I know every year everyone says this, but I can’t believe 2021 is coming to an end. I love the end of the year, because of all the roundups and best of lists—and the best part about having my own column is that I get to talk about the books I want to talk about. So for the rest of 2021, we’re breaking from the form of book pairings and talking about end of year type things.
First up, I’m giving you my very own take on The Stacks’ questionnaire but only for the books of 2021. I’ve repurposed a handful of the questions I ask my guests each week on the show and am answering them with my favorite (and in some cases least favorite) books of 2021. Because honestly, who am I to say what book is “the best”? I was also lucky enough to interview many of the authors mentioned below, so where applicable I have left you links to check out those conversations.
TWO BOOKS YOU LOVE
Yes, there were a lot of good books this year, but A Little Devil in America:Notes in Praise of Black Performance by Hanif Abdurraqib was easily one of my favorites. I read the book back in April and knew then that it was something special and the rest of the year I spent comparing books to the Abdurraquib standard. These essays are full of incredible criticism and a writing style that matches. Not to mention the topic, Black performance, is looked at in such a unique and rigorous way, weaving memoir, history, and of course art into something worth more than the sum of it’s parts.
Clint Smith knocked it out of the park with How the Word is Passed: A reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America. He brought the history of slavery to each and every reader in an accessible and complicated way. The history is not watered down, but is also not so dense that it renders lay readers lost. In fact, Smith manipulates language and place in a way that readers are drawn deeper into the history, and not alienated from it. The book is a compulsively readable telling of America’s history with, and current relationship to, slavery.
ONE BOOK YOU HATE
Hate is a strong word (in this case) but in the conceit of this question, so here is the book I would pick, Three Girls from Bronzeville: A Uniquely American Memoir of Race, Fate, and Sisterhood by Dawn Turner. While there is some strong writing in this book, the message I took away was too much to do with respectability politics, the power of prisons to heal individuals, and other bootstrap ethics that didn’t sit right with me.
LAST GREAT BOOK SOMEONE RECOMMENDED TO ME
I had never read a graphic book until I read Good Talk by Mira Jacob this year. Coincidentally it was Jacob who suggested I read Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness by Kristen Radtke, and holy cow this one took my breath away. It is a nonfiction graphic that deals with loneliness and the science and scholarship around the study of being alone, mixed in with Radtke’s own experiences. The way Radtke bends form to fit function is masterful. It is gorgeous, and evocative, and a major wow!
BOOK I LOVE TO RECOMMEND
If you follow me on Instagram or know me in real life or listen to the podcast, you know what I’m about to say, but the book I couldn’t stop screaming about this year was Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by Patrick Radden Keefe. It is about the Sackler family, their drug Oxycontin, and the opioid crisis. The storytelling is top notch. Keefe does an incredible job bringing this family and their criminal behavior to life. It is a propulsive read that is not to be missed.
This one is really easy for me, Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour narrated by Zeno Robinson is easily the standout in this category for me. The book is full of ridiculous characters, and Robinson brings them all to life. He keeps this caper moving and gives Askaripour’s satire so much heart and depth.
BOOK THAT MADE ME LAUGH
It wouldn’t be my column if there wasn’t at least one rule bend in here, so I’m picking Kiese Laymon’s reissue of Long Division. It’s a cheat because the original came out in 2013, but I’m allowed to pick it because this version has been revised, reissued, and has a new cover (one of my favorites of the year). It is a time travel sci-fi book about a ragtag group of Black Mississippi teenagers in the 1980s and 2013, and it is so funny and smart and creative. All things considered, it made my heart sing.
BOOK THAT MADE ME CRY
Why was I in my bathtub weeping over the sisters in Mary H.K. Choi’s Yolk? I don’t know, because I am an emotional mess of a human. This book is so beautiful and it made me think of my relationship to my brother and my love of New York City, plus so much reflection on mortality and worthiness—and there are snacks, and I get emotional over snacks.
BOOK THAT MADE ME ANGRY
Reading The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America by Carol Anderson was such a rage-inducing experience. The book is fantastic, but the contents of it pissed me off. Reading about how The Second Amendment was designed to be weaponized against Black people through US history and continued to evolve to fit the needs of white supremacy was beyond infuriating.
BOOK THAT I FELT LIKE I LEARNED A LOT
So look: Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters isn’t a book for learning; you’re not going to get facts about transgender people to rattle off at your next dinner party. The learning is much more subtle, reflective and emotional. Things like, what does it mean to be a parent vs. being a mother? While I did learn a lot, I also learned how to question the structures in place. This is a bit of a “I didn’t know what I didn’t know” type of book. It is also very funny and the characters are vivid and human, and good. Oh, and the story telling is a joy.
BOOK THAT I’M EMBARRASSED I STILL HAVEN’T READ
I hope that by the time this column drops (or the year ends) I have finally read The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr. I’m not sure why I’m waiting on it, but I am, and I hate myself for that.
BOOK I’M PROUD TO HAVE READ
I am proud to have read every single word in Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019 edited by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain. The book is full of some of the best living Black writers on the planet and examines Black American history in creative and captivating ways. It’s a feat of history and literature—and also worth noting, the audiobook has a full (and incredible) cast.
A BOOK PEOPLE WOULD BE SURPRISED TO KNOW I LOVE
Seven Days in June by Tia Williams is totally not the kind of book I’d normally pick up or read, but it came highly recommended from a book-loving friend (thanks Antonia) and it scratched the exact itch I had. It’s a love story about two Black writers who had been in a relationship in high school and then reconnected as adults. The romance is good, but so is the rest of it (single motherhood, chronic illness, publishing drama). The story is well developed, complex and enjoyable. Oh—and the sex writing isn’t cringe-y at all. Thank goodness.
BOOK I WOULD ASSIGN IN HIGH SCHOOL
I think there are so many things I wished I’d learned when I was in high school, especially in place of pre-calculus or chemistry—like the ways that young people are not often asked to consider the physical experiences of others in the world. I loved What Doesn’t Kill You: A Life with Chronic Illness – Lessons from a Body in Revolt by Tessa Miller because it brought the lives of chronically ill and disabled folks to the center. The book has a wide target audience and embraces those who have chronic illnesses and/or disabilities, as well as those who do not. It challenges ableism, which is often so stealth in its insidious presence that it is rendered invisible to the able bodied. I hope young people could read this to learn more about chronic illness and disabilities and to feel less alone in their own bodies.
WOULD LIKE TO SEE TURNED INTO A MOVIE OR TV SHOW
The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton is a book that leaps off the page with incredible characters and a propulsive plot. I can only imagine what a fierce cast and the actual sounds of a rockin’ band could do to Walton’s words. The world is rich and the drama is plentiful, and turning oral history into a mockumentary would be so gratifying.
BOOK THAT I WOULD REQUIRE THE CURRENT PRESIDENT TO READ
I think Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom by Derecka Purnell is really powerful stuff. Purnell shares her own journey to police and prison abolition, and makes it accessible and inviting for others to start thinking about these issues. It is an important book to check out for anyone who engages with the United States’ criminal legal system (aka anyone living in the US), which I think goes double (at least) for the head of the country.