Another year of must-read books have come to an end, which can only mean it’s time to unveil my picks for the 10 best books of 2021. This year certainly went in several different directions and with it the reading material we use to fill the void, which means there’s a little something on this list for everyone—be it fiction, non-fiction, essay collections, memoirs, or pop culture analysis. Featuring everyone from Jonny Sun to Steven Rowley, behold my choices for the best books of the year.
Everybody (Else) is Perfect: How I Survived Hypocrisy, Beauty, Clicks, and Likes by Gabrielle Korn
Like many Millennials, Gabrielle Korn came of age at a time when the American job market was making promises it couldn’t keep. By the time she was 26, however, she had achieved everything she thought she wanted and more: after receiving an accomplished college degree, she became one the youngest editor-in-chiefs in history at Nylon magazine where she had friends, family, connections with trendy designers, and an Instagram-worthy office and life. But the surface beneath her skin told a very different story: struggling for years with an untreated eating disorder and mental illness, Korn finally reached her breaking point in an industry and digital world that prioritizes perfection above else. Tackling our commercialized obsession with body positivity, chronicling her years coming of age as a lesbian in the era of low-rise jeans and much more, Everybody (Else) is Perfect is a memoir-in-essays that seeks to educate and inform of all the ways our modern culture has turned toxic and holds everyone, but especially women, to standards way beyond their control.
The Barbizon: The New York Hotel That Set Women Free by Paulina Bren
The Barbizon tells the story of New York’s most glamorous women-only hotel, and the women—both famous and ordinary—who passed through its doors. World War I had liberated women from home and hearth, setting them on the path to political enfranchisement and gainful employment. Arriving in New York to work in the dazzling new skyscrapers, they did not want to stay in uncomfortable boarding houses; they wanted what men already had—exclusive residential hotels that catered to their needs, with daily maid service, cultural programs, workout rooms, and private dining. The Barbizon would become the most famous residential hotel of them all, welcoming everyone from aspiring actresses, dancers, and fashion models to seamstresses, secretaries, and nurses. Beautifully written and impeccably researched, The Barbizon weaves together a tale that has, until now, never been told. It is an epic story of women’s ambition in the 20th century. The Barbizon Hotel offered its residents a room of their own and air to breathe, unfettered from family obligations and expectations. It gave women a chance to remake themselves however they pleased. No place had existed like it before, or has since.
Broken (In the Best Possible Way) by Jenny Lawson
As Jenny Lawson’s hundreds of thousands of fans know, she suffers from depression. In Broken, Lawson brings readers along on her mental and physical health journey, offering heartbreaking and hilarious anecdotes along the way. With people experiencing anxiety and depression now more than ever, she humanizes what we all face in an all-too-real way, reassuring us that we’re not alone and making us laugh while doing it. From the business ideas that she wants to pitch to Shark Tank to the reason why she can never go back to the post office, Broken leaves nothing to the imagination in the most satisfying way. And of course, Lawson’s long-suffering husband Victor―the Ricky to her Lucille Ball―is present throughout. A treat for her already existing fans, and destined to convert new ones, Broken is a beacon of hope and a wellspring of laughter when we all need it most.
Goodbye, Again: Essays, Reflections, and Illustrations by Jonny Sun
“You can’t outrun sadness because sadness is already everywhere. Sadness isn’t the visitor; you are.” Jonny Sun gives us a collection of touching and hilarious personal essays, stories, poems—accompanied by his trademark illustrations—covering topics such as mental health, happiness, and what it means to belong. The pieces range from long meditations on topics like loneliness and being an outsider, to short humor pieces, conversations, and memorable one-liners. Sun’s honest writings about his struggles with feeling productive, as well as his difficulties with anxiety and depression will connect deeply with his fans as well as anyone attempting to create in our chaotic world.
An Ordinary Age: Finding Your Way in a World That Expects Exceptional by Rainesford Stauffer
In conversation with young adults and experts alike, journalist Rainesford Stauffer explores how the incessant pursuit of a “best life” has put extraordinary pressure on young adults today, across their personal and professional lives—and how ordinary, meaningful experiences may instead be the foundation of a fulfilled and contented life. Young adulthood: the time of our lives when, theoretically, anything can happen, and the pressure is on to make sure everything does. Social media has long been the scapegoat for a generation of unhappy young people, but perhaps the forces working beneath us—wage stagnation, student debt, perfectionism, and inflated costs of living—have a larger, more detrimental impact on the world we post to our feeds. An Ordinary Age puts young adults at the center as Stauffer examines our obsessive need to live and post our #bestlife, and the culture that has defined that life on narrow, and often unattainable, terms. From the now required slate of (often unpaid) internships, to the loneliness epidemic, to the stress of “finding yourself” through school, work, and hobbies—the world is demanding more of young people these days than ever before. And worse, it’s leaving little room for young people to ask the big questions about who they want to be, and what makes a life feel meaningful.
