” to populate what was then considered to be a fledgling colony. Meanwhile, Mathinna, the orphaned daughter of Chief of the Lowreenne tribe, bears witness to the seizure of Aboriginal land by the Brits. The novel felt very surface level, when it could easily have been a long, sweeping saga. Still, it captured my attention with its evocative descriptions of the gritty lives of female exiles and perhaps even reignited my long-lost interest in historical fiction.

Crying in H Mart (2021) by Michelle Zauner begins with the author roaming around H Mart (an Asian grocery store in the vein of Canada’s T&T) thinking about the loss of her mother. While this memoir is about many things (growing up Korean-American, dysfunctional family relationships, her mother’s cancer diagnosis and subsequent decline, and the grieving process), what stuck out the most to me was the vivid descriptions of food, which underpin all other aspects of the story. Delicious Korean dishes, some simple and others a painstaking labour of love, connect Zauner to her mother and culture, and have helped forge her identity. Crying in H Mart is a poignant read, but it is certainly not your average grief memoir. For one, it offers a kind of sensory richness that foodies will drool over.

All of these titles can be reserved in various formats at

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