Best Books (I Read in) 2021
Another year of good reading, and after I drafted this write-up, I noticed how often I used the words “in conversation with,” which is one of my favorite ways to think about books and about art in general, as a wide-ranging, open-to-all, free-flowing, connect-the-dots, ongoing conversation in my own head. So here’s a randomly-ordered list of favorite books I read in 2021, culled down in a cold, agonized sweat to 10(ish).
I long ago determined that I won’t include a book by a friend in my top 10, so I’ve moved those books to a separate list (which I stress over nevertheless because I’m not always timely about reading a friend’s book in the same year in which it was published).
Finally, I should note that in the spirit of honesty, here’s the place where I can mention that, ahem, another book that I liked this year is my OWN book, published in 2021 by Unnamed Press—ADMIT THIS TO NO ONE, linked(ish) stories about “official” DC—so it seems silly not to mention it or to point out that it got some very good reviews. You can buy it through the press, at your fave indie bookstore, or Amazon.
Anyway: you’re here for the books, not shameless self-promotion. Do I mean “best,” or do I mean “favorite,” or do I mean “book that was exactly right for the moment I read it”? Maybe I simply mean that each of these is a “book I literally and truly recommended to others at least once over the year.”
The Good Lord Bird by James McBride [novel]: I watched (and loved) the Showtime limited series and had to immediately read the book, which I also loved. John Brown is a fascinating, complicated pre-Civil War character, and as with many larger-than-life people, he’s best viewed through the POV of someone else, and here it’s a young Black boy called Onion (mistaken by the whites for a girl) who travels with John Brown’s militia. This voice-y book is funny and provocative, and here’s one time where I can’t quite say the book is significantly better than the show because the show is so excellent. Honestly, try to carve out time for both.
Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague by Maggie O’Farrell [novel]: Hmmm…do you think that “A Novel of the Plague” might have been added by the marketing department?? Nevertheless, this book is an immersive look at 16th century England, when a writer we know to be Shakespeare (he’s never named) is working on plays as his wife tries to keep the family surviving and thriving. Then…a great loss. The writing is gorgeous, and I’m a sucker for a book where art and grief are intertwined. One favorite section is the set-piece that follows the path of a plague-carrying flea, shows how a global pandemic winds its way toward intimate (a lesson we’re now all too familiar with).
Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Kolker [nonfiction]: What a big and terrible and terribly sad and rippling story about a single family in the 50s and 60s in which 6 brothers out of 12 kids are afflicted with schizophrenia. Despite the vastness of these events, the book is perfectly organized and structured; the family’s bravery as they sift through the secrets and family myths will break your heart; and you’ll emerge with a deeper ache over the toll of mental illness. One bright spot is the usefulness of this family as a case study in medical research.
*Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Raddon Keefe [nonfiction]: I knew only the broad parameters of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, and this book was riveting. Again, perfectly structured and organized, especially given a massive cast of “characters” and long-time span and, well, a big, huge history of several cultures and countless events. If you’re someone who thinks you only like novels, this book reads like one. Note: There are many lenses through which to view The Troubles, and this book focuses on the IRA…not that this is a rosy view, not in the least. I remembered reading an early, chilling piece of this book in The New Yorker that never left my mind. *One of my most-recommended books this year.
Collision Low Crossers: A Year Inside the Turbulent World of NFL Football by Nicholas Dawidoff [nonfiction]: Football?! Remember, I’m working on a novel about a football player, so reading this book started as research and ended up as pure pleasure. Journalist Dawidoff embeds himself with the coaching staff of New York Jets during the 2011 season, back when the Jets were enjoying glorious times with Rex Reed as head coach. Full access means fascinating observations and insight into an extraordinarily stressful life, where everybody gets a collection of elite, talented athletes to work with, yet only one coach emerges on the top of the heap come Super Bowl Sunday.
11/22/63 by Stephen King [novel]: I’m sure Mr. King will be as surprised as I am to find his book on my annual list. My husband and I watched the Hulu production of this book, which was enjoyable, and my husband—who cares deeply about all things JFK—kept telling me that I would really like the book. “Yet again, honey, (spoken in sing-song), you’re right, and I’m wrong.” This time travel book asks if one man might stop the assassination of JFK. How, and at what cost? The plot was compelling, smart, and well-built as I’d expect from King, but I actually responded more to the emotional storyline of the characters, and their depth and complexity. A clear case of the book being superior to the show. (Note: this one’s a doorstop at 849 pages!! Feel free to award yourself credit for reading 3 books as I did!)
*Early Morning Riser by Katherine Heiny [novel]. Cross Anne Tyler with Laurie Colwin and set this smart rom-com in small-town Michigan, and you get this charming, funny, joyful book that’s elegantly written without being show-offy. As I said when I recommended this novel at least 1000x, do NOT pay attention to the jacket copy, which is dopey. Just read this book if you want to feel happy! *One of my most-recommended books this year.
