Facing the Fear: 2021 in Books

Kristen Craft
6 min readFeb 2, 2022

In 2020, books were my companions. They offered a sense of connection and meaning during an otherwise lonely year. In 2021, books played a different role in my life. Unintentionally, I gravitated to dark places in my literary choices, exploring themes like loss of control, tragedy, and the idea of dystopia.

Why was I drawn to these dark places? Was it merely the thrill of peering over the edge of a cliff? Or a desire to explore my own mortality? Or did I want reassurance that a happy ending was indeed possible? The optimist in me believes I sought to find meaning in even the most challenging situations. These were the books I needed to read in order to gain confidence that our society — and I — would come out the other side of a tough year.

Loss of Control

If ever there were a theme for 2021, it would be loss of control. Thanks to Covid, we all lost some degree of agency: we lost control over our health, our support networks, and the lifestyles we’d previously built. So many factors can take away our agency: illness, war, or systemic barriers, among others.

Morningside Heights and Between Two Kingdoms prompted me to consider how one can make meaning out of illness. In both books (one fiction, one non-fiction,) the authors turn to creative pursuits in response to illness. Creativity — and writing, specifically — can reinvigorate one’s sense of agency. The author of Between Two Kingdoms, Suleika Jaouad writes of her journey with cancer:

“I understood now why so many writers and artists, while in the thick of illness, became memoirists. It provided a sense of control, a way to reshape your circumstances on your own terms, in your own words.”

City of Thieves, Night Watchman, and Black Buck offer poignant examples of how war, politics, and racism influence our decisions and lives. And yet, the protagonists in each of these books take ownership over the experience they want to have. As Mateo Askaripour, the author of Black Buck writes

“can’ nothin’ grow without fertile soil or the right hands for it. This right here,” he said, touching a dusty finger to my temple, “is soil. Jus’ like this garden. And only you can decide what grows and who you allow to get their hands in it. Understand?”

I’m grateful for the reminder that I can control my experience even when I cannot control my circumstances. These books brought me back to a mantra I frequently rely on: “act the way you want to feel”. This mantra has served me well over the past two years, in cultivating the mindset I wanted to adopt.

Moving through trauma

I’ve always appreciated the sentiment that you can’t move past something challenging; you must bravely move through it. For many of us, writing is one way to move through a difficult experience. Many of this year’s authors use their writing to explore trauma while also educating others about their experience in the process.

Chanel Miller’s Know My Name tops my list. Like so many rape victims, Miller struggled with feelings of fear, shame, and doubt. Though she initially tried to hide from these feelings, she was only able to move beyond them by exploring and moving through them.

The Great Alone, Firekeeper’s Daughter, and Nickel Boys also serve as prime examples of how one can move through trauma, especially with the support of our loved ones. The past two years have me more convinced than ever that the only investment that really matters is the one we make in our loved ones and support networks. Call me trite, but they make the hard times easier and the good times brighter.

Catastrophes and Dystopian Futures

From zombies to dustbowls to the destruction of Earth, catastrophe novels really have me in their clutches. Some highlights from 2021 include the depiction of the Great Depression in The Four Winds, World War II as depicted in City of Thieves, and the aftermath of a pandemic, as depicted in Station Eleven. (This catastrophe kick isn’t over for me yet, as evidenced by the fact that my first read of 2022 was Seveneves).

The common theme in all of these works? Again, it comes back to relationships. What we share with one another and build together is all that really matters in this life.

As Andy Weir put it in Project Hail Mary:

“So it was that with the apocalypse looming…I stood in front of a bunch of kids and taught them basic science. Because what’s the point of even having a world if you’re not going to pass it on to the next generation?”

Some Bright Spots

Lest I end on such a morbid theme like the end of the world, let me also pinpoint some brighter spots. A few books prompted me to stay up far past my bedtime…always a good sign that the author managed to capture your heart. Some of these books include The Immortalists, The Midnight Library, and Deacon King Kong.

I also found myself energized and uplifted by the love and connections displayed between characters in Lincoln Highway, Wishtree, Born a Crime, and The Overstory. Moreover, I shared some meaningful moments with loved ones while reading many of these books. My son and I read Wishtree together last winter, snuggled up on a loveseat every morning before anyone else woke up. My daughter and I raced through Fuzzy Mud and Small Steps over the course of many bedtimes. And Born a Crime holds a particularly dear place in my heart, since I listened to it with my husband while on a 10th anniversary roadtrip to Acadia, Maine.

Between roadtrips, bedtimes, and early mornings, hangouts with my book club crew of 10+ years, and literary discussions with friends, books remain central to so many important relationships in my life. It’s amazing how a mostly solitary activity can bring so much connection and joy.

My 2021 reading list:

  1. Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld
  2. The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion by Fannie Flagg
  3. Wishtree by Katherine Applegate
  4. The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi
  5. The Overstory by Richard Powers
  6. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
  7. The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
  8. Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
  9. Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid
  10. The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
  11. Deacon King Kong by James McBride
  12. The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides
  13. The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
  14. The Guest List by Lucy Foley
  15. The Mothers by Brit Bennett
  16. The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
  17. I, Claudius by Robert Graves
  18. Red Notice by Bill Browder
  19. Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Kathy Park Hong
  20. The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
  21. Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour
  22. The Push by Ashley Audrain
  23. Morningside Heights by Joshua Henkin
  24. The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin
  25. Know My Name by Chanel Miller
  26. Anxious People by Fredrik Backman
  27. American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins
  28. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
  29. The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah
  30. Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam
  31. Station Eleven by Emily St. Jean Mandel
  32. Between Two Kingdoms by Suleika Jaouad
  33. The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd
  34. Surfacing by Margaret Atwood
  35. Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley
  36. City of Thieves by David Benioff
  37. Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
  38. The Startup Wife by Tahmima Anam
  39. Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner
  40. Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
  41. The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
  42. Fuzzy Mud by Louis Sachar
  43. A Slow Fire Burning by Paula Hawkins
  44. Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir
  45. The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles
  46. The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman
  47. The Pursuit of William Abbey by Claire North
  48. We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry
  49. Small Steps by Louis Sachar
  50. The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

Nota bene: I’ve been trying to write this post for over a month, struggling with self-doubt and the “pre-publication pit of despair”. I find it challenging to write about topics like grief and loss without feeling self-conscious.

But now that we’re into February, I’ve decided that “done” is better than “perfect”. And, in fact, I write primarily because I enjoy it and because I want to gather my thoughts (and my list of books) in a place that will last. So who needs perfect, anyhow? Major thanks and a hat tip to Ryan Law for articulating what I always go through when I try to write. Ryan’s original post about the writing process lives here on LinkedIn.

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Kristen Craft

Early-stage startup advisor at Silicon Valley Bank, parent, reader, Bostonian