Our Top Fiction & Nonfiction Picks from 2021
For many of us, the holiday season is an especially joyful time to catch up on reading. What’s better than curling up on the couch with a festive hot beverage and a good book?
We’re closing out our series of book recommendations (if you haven’t already, check out our behavioral science and education picks) with some general fiction and nonfiction favorites that our team read this year. Tell us what you’re reading this holiday season on Twitter, @EveryDayLabs!
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
Summary from Goodreads: When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they're broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their center of gravity.
Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself, by midlife a terrifyingly talented litigator yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by what he fears is a degree of trauma that he’ll not only be unable to overcome—but that will define his life forever.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Summary from Goodreads: In a profound work that pivots from the biggest questions about American history and ideals to the most intimate concerns of a father for his son, Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a powerful new framework for understanding our nation’s history and current crisis. Americans have built an empire on the idea of “race,” a falsehood that damages us all but falls most heavily on the bodies of black women and men—bodies exploited through slavery and segregation, and, today, threatened, locked up, and murdered out of all proportion. What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it? And how can we all honestly reckon with this fraught history and free ourselves from its burden?
Summary from Goodreads: In Braving the Wilderness, Brown redefines what it means to truly belong in an age of increased polarization. With her trademark mix of research, storytelling, and honesty, Brown will again change the cultural conversation while mapping a clear path to true belonging.
Brown argues that we're experiencing a spiritual crisis of disconnection, and introduces four practices of true belonging that challenge everything we believe about ourselves and each other…. Brown offers us the clarity and courage we need to find our way back to ourselves and to each other.
Dare to Lead by Brené Brown
Summary from Goodreads: In her #1 NYT bestsellers, Brené Brown taught us what it means to dare greatly, rise strong and brave the wilderness. Now, based on new research conducted with leaders, change makers and culture shifters, she’s showing us how to put those ideas into practice so we can step up and lead... When we dare to lead, we don't pretend to have the right answers; we stay curious and ask the right questions. We don't see power as finite and hoard it; we know that power becomes infinite when we share it and work to align authority and accountability. We don't avoid difficult conversations and situations; we lean into the vulnerability that’s necessary to do good work.
But daring leadership in a culture that's defined by scarcity, fear and uncertainty requires building courage skills, which are uniquely human. The irony is that we're choosing not to invest in developing the hearts and minds of leaders at the same time we're scrambling to figure out what we have to offer that machines can't do better and faster. What can we do better? Empathy, connection and courage to start.
How to Be an Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi
Summary from Goodreads: Ibram X. Kendi's concept of antiracism reenergizes and reshapes the conversation about racial justice in America--but even more fundamentally, points us toward liberating new ways of thinking about ourselves and each other. In How to be an Antiracist, Kendi asks us to think about what an antiracist society might look like, and how we can play an active role in building it.
Permission to Feel: Unlocking the Power of Emotions to Help Our Kids, Ourselves, and Our Society Thrive by Marc Brackett
Summary from Goodreads: Marc Brackett is a professor in Yale University's Child Study Center and founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. In his 25 years as an emotion scientist, he has developed a remarkably effective plan to improve the lives of children and adults - a blueprint for understanding our emotions and using them wisely so that they help, rather than hinder, our success and well-being. The core of his approach is a legacy from his childhood, from an astute uncle who gave him permission to feel. He was the first adult who managed to see Marc, listen to him, and recognize the suffering, bullying, and abuse he'd endured. And that was the beginning of Marc's awareness that what he was going through was temporary. He wasn't alone, he wasn't stuck on a timeline, and he wasn't "wrong" to feel scared, isolated, and angry. Now, best of all, he could do something about it.
The Color of Our Sky by Amita Trasi
Summary from Goodreads: A sweeping, emotional journey of two childhood friends—one struggling to survive the human slave trade and the other on a mission to save her—two girls whose lives converge only to change one fateful night in 1993. India, 1986: Mukta, a ten-year-old girl from the lower caste Yellamma cult of temple prostitutes has come of age to fulfill her destiny of becoming a temple prostitute. In an attempt to escape this legacy that binds her, Mukta is transported to a foster family in Bombay. There she discovers a friend in the high spirited eight-year-old Tara, the tomboyish daughter of the family, who helps her recover from the wounds of her past. Tara introduces Mukta to a different world—ice cream and sweets, poems and stories, and a friendship the likes of which she has never experienced before. As time goes by, their bond grows to be as strong as that between sisters. In 1993, Mukta is kidnapped from Tara’s room. Eleven years later, Tara who blames herself for what happened, embarks on an emotional journey to search for the kidnapped Mukta only to uncover long buried secrets in her own family.
The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande
Summary from Goodreads: When Reyna Grande’s father leaves his wife and three children behind in a village in Mexico to make the dangerous trek across the border to the United States, he promises he will soon return from “El Otro Lado” (The Other Side) with enough money to build them a dream house where they can all live together. His promises become harder to believe as months turn into years. When he summons his wife to join him, Reyna and her siblings are deposited in the already overburdened household of their stern, unsmiling grandmother.In this extraordinary memoir, award-winning writer Reyna Grande vividly brings to life her tumultuous early years, capturing all the confusion and contradictions of childhood, especially one spent torn between two parents and two countries. Elated when she feels the glow of her father’s love and approval, Reyna knows that at any moment he might turn angry or violent. Only in books and music and her rich imaginary life does she find solace, a momentary refuge from a world in which every place feels like “El Otro Lado.”
