The Best Things We Read in 2021

Dear Listeners,

Of all the lists and awards that are reigned down on bookss at the end of the year, this list is my most favrote. I have reached out to past guests from The Stacks in 2021 and asked them to share with us their favorite book they read this year, and the one book in 2022 they’re looking forward to. I love the list because, guests from The Stacks have the best taste in books, and the list is never what you’d expect to see in any other publication. My guests have range.

I hope you enjoy reconnecting with the many voices from our 2021 season.

Deesha Philyaw
Author of The Secret Lives of Church Ladies

The best book I read in 2021… I could not break a tie between my Duval homegirls’ books, Milk Blood Heat by Dantiel W. Moniz and The Final Revival of Opal and Nev by Dawnie Walton! Milk Blood Heat is a brilliant short story collection that left me breathless, made me laugh, and made me feel. Dantiel writes with such wisdom and care, on a craft level and on a narrative level. And I love that many of these exquisite stories are set in our hometown of Jacksonville, Florida. The Final Revival of Opal and Nev is a faux oral history about a ’70s interracial rock n’ roll duo, and even though it’s fictional, the chorus of voices are so damn real and unforgettable! I just marveled at how Dawnie created this masterpiece, a sprawling epic full of secrets, pain, grief, and music.
Book I’m looking forward to reading in 2022: Post-Traumatic by Chantal V. Johnson

Deesha was our guest for Episode 145, and then joined us to discuss The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans on Episode 148.

Kimberly Drew
Co-author of Black Futures

My top read this year was Somebody’s Daughter by Ashley C. Ford. In the memoir Ashley so beautifully shines and opens a window into her life, while holding each reader so tenderly. I am grateful for her generosity. 
Book I’m looking forward to reading in 2022: Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez. I was fortunate to get an advanced copy and loved pouring through the rich pages.

Kimberly was our guest on Episode 146 where she discusses her book Black Futures with her co-author Jenna Wortham.

Vann Newkirk
Senior editor at The Atlantic

I fell in love with Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’s The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois. It was everything I needed in a pandemic book: it was compelling, beautiful, challenging, and for me it was so vivid and showed so much care for Black life in the South that it eased my homesickness and grief in a year of loss. I’ve never met a book quite like this one, and even now, months after I’ve finished, I keep it on my nightstand to flip through when inspired.
Book I’m looking forward to reading in 2022: Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò’s Reconsidering Reparations. I’m fascinated by his arguments situating the idea of reparations in a forward-looking environmental context, and I’m excited to dig in.   

Vann was our guest for Episode 149 , and then joined us to discuss The New Wilderness by Diane Cook, Episode 152.

Mateo Askaripour
Author of Black Buck

The best book I read in 2021? Traci, how could you! It’s tough to narrow it down to one, so I’ll opt to mention a book that I loved and want to get even more shine: Give My Love to the Savages, by Chris Stuck. I read Give My Love to the Savages for a New York Times review of three short story collections, and while I went into the project ready to love all collections equally, man, Stuck’s is the one that blew me away (of course, the others were also powerful). 

With his debut collection, Stuck had me laughing one minute, cringing the next, and deep in thought the entire time. Each of his stories––all with their own original conceits––strike my favorite balancing act of incorporating humor while also having enough courage to not shy away from the truth. I could go on and on, and tell you about the character who wakes up as a six-foot penis, another who gets vitiligo and goes on a cruise, or the young man who’s offered a beautiful home on a lake, if he only has sex with a white man’s white wife, but I’ll stop here and leave it to you to read the rest.
Book I’m looking forward to reading in 2022: I have a whole shelf full of unread books that need some love, and I’ll probably start with A Drop of Patience, by William Melvin Kelley, before making my way to some nonfiction. Right now, Gordon Parks’s A Hungry Heart, 50 Cent’s Hustle Harder, Hustle Smarter, and Will, by Will Smith, are all in the running.

Mateo joined the show for Episode 151 to discuss his debut novel Black Buck.

