Looking for something to take on vacation/read on your porch/read in your hammock/curl up with on a warm, rainy day? This list includes some of my favorite books of 2021 so far, and some to keep an eye on and pre-order right away. (Yes! We absolutely take pre-orders! Just send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll do our best to order anything you’re looking for or anticipating.)
Thanks for sticking with us through the past year. We’re working on plans to reopen the brick and mortar shop in the fall. Until then, keep an eye out for our pop-up sales. We’re hoping to have a few throughout the summer. Can’t wait to see you all!
It’s no secret that Hanif Abdurraqib is one of my absolute favorite living writers. I always love poets who write in other genres (see Ocean Vuong for another beautiful example) and Abdurraqib’s essay collections are some of my favorites in recent years. A Little Devil in America is no exception. I really loved it and I’m not sure how to talk about it articulately, so I’ll just tell you some parts that I loved and hope that you’ll pick it up and experience it for yourself.
In one of the first essays, “On Marathons and Tunnels,” Abdurraqib gives a fascinating history of dance marathons during the Great Depression and their evolution to shows like Soul Train. The entire essay is so good, but the following passage stopped me in my tracks, made me want to read deeper, slow down, savor each word: “A people cannot only see themselves suffering, lest they believe themselves worthy of pain, or only celebrated when that pain is overcome. [Don] Cornelius had a vision for Black people that was about movement on their own time, for their own purpose and not in response to what a country might do for, or to, them.” Throughout this collection, Abdurraqib celebrates Whitney Houston, Josephine Baker, Aretha Franklin, Black funerals, Merry Clayton, and his enduring friendships and I’m so grateful to him for every single one of his words. I could go on and on, but just make sure you read “I Would Like to Give Merry Clayton Her Roses.” And if you want a love story, I dare you to read through “It Is Safe to Say I Have Lost Many Games of Spades” without tears running down your face.
I just finished The Prophets and I’m still at a loss for how to describe the beauty of this book. 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. In his review of the book, Marlon James, author of A Brief History of Seven Killings, and Black Leopard, Red Wolf, among others, writes “How devastating and glorious this is. Epic in its scale, intimate in its force, and lyrical in its beauty. The Prophets shakes right down to the bone what the American novel is, should do, and can be. That shuffling sound you hear is Morrison, Baldwin, and Angelou whooping and hollering both in pride and wonder.” I don’t think I’ve ever read a more incredible blurb, and he’s absolutely right.
I loved Why Fish Don’t Exist. Lulu Miller, a producer at NPR and one of the co-founders of Invisibilia - a fascinating podcast that I would absolutely recommend you check out - dives deep into the life of David Starr Jordan, a taxonomist and ichthyologist born in the 1850s. Miller’s interest in Jordan, a man who discovered nearly a fifth of known fish species, stems from his sheer determination. His specimens were destroyed by lightning, fire, and an earthquake throughout his career, and yet, he continued. As Miller’s life begins to fall apart, she clings to her research on Jordan, desperately seeking the secret to his ability to persevere in his work despite the universe seeming to conspire against him. Why Fish Don’t Exist is fascinating, vulnerable, maddening, and ultimately so hopeful.
Peaces is just plain strange in the best way. Helen Oyeyemi mixes some classic mystery tropes - think a mysterious train called The Lucky Day; themed train cars including a library, an art gallery, a plant-filled train car, and a sauna; a mongoose romance; and a villain, who may or may not exist, in hot pursuit of the train and its five passengers - with an exploration into the qualities that make us real, or not real, to other people. Which experiences validate us in the eyes of others? Is memory a reliable way to construct our own reality? Ultimately, though, the plot of this book is secondary to Oyeyemi’s beautiful writing. If you’re looking to be carried away in a stream of gorgeous sentences, Peaces is the one for you.
Great Circle is a sweeping epic of a story that you need to add to your summer reading list. It’s almost 600 pages, but don’t let that scare you. It takes place over more than a century, telling the story of two fantastically different women: Marian Graves and Hadley Baxter. Marian Graves and her twin brother Jamie are essentially orphaned in a shipwreck in 1914. Hadley Baxter is a child star and now ridiculously famous Hollywood ingenue (think Twilight-level fame) coming to terms with the fact that her life is increasingly unsatisfying in spite of the cushy privilege she enjoys. In alternating sections, Maggie Shipstead tells the story of these women as they both work to find their way in systems that were not made for them. Marian wants nothing more than to be a pilot, flying around the world, never landing or settling down into the neat boxes made for women in the 1930s and 40s and beyond. 100 years later, Hadley fights to play the role of Marian in a biopic she hopes will break her out of her tween heartthrob box and show her to be the nuanced performer, and person, she is trying so hard to become. Shipstead’s writing is stunning and, while Hadley and Marian are her main focus, the other characters that people these pages teem with just as much life. If you’ve been craving rich storytelling you will not be disappointed in Great Circle - all the way to the very last paragraph, which may be one of the most beautiful paragraphs I’ve ever read.
