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Favorite Books of 2021

Here we are again - December. Snow on the ground. Putting together lists of favorites as a way to mark another year. 

I've had another great year of books, albeit quite different than last year. In 2020, books were a retreat; in 2021 I'm not yet sure what they were. I know that I didn't read as many. I know that I didn't always find my refuge in books, often plagued by fatigue or overwhelm, but these stand out as my favorites and I'm thankful to have spent time with each of them. 

 

A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance by Hanif Abdurraqib

“I have rarely been the best player in the room, but I am always the player in the room most willing to play. I don’t want to win as much as I want to draw a game out, long and loud. I want the rematches for losses I’ve endured, knowing another loss is around the corner. Bring me the people who can only kind of play and might lie to grab a seat at a table of old friends. Those may be my people more than anyone else, the ones I’d attempt to lift with me to an unlikely victory while the jokes rain down at our expense.”  -  from “It Is Safe to Say I Have Lost Many Games of Spades”

Hanif Abdurraqib is a generous writer. He lifts people up with his words. He celebrates them in their success and applauds their effort when things don’t work out as imagined. He does this, beautifully and movingly, all throughout A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance, but as I was reading through his collection of essays and very personal stories, “It Is Safe to Say I Have Lost Many Games of Spades” left me with tears streaming down my face. 

Throughout the book, Abdurraqib honors Black performers from Don Cornelius to Whitney Houston to Josephine Baker to Merry Clayton, and so many more. He examines Black funerals as acts of performance, early dance competitions that led to Soul Train, and Beyoncé’s ability to “clock in” and change the conversation through performance. 

And yet, I keep coming back to “It Is Safe to Say I Have Lost Many Games of Spades.” Abdurraqib gives a history of the game of spades while also writing a love story about friendship, about the performance of play and gratitude and joy. He narrates his life through games of spades, and somehow, this one essay connects everyone and everything in such a beautiful way that I just had to stop and feel thankful - to be loved, to be cared for, to be alive.

 

Radiant Fugitives by Nawaaz Ahmed

“My life outside my mother’s womb has just begun.”

So begins one of the most inventive and enjoyable debut novels I’ve read in quite some time. Radiant Fugitives by Nawaaz Ahmed is the story of Seema, narrated by her unborn baby, Ishraaq. The entire story is told during the moments when doctors are working frantically to save Seema and Ishraaq after a traumatic birthing experience. The connection between parent and child is palpable as Ishraaq becomes the omniscient narrator of the story of the Hussein sisters.

Seema grew up in India with her sister Tahera and her parents. They have a picturesque childhood until Seema comes out as a lesbian. Her father cuts her out of her family, forbidding her mother, Nafeesa, to call her, and refusing to tell Tahera about her sister’s sexual identity. Their family descends into secrets and hurt and the previously inseparable sisters are forced apart. Fifteen years later, the family comes together again as Seema is expecting a baby and Nafeesa has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. She is determined to reunite her daughters and spend her remaining time with them.

At its core, Radiant Fugitives is a heartbreakingly beautiful story about family. I loved every minute of this book. Ahmed writes passionately about this broken family, imbuing them with so much life. What does it mean to be a family? Is it possible to reconnect when years of misunderstanding leave you so far apart that actual, physical distance ceases to matter? Is forgiveness possible, and, more than that, can that forgiveness lead to support and care despite dramatically different lifestyles and beliefs? 

 

The Natural Mother of the Child: A Memoir of Nonbinary Parenthood by Krys Malcolm Belc

“When, in big groups, I am asked to pick out a fact no one would guess about me, I pick this one: My first athletic competition was in Irish dance. Yes, I say, I had the big blue dress in a protective sleeve in my closet, sets of pink foam rollers, gillies and hard shoes, and so many pairs of crinkled white socks. Sometimes I think I do this to break the tension of not knowing if people can tell, about me, what I am.”

I am not typically a reader of books about parenting. Honestly, as a parent, I spend a lot of time parenting and when I finally get to sit down and read a book, I want to read about something else - anything else. The Natural Mother of the Child stopped me in my tracks. It's such an honest portrait of the trappings of gender and the expectations we place on ourselves, unrealistic and otherwise, as parenting people. 