R. O. Kwon
Co-Editor of Kink

A book I’ve especially appreciated this past year is Korean Art from 1953, a Phaidon survey of Korean contemporary art. It’s a gorgeous book full of art, thought, and history, truly a gift during this time of still limited museum-going. It came as a present from my friend Alex Chee when I was having a hard time, and I keep it on my desk so that I can look through it while I write.
Book I’m looking forward to reading in 2022: I’m looking forward to so many books that will publish next year, but the only one I’ve already had the luck of reading a couple of times is Ingrid Rojas Contreras’s The Man Who Could Move Clouds, a memoir that could change your life. I don’t say this lightly; it has shifted my thinking on ghosts, power, and afterlives. I’ll say it again: it could change your life.

R. O. was our guest on Episode 154 to discuss her collection Kink which she co-edited with Garth Greenwell.

Mary H. K. Choi
Author of Yolk and Emergency Contact

My personal favorite book of 2021 was The Turnout by Megan Abbott. I can’t help it, unhinged, female ambition is so soothing for the way my operating system is set up. First of all, hi, it’s about ballet. Not only ballet but ballet-teacher sisters who grew up in total dysfunction in the long shadow of their ballet-teacher mother. It has basically all the things I think about this time of year—pain, sex, mental health issues, betrayal and The Nutcracker!
Book I’m looking forward to reading in 2022: I Guess I Live Here Now by Claire Ahn. It’s about immigrant parents who make good on the threat of: “If you don’t shape up you’re getting shipped back to TKCOUNTRYOFORIGIN.”

Mary was our guest on Episode 155 to discuss her book Yolk. We also discussed Mary’s book Emergency Contact for The Stacks Book Club on Episode 178.

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein
Professor and Author of The Disordered Cosmos

One of the best books I read in 2021 was Elissa Washuta’s White Magic: Essays. There’s a lot that could be said about the content: a reading of pop culture — from the Oregon Trail to Twin Peaks — through the lens of a Cowlitz woman who is in search of love and a sense of self. And I learned a lot. But there is another layer of brilliance to this book: Washuta is a goddess of lyrical essay, and much as I was caught up in what she said about how she sees the world, I also found myself wanting to study how she said it. Plus, White Magic is a beautiful book, not just as a text but also physically. I loved the use of white text against black pages, and the gold-embossed cover. I cannot more highly recommend this book.
Book I’m looking forward to reading in 2022: I’m super excited about Jean Chen Ho’s work of fiction Fiona and Jane.

Chanda was our guest on Episode to discuss her book, The Disordered Cosmos

Clint Smith
Author of How the Word Is Passed

It’s impossible to pick one but one of the best books I read this year was Reuben Jonathan Miller’s Halfway Home: Race, Punishment, and the Afterlife of Mass IncarcerationMiller is a professor of social work at the University of Chicago and his book is written like a sociological memoir. Grounded in qualitative research on people coming home from prison, the book also weaves in deeply personal reflections about Miller’s relationship with his brother, who for years was in and out of prison. Miller’s proximity to the subject matter adds an invaluable layer of human texture to the story. It’s excellent.
Book I’m looking forward to reading in 2022: I hear Patrick Radden Keefe has a new book coming out which means it’s immediately going to the top of my list.

Clint was our guest on Episode 168 to discuss his book How the Word is Passed.

Mira Jacob
Author of Good Talk

The best book I read in 2021 was Kaitlyn Greenidge’s Libertie, which shows the inner life of a free-born black woman in the Reconstruction Era who isn’t trying to be anyone’s role model–a premise so loving and revolutionary that it has changed the way I read and write.
Book I’m looking forward to reading in 2022: Okay, I am cheating with two. In my defense, I am looking forward to reading about 49 books in 2022. Alison B. Hart’s The Work Wife, which pulls apart female complicity in the cesspool that is Hollywood, and Sarah Thankam Matthews’ All This Could Be Different, which looks to be all the things I love–a running-off-the-rails queer immigrant love story. 