Sometimes, when the weather turns hot, it’s especially fun to read a messy family drama set in a small town. Throw in some references to Greek mythology, and you’ve got Olympus, Texas. Stacey Swann’s debut novel dives into the Briscoe family - a collection of complex, very human characters, some more likeable than others, all navigating the return of March to Olympus, two years after his affair with his brother’s wife. And that’s the most straightforward of the complicated emotional minefields that must be navigated by Swann’s characters. Grab some sweet tea and settle in. I finished this one in a day.
I absolutely loved Barrett Swanson's debut essay collection, Lost in Summerland. Throughout the collection, Swanson travels to Florida, Ohio, and New York, satisfying my stuck-inside dreams, transporting me to warmer places during warmer times when we could all gather together freely. Beyond that, and more importantly, he gives voice to those of us in the flyover states often overlooked as tellers of stories and people with diverse experiences and opinions. I couldn't help but feel that Lost in Summerland is a love letter to the Midwest, and to Wisconsin, specifically. I didn't realize how much I needed to be seen until I opened this collection and was given a voice.
Future Feeling by Joss Lake is one of the more meaningful reading experiences I've had in a long time. Joss Lake is a trans author, and his book is populated by trans men. I've read books by trans authors before, albeit not many, and I've read books with trans characters, but this is the first book I've read narrated by a trans man. It's a powerful story powerfully written by a hugely talented author. Lake's ability to voice his narrator's marginalization while still recognizing his relative privilege as a white person is a master class in empathy. Pen struggles and makes mistakes and feels hurt and does the work to heal, learn, and alter his behavior to more fully listen to others. The book is funny and honest and so special - and Pen is one of my new favorite characters. I'm so thankful for this book.
Gritty, visceral, heartbreaking, yet glimmering with hope, Rainbow Milk tells the story of Jesse, a queer, Black man who is expelled from his faith and family when it becomes clear that he is gay. At nineteen, he becomes a sex worker, searching for acceptance, understanding, and care from his clients while simultaneously celebrating a liberation he never believed could exist for him. The racism and homophobia that exist within the church, and the hate that permeates his own home are more dangerous and have a greater impact on his own impression of himself than anything he experiences after he leaves, demonstrating the irreversible damage done when the spaces that should be safe and loving are corrupted by oppression and hatred. This is Paul Mendez's debut novel, and his talent spills onto the page. His writing is exciting, honest, and healing.
Morningside Heights by Joshua Henkin is, above all, a love story - or, more accurately, many love stories. What is marriage, parenthood, friendship, if not a daily choice to love the people in your life each day? Henkin tells the story of Pru Steiner, an intelligent woman with aspirations to become a writer, and her professor Spence Robin. The two fall in love, get married, have a daughter, and in the midst of all that change, Pru's aspirations shift. When Spence is diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer's, Pru's choice to love and care for her husband each day gets more difficult. Morningside Heights is beautifully written, weaving together perspectives from Pru, their daughter Sarah, and Spence's son from his first marriage, Arlo. There are moments of utter heartbreak followed quickly by moments of hilarity and awkwardness. Human stories are complex - just like love.
It's hard to put into words the importance of Krys Malcolm Belc's debut memoir, The Natural Mother of the Child. 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 especially 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, and his ability to share his journey in such a gentle way is a real gift.
Nickolas Butler's work gets better and better with each book he writes, and Godspeed is no exception. With Little Faith, Butler hit a personal high in his career, and with Godspeed, he's managed to create something surprising, totally different, and still full of heart. I've been referring to this book as a construction thriller - and I've never so eagerly anticipated cabinet installation and completed painting projects. While the pace and plotting of the book are propulsive to the point that I stayed up reading into the early hours to finish this book, its heart and soul are much more tender than you might originally assume. This is an insightful exploration into masculinity and male friendship. In a year where our social circles have shrunk and our enduring friendships have revealed themselves, this is a beautiful portrait of the lengths we'll go to sustain connection.