A Faithful but Melancholy Account of Several Barbarities Lately Committed by Jason Brown [short story collection]: These multi-generational stories are linked, though not so much so that one really needs the (admittedly scary-long) family tree in the front of the book; I suggest no more than a quick glance. Here’s a “good” but bedraggled, OLD—like, Puritan-old—family in Maine, trying to crawl out from under that historical burden of being “special” in that “shining city on a hill” Puritan founding fathers way. If you like reading work set in Maine, the author captures that rugged beauty and seems to know and understand the landscape and the culture. Sparse, elegant, cutting: every moment of triumph comes at great cost.
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw [short story collection]: Often there’s a reason that “everyone” is reading a book all year, and the reason everyone has been reading this book about Black women is that it’s INCREDIBLE. These stories aren’t linked per se, but they’re in important conversation with each other, adding layers to the collection as a whole. It’s a smart and deeply-rooted world; a super-voice-y book; and the author creates ordinary-yet-extraordinary characters living novel-deep lives in 20-30 pages.
**Hell of a Book by Jason Mott [nove]: Is it “in conversation with” or a straight line from Ellison’s Invisible Man through Toni Morrison’s Beloved to the here and now, with maybe a nod to Huck Finn, if Jim had been allowed to take charge of his own story? There’s definitely plenty of humor here in this sharp and stylish story about a best-selling Black author traveling on book tour, reckoning with the life he’s lived and the life Blacks, especially Black men, live in America—but mostly there are worlds of pain and an insatiable ache. **I haven’t recommended this book much—only because I just finished it. (In fact, I held up writing this list, certain after 5 pages that this book would end up on it.)
A HALF-BOOK I’M ADDING TO THIS LIST BECAUSE I’M IN CHARGE AND I CAN
The first 3 stories of The Pugilist at Rest by Thom Jones [short stories]: Blistering stories about Vietnam; the kind of writing that makes you want to grab someone and say, “Read this right now.” I enjoyed many of the other stories, especially the voice, though too many felt dated to my contemporary eye and out of synch with modern times.
BOOKS I LOVED BY WRITER FRIENDS/FRIENDS-ISH
Woman Drinking Absinthe by Katherine E. Young [poetry]: These poems about an affair are dark and disturbing, mesmerizing and memorable, in exactly the right ways.
This Is What America Looks Like: Poetry and Fiction from DC, Maryland, and Virginia edited by Caroline Bock and Jona Colson [anthology]: Okay, I admit that there’s an excerpt from ADMIT THIS TO NO ONE in here, but setting that aside, this book captures the mood of the moment, in all its nuances.
The Escape Artist by Helen Fremont [memoir]: An honest and searing account of being disowned by one’s family following the publication of another memoir. So much emotional work for the writer to dive so deeply and cleanly into a tangled family and these secrets; I’m in awe.
Surrendered Child: A Birth Mother’s Journey by Karen Salyer McElmurray [memoir]: Lyrical and lingering, infused with loss and longing. This book about giving up a child for adoption burrows into your soul.
I Grape, Or the Case for Fiction by Brock Clark [craft book]: I’m a fan of books about the craft of writing, and these essays made me ponder and (re)consider my own work. Also, these essays made me laugh out loud.
Made to Explode by Sandra Beasley [poetry]: Lots of places and people familiar to citizens of DC and Virginia, and a poet asking lots of uncomfortable (but necessary) questions of herself and making uncomfortable (but necessary) observations about race and white privilege in these superb poems.
All These Hungers by Rick Mulkey [poetry]: Elegantly structured and thoughtfully organized, this collection of smart and dynamic poems speaks to hunger—for food, of the flesh—and every inexpressible hunger we all feel.
The Hive by Melissa Scholes Young [novel]: Four sisters in blue collar Missouri have financial worries and emotional woes as the family pest control business is threatened and their mother is retreating into survivalist prepping. An empathetic exploration of life outside the coastal siloes.
What Happened Was by Anna Leahy [poetry chapbook]: A stellar example of the small but mighty form of the chapbook; poems about chilling and complicated interactions women have with men, inspired by the #metoo movement.
Children of Dust by Marlin Barton [novel]: Set in the late 1800s in Alabama, a white mother may have murdered two of her own babies fathered by her hateful husband. Or perhaps her husband’s mixed-race mistress did the deed? Or…? Not a whodunnit, but a deep and affecting exploration of the interwoven complications of race and gender during Reconstruction, of how an uncomfortably shared past informs the present—still.
This may be cheating?? I wrote blurbs for 2 books that will be published in 2022, and I hope you’ll keep an eye out for them:
The Other Ones by Dave Housley [novel; January 2022]: What happens when some of the people in the office are in the winning lottery pool but others aren’t? I’m a fan of books set in the workplace, and I love ensembles of characters. This crisp, funny book contains lots of heart.
You Have Reached Your Destination by Louise Marburg [short stories; fall 2022]: New Yorky stories with pitch-perfect dialogue that reminded me of Grace Paley and a forlorn ache that’s in conversation with an Edward Hopper painting.