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When I began working on HuffPost Books in, I think, 2014 — the beginning of my career in literary media — I quickly learned that every year would be bookended by enormous lists. It would begin with a literally enormous list: the most anticipated books. It ended with a much slimmer but weightier list: the best books.
The former of these I hated writing, and would prefer never to write again; I’d rarely had an opportunity to read any, let alone all, of the books I was rounding up. Instead, I would find new language to describe each book’s conceit or the author’s previous successes while carefully not claiming that the book was actually good. (After all, I had no idea.) It was merely a list of interesting-sounding books I’d heard about through catalogs, galley mailings, and Publishers Marketplace screenshots glimpsed on Twitter. Pure marketing. It always did numbers, whatever that meant for an article about books.
The latter I didn’t hate writing. I loved casting my mind back over the previous 12 months of reading, plucking out the gems that shone brightest in my memory. Sometimes it meant an opportunity, in November, to blaze through a book I’d meant to check out in March but had missed. I loved trying to explain, in concise paragraphs, why each was worth reading.
But as the years went on and my team dwindled and vanished, and I ended up the only person assembling the end-of-year book list, I came to dislike publishing it, usually with a headline I bridled at: The Best Books of 20XX. The introduction would be filled with caveats: These were my favorite books, the ones that I had happened to read through a combination of luck and publicity and bias and personal taste. The “Best Books” headline showed up in Google searches; it got clicks. This post always did numbers. But it felt like a bit of a cruel lie to call it “the best books,” like I was prepared to be the judge of all the books that came out that year, the vast majority of which I’d barely even glanced at.
I failed to write an end-of-year book list in 2019, even though it could have been filed weeks before my son was born in mid-December. (After half a decade of doing this list, I was always unprepared when other outlets started publishing theirs in late November. Still a whole month of reading! I thought, as if it weren’t about advertising to holiday shoppers.) In 2020, I was back at it. Then I was laid off, relieving me permanently of the honor and burden of helming HuffPost’s Best Books list.
Nevertheless, this year, later than ever before, I have decided to (sort of) do it again! It’s too late for holiday shopping, and it’s definitely not “the best books of 2021,” but I happen to think a list of great books I loved still has value in late December, and even in January! It’s going to be looser and less detailed than my HuffPost ones of yore, so apologies for that as well.
Some of the first books I loved this year were read in my capacity as a writer for HuffPost. So let’s start there!
“Fake Accounts” by Lauren Oyler
“No One Is Talking About This” by Patricia Lockwood
I wrote a joint review of these books that is probably my favorite thing I wrote this year, and I think I was a bit tough on both, but I knew at the time that they would be among my favorites of the year as well. They both address the seductions and miseries of being Very Online, and do so in ways that struck me as flawed but funny, smart,and deeply insightful.
Anyway, then I got laid off!
Covering books was different in a pandemic, and even more so after losing my job. Almost all ARCs sent to HuffPost were once funneled to me, as the books coverage contact; I got as many as 10 plastic USPS bins full of book mail every day. I don’t know where that mail goes now, or if they finally found a way to stem the tide. The downside was hours spent opening and sorting mail. Many of the packages contained business self-help books or the like, things I would never cover. The upside was that almost every book I would cover physically crossed my desk. Working from home, I realized I’d never developed a good system for keeping track of upcoming books I might want to read. I often miss big novels until I see reviews of them in Bookforum.
But something was changing in a nice way: I felt permitted once again to read books that weren’t for work. Like, perhaps, books that came out before 2021 and were no longer “news.” Here are some that I loved:
“The Transit of Venus” by Shirley Hazzard
“Mating” by Norman Rush
The Outline trilogy by Rachel Cusk
The Hazzard and Rush are profoundly weird in the way that really wonderful books often are weird; the prose is distinctive and peppered with words that sent me to the dictionary, the observations are made from an angle most of us are incapable of finding, and the characters are brilliant oddballs who can’t quite reconcile with the way most humans manage to get along with each other. Highly recommend.
The Cusk trilogy is one of the preeminent examples of autofiction and it was frankly embarrassing that I’d never read it (maybe this year I’ll get to Karl Ove Knausgaard), each book the kind of spare, detail-light recounting of movements and conversations that Joyce Carol Oates might call a “wan little husk.” It’s like eavesdropping on a series of rambling conversations about art and life between smart people (who all pretty much sound like the narrator). I loved it.
As the year went on, I read wonderful books that friends new and old had written (!!!) which is an increasingly common occurrence as I get older but never fails to awe me:
“A Special Place for Women” by Laura Hankin
“They’ll Never Catch Us” by Jessica Goodman
“God Spare the Girls” by Kelsey McKinney
They’re all from different genres — in order: thriller/dark satire, YA murder mystery, literary coming-of-age drama, cultural criticism — and all are exactly what I could ever wish in books of those categories. I’m so proud of my friends!!! And seriously they’re very talented and added so many happy hours of reading to my year. (We spoke to all of these authors for our Rich Text book club pods, which are linked if you want to know more.)
I also read new books by strangers! Here are my favorites, by theme:
“Nightbitch” by Rachel Yoder
“With Teeth” by Kristin Arnett
I wanted to do a joint essay about these two brilliant, terrifying books about mothering sons, but I kept being too busy mothering my son. Incidentally, the way in which women’s ambitions are subsumed into the daily work of social reproduction — an hour set aside for working on an art project taken over by cleaning up a giant mess made by a toddler, an evening intended for generative reading and thought instead spent meal-planning and folding laundry — is beautifully explored in Yoder’s work of domestic magical realism. Arnett’s is more muted and yet more bleak, unfolding over many years of a mother’s thorny relationship with her son, watching as her marriage and personal life crumble at a slow but implacable pace.
