My Standout Reads of 2021

First, a clarification: This is not a list of books published in 2021. It is just a list of 10 standout books that I completed during a personal banner year for pleasure reading. Belatedly taking up reading for fun again was already one of the best things I could have done for myself when the pandemic first began. I had been a voracious reader as a child but fell off the wagon when theatre and graduate school swept in to take up my time and mire me in books that could be enriching but were rarely enjoyable. With newfound time on my hands in 2020, I delved back into texts that offered me nothing but adventure and a chance to satisfy my curiosities. Last year, I kicked it up a notch, taking in 25 books (a drop in the bucket for true bookworms, I know) with nary a benefit to my dissertation, all drawn from a diverse array of authors and genres. There were sci-fi standouts of past and present (Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem), entries from American legends (Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays), fantasy series installments (two from Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher series), and others that are harder to pair up (where to put Carrie Fisher’s Postcards from the Edge and Wayetu Moore’s The Dragon, the Giants, the Women?). Virtually all of them had their merits, though some, like Michael Chabon’s Summerland, became more of a chore as they went on, and others, like Karen Armstrong’s A History of God, might be best used as reference books. All that said, the list below collects the ones that stuck with me the best for one reason or another. Here they are in the order in which I read them.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. While Adichie has become a figure of controversy recently, this sprawling novel remains a compelling examination of contemporary African (namely Nigerian) lives at home and abroad. Apart from being totally absorbed in Ifemelu and Obinze’s travails in the United States and United Kingdom, respectively, I found myself gaining (tentative) new understanding of subjects that still remain beyond my ken. The fact that much of the novel is recalled from the chair of an African beauty shop in New Jersey, for example, brings home just how much Ifemelu’s personal journey is, like many women in the African diaspora, bound up in her hair. It’s those kinds of narrative moves that bring in even readers far removed from that lived experience.

Machinehood by S.B. Divya. I have been recommending Divya’s speculative fiction (which I wrote about last year) to most anyone who will listen. Few books can weave together insights on artificial intelligence, a changing global landscape, religious extremism, and the rapidly evolving ways in which we work to such good effect. That it does so much with a diverse cast of characters and a solid dose of action makes it ripe for an HBO adaptation. I look forward to (or maybe dread) seeing how much of Divya’s future comes to pass.

Educated by Tara Westover. Of all the books I read this year, no other had me gasping, shaking my head, or blabbing to my girlfriend more. Westover’s book—which has been criticized and refuted by members of her family—is a page-turner of a memoir that paints a stark picture of life lived on the margins of society. That Westover was able to push through willful ignorance, pseudo-religious zealotry, mental illness, and familial abuse just to get a basic education is remarkable enough, never mind the fact she became a scholar in her own right.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. If my life depended on picking the best book I read this year, it would be hard to beat this one. Bennett’s multi-generational tale of two light-skinned Black sisters, one of whom crosses the color barrier to live as a White woman, is exquisitely written and so finely balanced. There is just enough ache in Desiree and Stella’s separation to hold the narrative strands together, just intrigue in Early’s work and Jude’s espionage to titillate the reader, just enough insight into the practical challenges of Reese’s life as a man, just enough time in between sections to show how much and how little has changed, just enough attention to Kennedy’s acting career to suggest it’s all appearances, just enough breadth in Bennett’s sentences to show her lyricism without make it seem like she’s showing off. The fact this book is being adapted for HBO with Issa Rae as an executive producer also turned me on (finally) to Insecure, so it was doubly good to me last year.

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu. This book has a lot going on formally speaking. It shifts from narrative to script, it delves in and out of Hollywood tropes, and it’s written almost entirely in the second person. That last point, which I wrote more about last year, is important here because it addresses the reader in a way that either suits their experience or doesn’t. It’s a bold tactic to take in a book that is aiming very specifically at problematic racialized representation, and I think it works—not that you should take my word for it.

Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler. It would be easy to cheat and put Butler’s Parable of the Sower here alongside its sequel, but the truth is I found the latter book more compelling. Maybe it’s because Sower (which I wrote about alongside Divya’s Machinehood) hit me hard, and I knew what to expect of Talents. However, a lot of it definitely down to a device I tend to enjoy: multiple, conflicting perspectives. In Talents, Lauren Olamina’s quest to grow Earthseed is contrasted with the Christian devotion of her half-brother Marc and the wounded skepticism of her daughter Asha. Not only does that complicate the reader’s view of Lauren, it also illustrates the challenges any truly revolutionary movement faces.

The Beatles by Bob Spitz. Spitz’s massive biography is another one I have already written on—and, as I later learned, something of a controversial entry and doesn’t even crack Rolling Stone‘s list of best Beatles books. For all the (mostly minor) factual errors and disregard for John Lennon, I credit Spitz’s work for re-invigorating my love of The Beatles and introducing me to the often understudied early years when they were often less than Fab, not to mention the ruthlessness of the record industry and the genuine dangers of Beatlemania. That they emerged with any kind of sanity, never mind careers, is a testament to their unique powers. Next up: Getting back to Get Back on Disney+.

A Burning by Megha Majumdar. Like I said earlier, I love a book with multiple perspectives, and A Burning weaves together three to great effect in a story about ambition, injustice, and the dual edge of social media in modern India. Each of the three protagonists is compelling in their own way: Jivan for her self-belief in the face of a wrongful conviction of terrorism; Lovely, a hijra (member of a third gender recognized in Hinduism), for her longing for acceptance; and PT Sir for the way he sells his soul piece by piece in his ascent from schoolteacher to minister. The shifts in narrative and verb tense are disorienting at times, but that often enhances the heady rush of a story about three lives that seem to change in an instant.

Evicted by Matthew Desmond. My girlfriend recommended this book to me highly but warned me not to read it around the holidays; I could see why after the first chapter. Desmond’s ethnographic account of renters’ lives in Milwaukee, one of the most segregated cities in the country, is full of heartache, frustration, and disappointment. It is also an incisive indictment of housing and social support systems that empower landlords to take advantage of their tenants and trap people in cycles of destitution and punishment. Each of the people Desmond tracks is richly and sympathetically drawn, and the circumstances that inhibit them are explained with refreshing clarity. We should all be so lucky to contribute research like this.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke. My last book of the year, which unfolds through a series of journal entries written by a man seemingly trapped in a massive labyrinth, crept into this top ten on the strength of its premise and its theatrical potential. As in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Clarke weaves the magical and the mundane together nicely (with another helping of academic suspicion to boot), and the way the mystery, not to mention Piranesi’s sense of self, unravels is masterfully done. I think it would make a compelling theatrical adaptation, especially what with all the advances in digital technology. Put it down as a future project.

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