The Guncle by Steven Rowley
Patrick, or Gay Uncle Patrick (GUP, for short), has always loved his niece, Maisie, and nephew, Grant. That is, he loves spending time with them when they come out to Palm Springs for weeklong visits, or when he heads home to Connecticut for the holidays. But in terms of caretaking and relating to two children, no matter how adorable, Patrick is honestly a bit out of his league. So when tragedy strikes and Maisie and Grant lose their mother and Patrick’s brother has a health crisis of his own, Patrick finds himself suddenly taking on the role of primary guardian. Despite having a set of “Guncle Rules” ready to go, Patrick has no idea what to expect, having spent years barely holding on after the loss of his great love, a somewhat-stalled career, and a lifestyle not-so-suited to a six- and a nine-year-old. Quickly realizing that parenting—even if temporary—isn’t solved with treats and jokes, Patrick’s eyes are opened to a new sense of responsibility, and the realization that, sometimes, even being larger than life means you’re unfailingly human.
The 2000s Made Me Gay: Essays on Pop Culture by Grace Perry
Today’s gay youth have dozens of queer peer heroes, both fictional and real, but Grace Perry did not have that luxury. Instead, she had to search for queerness in the teen cultural phenomena that the early aughts had to offer: in Lindsay Lohan’s fall from grace, Gossip Girl, Katy Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl,” country-era Taylor Swift, and Seth Cohen jumping on a coffee cart. And, for better or worse, these touch points shaped her identity, and she came out on the other side, as she puts it, gay as hell. Join Grace on a journey back through the pop culture moments of the early 2000’s, before the cataclysmic shift in LGBTQ representation and acceptance―a time not so long ago, that people seem to forget.
¡Hola Papi!: How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessons by John Paul Brammer
The first time someone called John Paul (JP) Brammer “Papi” was on the popular gay hookup app Grindr. At first, it was flattering; JP took this as white-guy speak for “hey, handsome.” Who doesn’t want to be called handsome? But then it happened again and again…and again, leaving JP wondering: Who the hell is Papi? What started as a racialized moniker given to him on a hookup app soon became the inspiration for his now wildly popular advice column “¡Hola Papi!,” launching his career as the Cheryl Strayed for young queer people everywhere—and some straight people too. In ¡Hola Papi!, JP shares his story of growing up biracial and in the closet in America’s heartland, while attempting to answer some of life’s toughest questions: How do I let go of the past? How do I become the person I want to be? Is there such a thing as being too gay? Should I hook up with my grade school bully now that he’s out of the closet? Questions we’ve all asked ourselves, surely.
The People We Keep by Allison Larkin
It’s 1994 in Little River, New York, and 16-year-old April Sawicki is tired of living in a motorless motorhome that her dad won in a poker game envisioning a life stuck where she doesn’t belong. After “borrowing” a neighbor’s car to go perform at an open-mic night, she realizes that life has the potential to be so much more than she’s ever known. Leaving Little River and planning to never look back, April spends the next few years navigating the world the best she knows how, leaving behind a trail of people she’s hurt involuntarily in fear of finally learning how to exhale. Chronicling her life through the songs she writes and the people she keeps, April yearns for the ability to stop running away from love and from herself, and to embrace the power of found family. Through it all, Allison Larkin champions the importance of belonging and self-love throughout The People We Keep, emphasizing the beauty in chaos and reminding us that this life is ours to choose.
How to Save a Life: The Inside Story of Grey’s Anatomy by Lynette Rice
More than fifteen years after its premiere, Grey’s Anatomy remains one of the most beloved dramas on television and ABC’s most important property. It typically wins its time slot and has ranked in the Top 20 most-watched shows in primetime for most of its seventeen-season run. Beyond that, it’s been a cultural touchstone. It introduced the unique voice and vision of Shonda Rhimes; it made Ellen Pompeo, Sandra Oh and T.R. Knight household names; and injected words and phrases into the cultural lexicon, such as “McDreamy,” “seriously,” and “you’re my person.” And the behind-the-scenes drama has always been just as juicy as what was happening in front of the camera, from the controversial departure of Isaiah Washington to Katherine Heigl’s fall from grace and Patrick Dempsey’s shocking death episode. The show continued to hemorrhage key players, but the beloved hospital series never skipped a beat. Lynette Rice’s How to Save a Life takes a totally unauthorized deep dive into the show’s humble start, while offering exclusive intel on the behind-the-scenes culture, the most heartbreaking departures and the more polarizing plotlines. This exhaustively enthusiastic book is one that no Grey’s Anatomy fan should be without.
Which were your favorite books from this year?
You might also like:
• The 10 Best Books of 2020
• The 10 Best Books of 2019
• The 10 Best Books of 2018