“Something New Under the Sun” by Alexandra Kleeman
“Harrow” by Joy Williams
These climate catastrophe books aren’t easy to read. Kleeman (a writer I’ve adored since “You Too Have a Body Like Mine”) gives us a spookily familiar world in which water has become privatized, synthetic, branded (“WAT-R”), and manufactured in different flavors and viscosities. It’s a fun-house glimpse at how capitalism will continue to handle the ravages of climate change, if we let it. “Harrow” is more of a dreamy fugue of a novel, starring a girl who seems marked for some mysterious destiny and set by a dead, stifled lake where embittered senior citizens gather to plan ecoterrorist attacks in hope of a meaningful death. Time is out of step. Change and meaning both seem entirely beyond reach. It’s dark as hell.
“Libertie” by Kaitlyn Greenidge
“Great Circle” by Maggie Shipstead
“Matrix” by Lauren Groff
Historical fiction! Set in the late 19th-century North, “Libertie” tells the story of the daughter of a freeborn Black female doctor who is committed to doing good — helping enslaved people flee to freedom, opening a clinic to treat Black women — but who herself struggles to find purpose and belonging as she grows up. “Great Circle” toggles back and forth between the life of a female pilot in the first half of the 20th century and the modern-day actor who is playing her in a biopic, hoping it will be her rebirth after years starring in a “Twilight”-esque teen fantasy saga. “Matrix” sees a rebellious and rough-hewn girl from Eleanor of Aquitaine’s court arrive at a dilapidated convent, take over as prioress, then abbess, and slowly build a formidable empire from within the walls of her religious institution.
All three novels circle questions about women and identity, the roles that are available to them and the roles they long for and the roles they reach out and grasp in defiance of everything around them, and their deeply human characters and richly constructed worlds are a pleasure to spend time in.
“A Touch of Jen” by Beth Morgan
“Detransition, Baby” by Torrey Peters
“Milk Fed” by Melissa Broder
These are stories of desire — repressed, thwarted, embraced, rejected. “A Touch of Jen” is a deeply familiar set-up shot through with utter fantasy: Remy and Alicia, two underemployed millennials, are a couple with the primary shared hobby of stalking his old crush Jen on social media. When they run into Jen in the flesh and revive their friendship, things quickly get, uh, weird. “Detransition, Baby” is about Reese, a trans woman who has always longed for motherhood — and is finally offered a chance at it when her ex, Ames, who has detransitioned, finds out her new girlfriend is pregnant. Struggling with the idea of being a “father,” Ames offers to consider having the child as a family if Reese is brought in as a coparent, drawing the three women into a fraught negotiation over how to reconcile their wildly varying desires and hopes of parenthood. “Milk Fed” is explicitly about appetite: Rachel, a lapsed Jew with a long-nurtured eating disorder and a terrible relationship with her mother, wanders into a frozen yogurt shop where she becomes infatuated with the yogurt and a young Orthodox woman who works there.
Fittingly for their topics, these books all lend themselves to being voraciously read — funny, expertly written, always throwing up fascinating curveballs.
“The Days of Afrekete” by Asali Solomon
I just finished this, but I know I won’t forget it soon; it’s already inspired me to pick up Audre Lorde’s “Zami.” The echoes of Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway,” as I’ve mentioned before, are also unmistakable and resonant: the perfect hostess poised in the middle of a pinched, almost accidental life; the haunting memories of her youthful romance with a woman; a sense of annihilating despair; a character traumatized by mental illness and their awareness of the cruelties of history. “The Days of Afrekete” is another tale of a desperate housewife, but one sparked by a dream of rebirth, a tantalizingly real hope for freedom and another path.
“Filthy Animals” by Brandon Taylor
“The Life of the Mind” by Christine Smallwood
“Beautiful World Where Are You” by Sally Rooney
This set is “intellectuals with angst.” I am guilty of too rarely reading short stories, but “Filthy Animals,” by the author of perfect campus novel “Real Life,” is full of perfect campus-adjacent stories about young people seeking connection and purpose, all drawn with his astute eye for roiling human emotions and daunting social dynamics. “The Life of the Mind” follows an adjunct dealing with the many indignities of precarious academic work while experiencing a miscarriage. It’s often grim but also often funny, and exquisitely written. I wrote about Sally Rooney’s latest for the newsletter, and my feelings about it are more mixed, but it was certainly worth the read and also I want to link my review again.
“Intimacies” by Katie Kitamura
I almost forgot “Intimacies,” but I could never forget Katie Kitamura. This novel, about a woman who takes a job as a court interpreter at the Hague and finds herself translating for a West African former president who has been charged with horrific war crimes during his trial, is a quietly chilling examination of meaning and truth, where they can be found, observed, and held, and what more is to be done.
There were other books, some of which I liked and some of which I didn’t, but let’s call it there. I do have some regrets about this year of reading — not enough thoughtfulness and intention about reading widely from this year’s new books, not enough time spent reading as deeply as possibly, not enough space devoted to writing about the books I did read. My hope for next year is to improve on all fronts.
Happy reading, and let me know what books you loved this year in the comments!