Belc's experience of becoming a gestational parent beautifully portrays the strangeness and wonder of the pregnant body, and the alienation that can accompany those same bodily changes, especially where traditional gender roles are concerned. 

I felt particularly thankful for his generosity in sharing the realities of his parenting journey before, during, and more so after pregnancy. We're lacking in truthful depictions of the personal, emotional, physical challenges that often go along with raising children - most notably, anger - and his ability to share his journey in such a gentle way is a real gift. 

Beyond that, Belc details the legal process that he and his partner, Anna, had to go through in order to secure custody of the children that they each carried and have their family recognized as a family in the eyes of the court. He includes legal forms and narrates their adoption process. It’s a chilling example of the ways many are forced to navigate systems that are not built for them, that would prefer they not exist at all.

 

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich

“While in prison, I received a dictionary. It was sent to me with a note. This is the book I would take to a deserted island. Other books were to arrive from my teacher. But as she had known, this one proved of endless use. The first word I looked up was the word ‘sentence.’ I had just received an impossible sentence of sixty years from the lips of a judge who believed in an afterlife. So the word with its yawning c, belligerent little e’s, with its hissing sibilants and double n’s, this repetitive bummer of a word made of slyly stabbing letters that surrounded an isolate human t, this word was in my thoughts every moment of every day. Without a doubt, had the dictionary not arrived, this light word that lay so heavily upon me would have crushed me, or what was left of me after the strangeness of what I’d done.”

There is a part of me that just wants to write: This is my favorite book this year. I think you should read it.

Articulating my thoughts about The Sentence, Louise Erdrich’s newest masterpiece, is just too difficult. 

Tookie, the sometimes narrator and always main character of The Sentence, is one of the most fascinating, entertaining, heartbreaking, and honest characters I’ve ever read. If you’ve read more of Erdrich’s fiction, I would say that she’s sort of like Fleur Pillager with quite a lot of young Lipsha Morrissey thrown in. But really, she’s no one but herself. 

This is a story about Tookie, but it’s also about a bookstore, and the ghost of a white woman who haunts that store both before and after her death. It’s a story about a pandemic, and the murder of a man by police officers, and the city of Minneapolis. It’s surprisingly hilarious and gorgeously written. It’s also one of the most challenging books I’ve ever read as Erdrich herself (who appears as a character!) seems to be working through the events of the last few years right on the page, and gently invites you to do the same. 

Or: This is my favorite book this year. I think you should read it.

 

The Prophets by Robert Jones, Jr.

“By the time they was finished, the sky was black and littered with stars. Isaiah walked back outside, leaving Samuel to his grievances. This was how he would engage in his own bit of rebellion: he leaned against the wooden fence that surrounded the barn and stared at the heavens. Crowded, he thought, and wondered if, perhaps, the abundance was too much; the weight of holding on was too heavy, and the night, being as tired as it was, might one day let go, and all the stars would come tumbling down, leaving only the darkness to stretch across everything.”

In Robert Jones, Jr.’s debut novel, he tells the story of Samuel and Isaiah, two enslaved men on Elizabeth Plantation, known as Empty. Their love for each other is the one thing keeping them free. 

The Prophets is also much bigger than Samuel and Isaiah. It stretches back to Africa, where the ancestors of the enslaved people on Empty lived and loved and had faith. Jones, Jr. includes the voices of these ancestors as a narrative choir, guiding both the characters in the book and the reader, all heading to a destination we can’t quite see. 

This is a brutal and devastating story with some of the most beautiful writing I’ve ever read, and pockets of love and protection and belief and family that stick with you long after you close the cover. 

 

I Will Die in a Foreign Land by Kalani Pickhart

“The square was filled with people singing, holding hands, holding up the Ukrainian flag: blue bar atop yellow bar. The open sky over the golden grain. The women wore flowers in their hair, the men flowers on their jackets - their hope contagious…The street piano was there where it always had been - there on Khreshchatyk where he would play day after day…He wipes the seat of snow, lifts the cover to expose the white teeth. He warms his hand with his breath, his gloves black with the fingers cut. He twists the ring on his finger, his father’s silver ring.

