My 2021 in Books

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I changed jobs in 2021, ostensibly to free up mental space, if not hours, for reading and reviewing. Did I? Eh. Teaching independent study meant 150 fewer students and my very own cubicle. And I have certainly been released from many of the bullshitty anxieties of classroom teaching. But I didn’t account for being new, especially to a job where nothing is intuitive. I didn’t account for bringing my perfectionism with me. I didn’t gain much mental space yet.

And I‘ve been told, firmly, to calm down.

I haven’t figured out yet how to do that. But as a new board member for the National Book Critics Circle, I did figure out how to read more this year. It’s such a privilege to read for the book prizes and consider the breadth of literary offerings from 2021. But don’t get it twisted: deadlines and the avoidance of shame are my most powerful motivators. This kid still doesn’t want to be caught out in class, so she’s reading like a maniac.

Early in 2021, I interviewed authors Ben Ehrenreich, author of Desert Notebooks, and Roberto Lovato, author of Unforgetting. Ehrenreich’s philosophical genre-blender set the tone for what I’d like reading best this year: the hard to define, lyrical and meandering autobiography. Larissa Pham’s Pop Song is probably my favorite of 2021, merging art criticism, lists, personal narrative, and repeating motifs into a knockout. Another knockout is the stunning, weird, literary and genealogical deep dive, A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghriofa. Since books are always a mingling of what they are and where you read them, The Ghriofa is linked in my memory to a dewy June morning’s campfire at Sunset State Beach. Other remarkables of the blendy memoir type: Jeremy Atherton Lin’s Gay Bar, Hanif Abdurraqib’s A Little Devil in America, and Victoria Chang’s Dear Memory, which I reviewed for LARB (where I also reviewed Hayden Herrera’s Upper Bohemia and Courtney ZoffnessSpilt Milk).

Among the best of 2021 was Brian Boome’s Punch Me Up to the Gods, the story of the author’s upbringing as a queer Black boy in rural Ohio. Boome structures his memoir around Gwendolyn Brooks’ iconic poem, “We Real Cool” and his observations of a young boy on the bus with his father. Some more of my favorites among the personal narratives: Rachel Kushner’s The Hard Crowd, a series of sharp essays, penned by the author’s sure hand. Real Estate, by Deborah Levy, who examines middle age and personal space with biting wit. In a wholly different tone, N. West Moss tackles aging and the body in Flesh and Blood. It didn’t get a lot of attention (probably because it has a lame subtitle? and people aren’t down for a book about uterine pain?) but Moss can write. I hope you’ll read it. I gave my daughter the widely celebrated Crying in H Mart for Christmas, hoping that she’d glimpse my love for it — and her — in Michelle Zauner’s story of mother-daughter love and cooking. Other memoirs of note: Joshua Mohr’s innovative Model Citizen, Gina Frangello’s gut-wrenching Blow Your House Down, Rodrigo Garcia’s short but lovely A Farewell to Gabo and Mercedes, and Qian Julie Wang’s stark and honest Beautiful Country. Clint Smith’s How the Word Is Passed is more nonfiction, but deserves a mention here for how Smith immerses himself in history, countering lazy and manipulative narratives. It’s among the best of 2021.

2021’s continued isolation meant I read mostly at home. So too, did my online-teaching schedule in the spring semester, and the fact that one of my kids went away to college. I just don’t have to leave as much as I used to. I did spend this spring, Henry’s last one without a driver’s license, reading in the parking lot of the public pool during his practices, but by the fall I was mostly left to my own devices. Those devices being my cup of coffee and my home office chair, where I could read and pet Addie’s newly attention-hungy cat.

I read some giant books in 2021. Real door-stoppers. I recommend them all: Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’ The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois, which illuminates the issue of colorism as well as indigenous and Black heritage in a multi-generational tale. The inarguably good Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen, a shame- and scandal-riddden tale of a minister’s family in suburban 1971 Chicago. (Think what you will about Franzen. I do.) My favorite of the biggies this year was Ruth Ozeki’s The Book of Form and Emptiness, a tale of Marie Kondo-ing, a neurodivergent boy, and a series of “talking” objects. As usual with Ozeki, you’re in good hands.

So many books I read in 2021 were immersive, conjuring a tangible sense of place: San Francisco just after the 1906 quake in Carol Edgarian’s Vera (review); St. Louis in the early 1970s in Marisa Silver’s The Mysteries (review, and interview); California’s Central Valley in Anthony Veasna So’s stunning debut, Afterparties; Los Angeles and the West in Judith Freeman’s story of female friendship, MacArthur Park (review); 1960s Harlem in Colson Whitehead’s snappy Harlem Shuffle; and a cold 12th century nunnery in Lauren Groff’s Matrix. Read any of these to be transported.

It’s 2021’s fiction that takes up most of any mental space I have: Rachel Cusk’s incisive, cringe-inducing Second Place. Khalid Hasan and Muhammad Umar Memon’s translation of Saadat Hasan Manto’s posthumously collected stories about the India-Pakistan Partition, The Dog of Tithwal. Rabih Alameddine’s autofictional The Wrong End of the Telescope, which I was pleased to review for the San Francisco Chronicle. The weird and (almost too-) smart (for me?) hybrid novel, When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut. Brandon Hobson’s The Removed, for how it explored pain and generational trauma. Intimacies by Katie Kitamura haunts me for its prose and its exploration of translation and interpretation. Assembly by Natasha Brown does so much with so few pages! The weird, wild Slug and Other Stories by Megan Milks, most definitely NSFW, yet excelling in boundary-pushing, transgressive excess. I read it on the New York subway in September, blushing all the way. Joy Williams’ Harrow was, admittedly, a tough read because I find her style to be a challenge, but it’s rewarding for its encapsulation of our current angsty, mid-apocalytptic feeling.

I read Tod Goldberg’s arresting collection of short stories, The Low Desert last year, but it was published in 2021. I like it so much I’m mentioning it again. If you’d like a preview, watch actor Philip Jacques read Goldberg’s story, “The Salt” at Stories on Stage Sacramento this June, and have a good cry. Anuk Arudpragasam’s A Passage North details a simple, introspective plot of one man’s journey into war-torn Sri Lanka with stellar syntax and pacing. Literature with a capital L. James Clammer’s novel, Insignificance, billed as “a plumber’s Mrs. Dalloway,” was one of my most enjoyable reads. It follows an increasingly absurd day-in-the-life of a plumber. A perfect little gem. Finally, I want to tell you about Sarah Hall’s hot and sexy pandemic novel, Burntcoat. You read that right. Neither of us thought I’d want to recommend a book about a COVID-similar virus that ravages England, tearing through the life of a sculptor and her love interest, yet here we are. It’s wonderful, enlivening read that is a testament to the fact good writing makes any subject appealing.

I’m rushing to finish reading one more memoir this afternoon, and then six more books from 2021 before a January deadline. Then I’ll dive into about 20 more before I’m done with 2021. I’m sure I have overlooked or forgotten to mention something amazing here, so you have my apologies. I’m already excited to dive into 2022.

2022’s reading, that is. I’m less sure about the year.

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