Mira was our guest on Episode 171 and returned to discuss The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui on Episode 174.

Nichole Perkins
Author of Sometimes I Trip on How Happy We Could Be

The best book I read in 2021 was My Monticello by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson. It’s a riveting debut collection that will have you sitting on the edge of your seat, leaning into each story.
Book I’m looking forward to in 2022: Yinka, Where Is Your Huzband? by Lizzie Damilola Blackburn 

Nichole was our guest on Episode 184 and returned to discuss Waiting to Exhale by Terry McMillan on Episode 187.

Dawnie Walton
Author of The Final Revival of Opal and Nev

Between distressing news headlines and the rollercoaster of emotions that is publishing a debut novel, I frequently felt scrambled throughout this year. Brilliant new story and essay collections were my cure for getting over reading slumps (shout out to Milk Blood Heat by Dantiel W. Moniz, The Ones Who Don’t Say They Love You by Maurice Carlos Ruffin, and A Little Devil in America by Hanif Abdurraqib). But the book that is currently pushing me out of a writing slump is Toni Morrison’s classic Song of Solomon, which I read for the first time last month (coincidentally, for The Stacks Book Club — thank you for the nudge, Traci!). Within this story Morrison leaps over years in the span of a sentence, experiments with a blend of seemingly disparate genres, and digs into the legends of several characters at once…and yet, the center always holds. As a reader I was enthralled by its wildness, and as a writer I am inspired to be braver, to roam in fresh and unexpected directions.
Book I’m looking forward to reading in 2022: Finding MeViola Davis’ memoir, and The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan.

Dawnie was our guest on Episode 189, and she joined us to discuss Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison on Episode 191.

Amanda Montell
Author of Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism

The book that resonated with me most in 2021 was probably Milk Fed by the singular voice that is Melissa Broder. I don’t read a ton of fiction, so this was a wild card, but I think it’s just one of those books that arrived in my life right when I needed it. I’d describe it as a creamy, steamy, devourable novel about deprivation and desire in which a 20-something woman trapped in the prison of her own self-loathing learns to set herself free through sex, food, and spirituality. 
Book I’m looking forward to reading in 2022: My Mess Is a Bit of a Life: Adventures in Anxiety by Georgia Pritchett

Amanda was our guest on Episode 190, where we discussed her Cultush: The Language of Fanaticism.

Andrew Ti
Creator and co-host of the podcast Yo, Is This Racist?

Wow, do I feel uncomfortable saying “best” here, but the book I enjoyed the most was probably There There, by Tommy Orange. It’s a cool Native thriller that’s both literary and cinematic, and it just fucking dope.
Book I’m looking forward to reading in 2022: A comic book series, The Good Asian by Pornsak Pichetshote. 

Andrew was our guest on Episode 192, and he joined us to discuss A Little Devil in America by Hanif Abdurraqib on Episode 196.

Lupita Aquino
Reader behind @lupita.reads on Instagram

The best book I read in 2021 was… dare you make me pick just one?!….The Arsonists’ City by Hala Alyan! It’s a book I think about often even though I finished it months ago. Traversing from the US, Lebanon and Syria to Palestine this novel at its core is a family saga that illuminates the way a family’s history/possible fated destiny becomes broken and changed by war. Captivating and beautifully written Alyan captures the realities of family dynamics through such a raw perspective which will leave you thinking the ways displacement ripples through every relationship we build. 
Book I’m looking forward to reading in 2022: Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative by Melissa Febos! 

Lupita was our guest on Episode 195, discussing the best books of 2021.

Traci Thomas
Host and creator of The Stacks

The best book I read in 2021 was A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance by Hanif Abdurraqib. The book is a nuanced and layered analysis of Black performance in America. I was taken with Abdurraqib’s ability to weave history, pop culture, and personal experiences into each essay, and to complicate my understanding of what it means to “perform”. This is one of those books that I just want to gush over to everyone I meet. A really special read.
Book I’m looking forward to reading in 2022: South to America by Imani Perry, and I’m very intrigued by Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley.

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