“A crowd gathers as he begins to play.”

In the past few weeks, Kalani Pickhart’s debut novel has become even more prescient as the conflict between Ukraine and Russia again accelerates. She weaves the history of Ukraine with the stories of four citizens who have come to the Maidan to fight for the country they love. They move in and out of each other's stories in such a lovely way; Pickhart's writing is quiet, understated, and unexpected.

In the best parts of her book, Pickhart manages to create stillness amongst chaos and violence, and instead of fear and death, we hear a piano. I really loved every minute of this book.

 

The Ones Who Don’t Say They Love You: Stories by Maurice Carlos Ruffin

“Gailya is annoyed by that kind of talk since Coleen ain’t got to worry about her accommodations. Her house is paid in full. And for another thing, she’s white. Like the people moving in and buying up everything in Treme. The black and white issue isn’t just a black and white issue. It’s a money and power issue, too, but it’s no accident that people with money and power tend to look like Collen. It comes down to who is willing to take without asking. Coleen grew up and lives just outside the city in St. Bernard Parish, where they used to burn down schools that let in Black folk. Those schools burned because the Black folk couldn’t stop them.” - from “Before I Let Go”

“Before I Let Go” is one of my favorite stories in Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s fantastic short story collection, The Ones Who Don’t Say They Love You. In the story, Gailya fends off offers from wealthy white people looking to purchase her home in Treme while desperately trying to avoid a forced sale. She’s a gig worker who takes care of children, works as a server, drives for a rideshare app, and cleans rooms at a hotel. 

Stories about women like Gailya are rarely told, and that’s what I love about this collection. Ruffin tells the stories of people living in New Orleans who aren’t often given a voice - let alone a whole story. The entire collection has a wonderful sense of place. Longer, more fully developed stories are included next to fast fiction pieces that allow a very small glimpse into a moment of a life. This is my favorite kind of collection: character-oriented stories full of heart and sweat and bone. 

 

Lost in Summerland: Essays by Barrett Swanson

“On the afternoon of September 11, 2001, I was at football practice. Unlike Americans who lived in cities and thus feared their own building might be attacked, residents of Brookfield, the suburb of Milwaukee where I grew up, harbored no such immediate concerns. While folks in New York hunkered down with loved ones or attended mass vigils, my teammates and I were suiting up…I’m sure there was some talk of what happened, but all I remember is the weird reverential silence, which was disturbed only by the the susurrus of practice jerseys getting pulled over shoulder pads and the blunt staccato of cleats on the hallway tile as we trotted out of school, toward the practice fields.” - from “Calling Audibles”

This is the opening paragraph of “Calling Audibles,” one of the essays in Barrett Swanson’s essay collection Lost in Summerland. It’s indicative of what I love about this whole book. As someone from the Midwest, I so often experience large-scale events like 9/11 at a remove; through the screen of my television or over the speakers of my phone, but less so in real time. And while that feels like a relief to me - and is most definitely a privilege, it also creates distance. How to reconcile the two? 

I’ve already written quite a bit about this collection (here and here) so I won’t rehash it here, but I will say that reading this book and writing about it with my friend Elizabeth de Cleyre was such a wonderful reminder of the community that a great book fosters. This reminder came during the height of pandemic winter when isolation was expected, and yet we were able to connect over this book. When spring came, we eagerly made plans to sit outside, drink tea, and talk about everything this book meant to us. How could it not be one of my favorites?

 

Beautiful Country: A Memoir by Qian Julie Wang

“It took me a second to discover the sliced brown mushrooms, also unlike anything I had ever had before: a little rubbery, a little less flavorful. After a second chomping of the ‘pizza,’ I passed it along to Ma Ma, content to savor the leftovers stuck to my fingers. 

“The brown bag contained one slice, dinner for all three of us. I had already learned that meals were much smaller in Mei Guo [Beautiful Country]. The food we ate filled us up quickly, cheese and dairy being things we had rarely eaten before. Yet I got hungry again within the hour. Eating American food was like gulping down giant and instantly gratifying bubbles of air.”