The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology that Fuel Success and Performance at Work by Shawn Achor
Summary from Goodreads: Conventional wisdom holds that if we work hard we will be more successful, and if we are more successful, then we’ll be happy. If we can just find that great job, win that next promotion, lose those five pounds, happiness will follow. But recent discoveries in the field of positive psychology have shown that this formula is actually backward: Happiness fuels success, not the other way around. When we are positive, our brains become more engaged, creative, motivated, energetic, resilient, and productive at work. This isn’t just an empty mantra. This discovery has been repeatedly borne out by rigorous research in psychology and neuroscience, management studies, and the bottom lines of organizations around the globe….A must-read for everyone trying to excel in a world of increasing workloads, stress, and negativity, The Happiness Advantage isn’t only about how to become happier at work. It’s about how to reap the benefits of a happier and more positive mind-set to achieve the extraordinary in our work and in our lives.
The Immortality Key: Uncovering the Secret History of the Religion with No Name by Brian C. Muraresku
Summary from Goodreads: Before Jerusalem, before Rome, before Mecca—there was Eleusis: the spiritual capital of the ancient world. It promised immortality to Plato and the rest of Athens's greatest minds with a very simple formula: drink this potion, see God. Shrouded in secrecy for millennia, the Ancient Greek sacrament was buried when the newly Christianized Roman Empire obliterated Eleusis in the fourth century AD.
Renegade scholars in the 1970s claimed the Greek potion was psychedelic, just like the original Christian Eucharist that replaced it. In recent years, vindication for the disgraced theory has been quietly mounting in the laboratory…. No one has ever found hard, scientific evidence of drugs connected to Eleusis, let alone early Christianity. Until now.
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
Summary from Goodreads: In this incisive critique, former litigator-turned-legal-scholar Michelle Alexander provocatively argues that we have not ended racial caste in America: we have simply redesigned it. Alexander shows that, by targeting black men and decimating communities of color, the U.S. criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control, even as it formally adheres to the principle of color blindness. The New Jim Crow challenges the civil rights community--and all of us--to place mass incarceration at the forefront of a new movement for racial justice in America.
The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row by Anthony Ray Hinton
Summary from Goodreads: In 1985, Anthony Ray Hinton was arrested and charged with two counts of capital murder in Alabama. Stunned, confused, and only twenty-nine years old, Hinton knew that it was a case of mistaken identity and believed that the truth would prove his innocence and ultimately set him free…. He spent his first three years on Death Row at Holman State Prison in agonizing silence—full of despair and anger toward all those who had sent an innocent man to his death. But as Hinton realized and accepted his fate, he resolved not only to survive, but find a way to live on Death Row. For the next twenty-seven years he was a beacon—transforming not only his own spirit, but those of his fellow inmates… With the help of civil rights attorney and bestselling author of Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson, Hinton won his release in 2015.
The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Summary from Goodreads: Young Hiram Walker was born into bondage. When his mother was sold away, Hiram was robbed of all memory of her — but was gifted with a mysterious power. Years later, when Hiram almost drowns in a river, that same power saves his life. This brush with death births an urgency in Hiram and a daring scheme: to escape from the only home he’s ever known. So begins an unexpected journey that takes Hiram from the corrupt grandeur of Virginia’s proud plantations to desperate guerrilla cells in the wilderness, from the coffin of the deep South to dangerously utopic movements in the North. Even as he’s enlisted in the underground war between slavers and the enslaved, Hiram’s resolve to rescue the family he left behind endures.
Summary from Goodreads: Shetty grew up in a family where you could become one of three things—a doctor, a lawyer, or a failure. His family was convinced he had chosen option three: instead of attending his college graduation ceremony, he headed to India to become a monk, to meditate every day for four to eight hours, and devote his life to helping others….. Shetty draws on his time as a monk to show us how we can clear the roadblocks to our potential and power. Combining ancient wisdom and his own rich experiences in the ashram, Think Like a Monk reveals how to overcome negative thoughts and habits, and access the calm and purpose that lie within all of us. He transforms abstract lessons into advice and exercises we can all apply to reduce stress, improve relationships, and give the gifts we find in ourselves to the world. Shetty proves that everyone can—and should—think like a monk.
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
Summary from Goodreads: For years, rumors of the “Marsh Girl” haunted Barkley Cove, a quiet fishing village. Kya Clark is barefoot and wild; unfit for polite society. So in late 1969, when the popular Chase Andrews is found dead, locals immediately suspect her.
But Kya is not what they say. A born naturalist with just one day of school, she takes life's lessons from the land, learning the real ways of the world from the dishonest signals of fireflies. But while she has the skills to live in solitude forever, the time comes when she yearns to be touched and loved. Drawn to two young men from town, who are each intrigued by her wild beauty, Kya opens herself to a new and startling world—until the unthinkable happens.
Summary from Goodreads: With three hit shows on television and three children at home, the uber-talented Shonda Rhimes had lots of good reasons to say NO when an unexpected invitation arrived. Hollywood party? No. Speaking engagement? No. Media appearances? No…..Then Shonda’s sister laid down a challenge: just for one year, try to say YES to the unexpected invitations that come your way. Shonda reluctantly agreed―and the result was nothing short of transformative. In Year of Yes, Shonda Rhimes chronicles the powerful impact saying Yes had on every aspect of her life―and how we can all change our lives with one little word. Yes.