Recommended 2021 publications from the director of the Bay Area Book Festival

By Cherilyn Parsons

Special to The Examiner

Searching for a last-minute gift? Authors won’t shame you for being tardy: Most of them come perilously close to their own deadlines. Check out these recommendations of stellar books from 2021 for every kind of person on your list, and don’t forget yourself.


“The Living Sea of Waking Dreams” by Richard Flanagan (Knopf). This slim novel is my top recommendation for its sheer gorgeousness and truth. The prose is blissful to read, and that sustains us as Flanagan goes directly into tough topics: climate change, the frantic avoidance of emotional pain by escaping into social media and, most profoundly, the refusal to see what is real right in front of us — whether that’s the burning of the world or a dying loved one. The story line presents a family refusing to let their dying mother go, and the backdrop is fire. This novel was born of flames: Flanagan drafted the manuscript when fires swept through his native Tasmania, then finished it as Australia faced its own conflagrations the following year. The art of this book is that it asks the reader to find the courage to see and read fearlessly, hanging on to the gorgeous prose like a lifeline. In times of despair, beauty brings hope.

“My Old Home: A Novel of Exile” by Orville Schell (Pantheon): Thirty years in the making, this riveting epic moves from China on the cusp of the Cultural Revolution to the massacre in Tiananmen Square (which Schell witnessed), with fascinating detours to a labor camp in northeast Tibet and to San Francisco as experienced by a penniless immigrant boy, the main character. Little Li, an aspiring musician, is the half-American son of a father who, as a U.S. trained pianist, was targeted by the regime. Schell is a renowned China expert and journalist who has authored numerous nonfiction books with a relatively neutral stance on China, but in “My Old Home,” his first novel, he has finally let rip his own feelings. This novel didn’t get nearly enough attention when it was published in early spring, but it would transfix anyone interested in China, authoritarianism or great historical sagas.

“The Love Songs of W.E.B. DuBois” by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers (HarperCollins). Another debut novel, also a historical saga, conversely has received massive attention, anointed by Oprah and major new outlets. It’s worth highlighting here because it makes a terrific gift for anyone hankering for a Great American Novel not penned by a white man. The story centers around one Black family in Georgia and moves back and forth in time from the early enslavement to modern times. Other parts are set during the Civil War and the civil rights movement, where feminism meets Black rights. A present-day young woman, Ailey, is our anchor in linking these histories. Words and references to W.E.B. DuBois, who wrote about “the problem of race in America,” are woven ingeniously throughout to illuminate the burden Ailey carries. Black readers have called this novel a homecoming, and others have found it to be a revelation.

“Great Circle” by Maggie Shipstead (Knopf). Shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, “Great Circle” depicts the journey of a woman to be free, to literally soar past the restrictions of patriarchy in her era. Marian, a motherless girl in 1920s Montana, dreams of becoming a pilot, makes a devil’s bargain to do it, and eventually attempts to fly around the world. These sections are interspersed with those of Hadley, a modern-day Hollywood starlet playing Marian, who has become a legend like Amelia Earhart. This long novel, a total immersion experience, spirits us out of pandemic lockdown to the Montana wilderness, Alaskan bush, World War II England, and Antarctica.

“The Five Wounds” by Kirstin Valdez Quade (Norton). Winner of the Center for Fiction’s First Novel prize, “The Five Wounds” teeters between tragedy and comedy as it depicts life in a New Mexico village and the tumultuous everyday struggles of one of its families. Using the conceit of Jesus’s five wounds during the crucifixion, Valdez performs her own miracles in creating her main character, an unemployed man (cast as Jesus in the Good Friday procession) whose life is upended by the arrival of his tough and unrepentant pregnant daughter. Valdez also conjures his former wife, a grandmother, an uncle and various aunts as dramas play out during the baby’s first year. The prose is sharp as a shadow cast by the fierce New Mexican sun, and Valdez makes us laugh and weep. Who would love this novel? Nearly everyone.


“World as Lover, World as Self: 30th Anniversary Edition” by Joanna Macy, Ph.D. (Parallax Press). This classic book changed millions of lives (including mine) and the environmental movement, and it’s even more relevant today. Updated with the latest science and current events, it offers a framework that draws on deep ecology, systems theory and resonances between science and Buddhist ideas of “interdependent arising.” With compassion and (remarkably) joy, Macy provides wisdom for fighting existential despair as humans seem set on a course to destroy the natural world and thus ourselves. Now 91 years old and a revered thinker and teacher and creator of the worldwide Work That Reconnects Network, Macy pinpoints the deepest root causes of these problems and offers a mindset to transform them. “World As Lover, World As Self” is essential reading for anyone concerned with healing our planet and our relationship to it.

“How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America” by Clint Smith (Little, Brown). This book stands out for its creative, highly readable approach to tracing the history and impacts of slavery into the present. Smith visits eight of the nation’s most important landmarks, from Monticello to Angola prison, that hold stories of America’s original and ongoing sin. Smith is a poet, scholar and journalist (currently a staff writer at The Atlantic), and his literary virtuosity shows. He combines in-depth research with revelatory on-site interviews, with many residents holding strikingly misunderstood views of history — proxies for the reader. His tone is generous and grounded, offering a trustworthy guide from the wrenching past into the trauma continuing today.


“Pilgrim Bell: Poems” by Kaveh Akbar (Graywolf). This collection couldn’t be more perfect to give at the end of the year, a time when even people without spiritual leanings reckon with their lives. Born in Tehran, and currently poetry editor for The Nation, Akbar is a widely published poet who has outdone himself here. The poems explore prayer, indeed are prayer, that is distinctly earthly, grounded in the everyday, the beautiful and profane, the horrific and familiar. And the erotic: Akbar invokes the panoply of human experience in these exaltations. Language itself is often a subject: It twists and turns like ropes binding us within our constant struggle to speak the unspeakable. Then it twines into a ladder we can climb to what could be called God. This is poetry at its most sublime.