Beautiful Country is a masterpiece. Qian Julie Wang’s story of leaving China at the age of seven and coming to the United States to be reunited with her father should be required reading. She lives in this country for five years as an undocumented person, hiding her truth from everyone around her. 

The magic of this book is that Wang tells her story from the perspective of her seven-year old self. She describes the almost constant hunger she feels, her fear at being discovered and separated from her parents, and the more existential work of translating her parents’ ceaseless search for employment into the easy love she felt from them while they lived in China. 

Her perspective as an undocumented child is one we don’t often hear or consider in any sort of real or empathetic way. If we did, we would understand that the American Dream is just that: a story that disappears the minute we wake up.

To listen to Qian Julie Wang is to understand that opportunity is not bestowed simply because a person is alive and breathing and valued; it is handed out to those with money, or white skin, or the correct accent. To value others is to ensure that no one sleeps outside, no one goes hungry, no one avoids medical care for fear of discovery. Beautiful Country is an essential book and I’m so thankful to have spent time with it this year.

 

Crying in H Mart: A Memoir by Michelle Zauner

“Ever since my mom died, I cry in H Mart.

“H Mart is a supermarket chain that specializes in Asian food. The H stands for han ah reum, a Korean phrase that roughly translates to ‘one arm full of groceries.’ H Mart is where parachute kids flock to find the brand of instant noodles that reminds them of home. It’s where Korean families buy rice cakes to make tteokguk, the beef and rice cake soup that brings in the New Year. It’s the only place where you can find a giant vat of peeled garlic, because it’s the only place that truly understands how much garlic you’ll need for the kind of food your people eat. H Mart is freedom from the single aisle ‘ethnic’ section in regular grocery stores. They don’t prop Goya beans next to bottles of sriracha here. Instead, you’ll likely find me crying by the banchan refrigerators, remembering the taste of my mom’s soy-sauce eggs and cold radish soup. Or in the freezer section, holding a stack of dumpling skins, thinking of all the hours that Mom and I spent at the kitchen table folding minced pork and chives into the thin dough. Sobbing near the dry goods asking myself, Am I even Korean anymore if there’s no one left to call and ask which brand of seaweed we used to buy?”

From the very beginning of Michelle Zauner’s incredible memoir, I knew that I would love Crying in H Mart: great writing and storytelling alongside some of the best food writing I’ve ever read. Of course, I didn’t realize how much it was going to make me cry. 

Zauner is a Korean American woman with a Korean mother and an American father. She grew up in the United States making frequent trips to Korea with her parents. She was quite close to her mother and her mother’s Korean family in the way that often becomes fraught right around puberty. And so, as she emerged from a time in her life when she had pushed her mother away in all the ways that teenagers and young adults often do, her mother was diagnosed with cancer. The regret that she feels in not valuing and respecting her mother during those years is replaced by an intense need to care for her now, and care means cooking. 

Crying in H Mart is a gorgeous celebration of the complicated nature of relationships between mothers and daughters. Zauner’s ability to imbue her love for her mother in the love she feels for Korean food is not like anything I’ve ever read before. I was a bit undone by this book and I loved every minute of it.

 

Plus a few more - Ten is such an arbitrary number

 

Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi

“I would be lying if I said my mother’s misery had never given me pleasure.”

Avni Doshi’s debut novel, Burnt Sugar, is a sharp and incisive look at the complex relationship of a mother and a daughter. It’s stunning in its ferocity and ingenious in its plotting as mother and daughter converge and conflate in startling and all-too-familiar ways. 

The Hare by Melanie Finn

“And this is the way decisions are made. The day unfolded and Rosie stumbled through it, and she grasped only that turning left or turning right changed nothing. Fate absorbed such details, it hardly noticed, lumbering forward in its steady and ancient gait, and the best she could do was stay out of its way and not make a fuss.”

The Hare is the best kind of literary thriller: so smart, so quiet, and ultimately concerned with the small choices we make everyday and their far-reaching consequences. I love this book.

