Books of 2021 (or 2021)ish
A historical novel set in the 12th century about Breton lais, sword-fighting nuns, the creation of a feminist utopia and borderline metaphysical lesbian romances that also features Eleanor of Aquitaine as bitch goddess from the ripe imagination of a contemporary American author who has mostly made her name writing about doomed romances in Florida and communes. One of my favorite surprises in just about forever.
In which a failed actress confronts chronic pain, medical bullshit, her own middle age, and actual witchcraft that sits in the perfect middle between campus novel and backstage novel. A deeply weird retelling of at least two Shakespeare plays. Darkly hilarious. Unexpectedly moving.
I liked this book more than most people I know, so take this as you will This is a surprisingly readable, literal witch hunt book featuring the fictionalized matter-of-fact mother of Johannes Kepler and a whole lot of gossipy townspeople in late Reformation/pre Thirty Years War era Germany. Maybe the best book I’ve read this year about the challenges of being an ally.
A multi-generational not-quite Gothic that addresses women and ghosts and violence and community complicity, while also brushing right up against borderline Folk Horror (without actually going all the way). But that makes it sound like it’s less enjoyable to read than it is. This would make a killer (no pun intended) miniseries, if Olivia Colman/anyone at the BBC is paying attention, but you might as well read it beforehand in the event that they are.
Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi is my favorite Ugandan novelist (and if you haven’t read her Kintu, a sprawling, glorious, furious fusion of African folklore, history and modern day politics, YOU ARE IN FOR A TREAT). A Girl Is A Body of Water is a more straightforward coming of age novel meets family saga the encompasses the tied together fates of an entire village and the nation of Uganda in the pre/during/post-Idi Amin era.
It’s not a spoiler to say that premise of this book involves the mystery of whether the corpse of Emmett Till is murdering racists in modern day Mississippi. It’s also not a spoiler to say that this is initially rolled out as a farce. And there is brutal method to its madness. I think Percival Everett is one of the greatest writers working today, period, hands down. And I think this book is brilliant.
I’m going to level with you: I think Brits are so much better at weird than we are. They’re better at weird country and definitely better at weird city, even in narrative works that are nominally “realistic fiction.” “Hot Stew” is A+ London Weird about whores, billionaires and borderline Dickensian street characters that manages to be probably the best thing I’ve read this year about gentrification. Also (not that we’re keeping track): contains a surprising spin on the old “Visit to the Underworld” genre.
Summerwater Sarah Moss. An unsettling cloudy, damp mood of a novel set at a remote Scottish vacation hub that operates as both as a collage of finely honed character studies and a surprisingly incisive view into how otherness is determined within a community.
Harlem Shuffle Colson Whitehead. For anyone who’d forgotten that a Colson Whitehead novel (always brilliant, riveting, often-award winning etc) could also be, like, a pretty fun hang, this spin on a mid-century, not-quite-noir-ish heist/crime novel will be a happy surprise.
Flyaway Kathleen Jennings. Have you ever been like “hey, what if Angela Carter moved to Australia and wrote a gothic horror novella about body horror and families and a small town at the edge of the bush?” You’ll like this, then,
The Saddest Words: William Faulkner’s Civil War Michael Gorra. Not everyone feels as strongly about Faulkner as I do. Especially now. That’s fine. But if you’re so inclined, this is one of the best pieces of Faulkner criticism I’ve read in years, as well as being a timely investigation of the US Civil War in the public imagination. And I say this as someon largely allergic to reading books about the Civil War.
St X Alexis Schaitkin. A literal and figurative beach book, this page-turner about young woman’s murder and her sister’s attempts to make sense of it feels particularly meaningful in this era of True Crime-obsessives and the often-problematic narratives they weave.
The Committed Viet Thanh Nguyen. This is a Paris-set sequel to The Sympathizer, which you should have already read by now. Spies, expats, immigrants, and an entire criminal underworld populate a story about what it’s like to have spent a life in service to state and ideology and have survived to see the other side with all of its challenges.
Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty, Patrick Radden Keefe. As well as being the man behind the only podcast about German Hair Metal, the Berlin Wall and the CIA you ever need to listen to , Keefe is quickly becoming my new go-to in unmissable narrative journalism/non-fiction tomes. This one, which addresses the rise of the Sackler Family, their oversized footprint on the medical marketing and opioid industries (and the New York Art World), as well as the unfolding of opioid epidemic they created is a broad, highly readable, infuriating tragedy turned catastrophe.
My Year Abroad Chang-Rae Lee. This novel vacillates between over-the-top picaresque about a naïve student and his relationship with his successful “international businessman” mentor (it’s best not to ruin the surprise, of there are many) and a unusually poignant fugitive family narrative. I like this book better and better the further I get away from it.
The Cold Millions Jess Walter. It’s either an organized crime novel about lumber barons and radical union politics in early 20th century Spokane or a radical union novel about organized crime in early 20th century Spokane. Either way, it’s a cinematic barn-burner of a yarn. Note: do not read when trying to get warm.
BOOKS I STILL DON’T KNOW HOW I FEEL ABOUT
Crossroads Jonathan Franzen. Let’s get this out of the way. Crossroads is the best book Jonathan Franzen has published since The Corrections. Is it a solid read? Yes. Did I finish it in a day? Yes. Did I, at various points, think– “Is this were I wholly come back around on the Old Franzenator?” Sure. Was I ever able to forget its essentially Franzen-ness and surrender wholly to the project? No. Am I 100% sure I think you should give it a go? Not at all.
Harrow Joy Williams. It’s possible to be one of my favorite authors and write a book thick with things I enjoy and still leave me profoundly lukewarm. Also, we live in a dystopian wasteland. I don’t need to imagine any new ones.
Beautiful World, Where Are You Sally Rooney. The best parts of this book are the emails and the orgasms. Whether you find them convincing and/or satisfying is your call. I think I’m going to really enjoy whatever Sally Rooney writes in about twenty years. In the meantime, we can all having a good time arguing about the end of the this book.
No One is Talking About This Patricia Lockwood. I adore Patricia Lockwood. I think the front half of this book is a (very witty, engaging) troll and the back half is an absolute joke. It’s still one of the best written things I’ve read this year. But do I kind of hate it? Yes, I kind of hate it.
Note: 1) There are plenty of books I have not read this year, including a few that have won the big prizes. 2) I also read a lot of great books not published particularly recently. I did not include these because chronology. 3) I might change my mind. It happens.