I love rankings and lists and getting to share mine with all of you is an honor, and a little stress inducing. So here it is, my top ten reads of 2021. No, they weren’t all published in 2021, but they were all great books! You can of course find more detailed reviews of each of these books on The Stacks Instagram page, and I was lucky enough to have many of these authors on the podcast this year, so please check out those conversations.
Before I get to my top ten I always like to share my reading stats with you all, since I do keep (very intense) track of everything I read. If you want to track your reading in the most intense way possible, join The Stacks Pack on patreon and get the reading tracker as one of many perks!
I read a total of 118 books. Which was considerably more than my 72 book goal.
- 77 were by authors of color (65%)
- 73 were by women and/or non binary authors (62%)
- 48 were by women/femme authors of color (41%)
- 72 were published in 2021 (61%)
- 86 were acquired and read in 2021 (73%)
- 80 were nonfiction books (68%)
- 14 received a five star rating (12%)
- 3 received a one star rating (3%)
- My average star rating was 3.3 stars
A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance by Hanif Abdurraqib (2021)
An essay collection centering Black performance and the ways Black people perform and are consumed. This book has so much range and depth it can not be explained in any meaningful way be me, except to say it was incredibly good and earth shaking, and that I will never think about Blackness, my own and others’, the same way again. Abdurraqib winds his own life into the more literal aspects of performance which creates a reading experience that is extremely rich and emotional. This book is magnificent.
The Stacks Book Club discussion of A Little Devil in America can be found here, and an interview on the book with Hanif Abdurraquib can be found here.
Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom by Derecka Purnell (2021)
I was a little weary about police and prison abolition before I picked up this book. Yes, I know that the legal system is corrupt and broken, but I didn’t grasp what abolition could open up for America. Purnell expertly shares her own journey and encourages her reader to question more, use common sense more, trust more, and ultimately lean into the possibility of a world without police and prison. I left this book with so much hope. I know we can do better in a world without police.
You can hear Derecka Purnell on The Stacks Episode 179 and Episode 183.
Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters (2021)
This is a comedy of manners that is tied up in the world of Reese, a trans woman and her ex Ames, a detransitioned man, and the woman he is now dating, Katrina. Katrina and Ames end up pregnant, and the book jumps off from there. It is a book about parenting, motherhood, community, language, and family. The writing is top notch, and the humor and wit add so much to this book. This is one of those books that if handled by a less skilled author would fall flat and seem trite. Not the case with Peters’ prose that oscillate between cooly detached and fiery sharp. I left this book with plenty to think about and a character, Reese, I won’t soon forget.
Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by Patrick Radden Keefe (2021)
Whenever people ask me what kind of book I like, I struggle to articulate something that is investigative journalism meets true crime meets conspiracy meets narrative nonfiction meets major national/global implications meets corruption meets intimate details…or something like that. Well this book, Empire of Pain, is exactly that. It is the story of The Sackler Family, the family behind Purdue Pharma and the drug Oxycontin. The book isn’t just about the brothers who ushered Purdue Pharma into prominence and the fallout of the drug that eventually led to the opioid epidemic, but also about the way the family came to power and the way the art world played into all of that. I loved the book because aside from laying out how The Sacklers achieved their wealth, it is also a story about the failures of The United States to regulate a corrupt and dangerous industry. It is about one family and also so much bigger than that. It is a hold on to your pants kind of book and I loved every page.
You can hear Patrick Radden Keefe on The Stacks on Episode 164.
How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America by Clint Smith (2021)
This is a history book like no other. Clint Smith traveled across America taking in physical locations that are a part of the story of slavery in America. He visited sites like Angola Prison, Wall Street, and The Whitney Plantation. He spoke with tour guides, historians, and visitors at each of the places he traveled to. He then wrote a book about American slavery that is not just the history of the thing, but rather how we understand the history of the thing. It is a masterful twist, it is a reckoning with the past and a way to engage with a history that has become confrontational. Not because of what happened, but because of how we talk and teach about it. I was also struck by Smith’s writing, he is a poet, and his ability to turn history into resonant prose is a gift in and of itself.
You can hear Clint Smith on Episode 168 of The Stacks.
Long Division by Kiese Laymon (2013)
I would never claim to be a lover a sci-fi or speculative fiction, however when it is done well, I am here for it. This book, Long Division, is done so well. Its no surprise, Laymon is easily one of my favorite writers, and he has found a way to craft a humorous, coming of age, time travel novel that centers a cast of characters I fell in love with. The kids in this book are funny and smelly and mean and tender and all the things you hope for the young people you love most. I was instantly taken by this book. A joyful ride.
You can hear Kiese Laymon on Episodes 118, 122, and 185 of The Stacks. As well as on this Patreon exclusive bonus episode of The Stacks: Unabridged.
Passing by Nella Larsen (1929)
This super short novel from 1929 took my breath away. Its the story of two old friends, Clare and Irene, who have lost touch when Clare begins passing as white. The book is propulsive and has some incredible scenes. I couldn’t put it down, and at just over a 120 pages you really don’t have to. I loved what Larsen had to say about race and color and danger and freedom. I loved the way this book does not let up. I loved that even though everyone told me it was good, it was better than I could’ve imagined.
Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness by Kristen Radtke (2021)
I’m not sure I could’ve prepared myself for how beautiful and emotional loneliness could be. Seek You did something to me on a deep emotional level. There was something about the way Radtke pulled from different corners of American life and loneliness to create this book that made it feel all encompassing, at once vast and intimate. She talks about sitcoms and psychology studies and her own experiences and pulls it all together beautifully. This book shocked me and made me weep. It also made me feel less alone in a year that I will remember mostly for the isolation and the return to community.
I can’t talk about this book and not talk about the fact that it is a graphic novel and the art is just gorgeous. The way Radtke uses color as part of the narrative. I’m new to graphic books in 2021, and I’ve been so impressed by how much the art adds to the text, and how ignorant I’ve been to the power of graphic storytelling.
You can hear Kristen Radtke discuss this book on Episode 194 of The Stacks.
Seven Days in June by Tia Williams (2021)
Not me going from a graphic novel to a romance novel in my top 10. I see now that 2021 has changed me. I loved this book so much. It was my feel good read of the year. It’s a love story between Eva and Shane, two authors who had a brief summer romance in high school (you know, seven days in June) and are reconnected as adults. Eva has a daughter (who is a great character) and a deadline and a lot of pressure, and Shane is a star author and a bit of recluse in the world of publishing. What I appreciated most about the book was that I was rooting for both of the love interests. So often in romance books I’m only interested in one character (if that). I loved that this book was set in the world of publishing but centered Black authors. It was a breath of fresh air and a joy to read. Also, Tia Williams invented a Black book award ceremony that now I’m dying to have be a real thing. Please, publishing gods make this happen (and let me host).
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison (1977)
Wow. This book is the genre bending novel of my dreams, it is a coming of age story, an adventure story, and a family drama, a mystery, and a romance. Song of Solomon is not defined by any one label, but it is instead, a story populated by incredible characters and memorable scenes. Toni Morrison is a genius, and this book proves why. There has been so much written and said about this novel by people considerably smarter than me, so I will just say, this is a must read book. Do not be sacred, do not hesitate, Toni Morrison will take care of you.
You can head The Stacks Book Club conversation about this book on Episode 191 with Dawnie Walton.
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