 

My Monticello: Fiction by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson

“I did not know that I would bring us here. Not even as we passed the steep drive up to the orchard, or slowed at the curve near the old-timey general store, with its dark planked walls and the massive wheel of the mill clinging to one side. Across the parking lot, a plantation house turned tavern shone white with black-shuttered windows. I kept on, following the slender tree-lined route, rounding a set of S curves, pulled forward as if by gravitation. The Jaunt, squat and heavy, skidded toward the edge of the road like we might tumble into the trees. It was only when I saw Monticello’s stone-faced bridge, lucent in the twilight: That’s when I understood.” - from “My Monticello”

Jocelyn Nicole Johnson’s debut collection of stories is so impressive, but “My Monticello,” the titular novella, is luminous. A dystopian world, fifteen minutes from now, forces a group of neighbors to seek shelter at Monticello. The narrator of the story is a descendant of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings and she is one of the more compelling characters I’ve read this year. I couldn’t put this down. 

 

Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri

“In the mornings after breakfast I walk past a small marble plaque propped against the high wall flanking the road. I never knew the man who died, but over the years I’ve come to know his name, his surname. I know the month and day he was born and the month and day his life ended. This was a man who died two days after his birthday, in February.”

Jhumpa Lahiri is one of my favorite writers and Whereabouts is another beautiful reason why I’ll read everything she writes. Serving as the book’s author and translator - she wrote the book in Italian and then translated it into English - this book is intimate, diving headlong into the interior life of one unnamed character in an unnamed city. Truly a masterwork.

 

Brood by Jackie Polzin

“Everyone wonders if an egg, warm from a chicken, will hatch into a chick. The warmth of the egg prompts the retrieval of this otherwise remote idea. Among other triumphs of our generation, we have nearly extinguished the idea of an egg as a source of life. The confusion does not arise from the fact that people are no longer eating eggs or even that people are no longer cooking eggs…The problem is that people do not see the connection between an egg placed in their hand, fresh from a chicken, and the egg bought in the store.”

I read this book quite early in the year and it has stuck with me; I find that I think about it often. This story of a woman living in the city, desperately trying to keep four backyard chickens alive, is understated in its complexity, weaving a straightforward struggle for survival through winter with desire, uncertainty, comfort, loss, and hope.

 

Win Me Something by Kyle Lucia Wu

“I didn’t know what it looked like to take care of someone. I imagined that being a nanny meant watching a small person bounce her backpack home from school, microwaving chicken nuggets on a paper-toweled plate, and lying with an arm folded behind my head while the bright colors of a cartoon flashed. The intricacies of it hadn’t occurred to me - that I’d have to sniff her palms to discern the citrus scent of soap and scrape dirt from underneath her fingernails. How I’d end up eating a room-temperature scoop of macaroni and cheese off her plate and raking lice shampoo through her soapy scalp. Maybe I couldn’t imagine these moments because when someone asked about my childhood, my mind clenched and closed like two fists in a pool - fingers squeezing for something to come up with when everything around them was a different kind of matter.”

Willa is a twenty-something college graduate and biracial Chinese American woman who begins working as a nanny for a wealthy white family in Tribeca. And while the plot feels similar to a few other recent novels, this is my favorite. As Willa gets closer to Bee and her family, she is forced to face her own childhood, and the intense loneliness and disconnection that she feels.

 

It’s easy to get caught up in the new new new that happens every year. And while the above books are exceptional, some of the books on the following list have landed on my “Favorite Books of all Time” list. I firmly believe that timing is one of the essential ingredients in enjoying a book. I started a few books this year that suffered from my personal state of mind and not at all from sub-par writing or bad ideas. I often remind myself that great books are great books always, not just in the year that they were published. Read the books on your shelves - the ones that have been staring at you since you found them at the Library Book Sale or calling to you from a bookshelf in a beautiful bookstore, despite the fact it wasn’t what you would normally pick up. Many times they hold the best surprises.

No Name in the Street by James Baldwin

The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom

A Mind Spread Out on the Ground by Alicia Elliott

The Beet Queen by Louise Erdrich

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

Tracks by Louise Erdrich

Sabrina & Corina: Stories by Kali Fajardo-Anstine

Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own by Eddie S. Glaude

Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations by Mira Jacob

Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Love, Loss, and the Hidden Order of Life by Lulu Miller

Circe by Madeline Miller

Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn