My ten favorite new-ish books I read in 2021 (unranked; in alphabetical order by author’s last name):
Hanif Abdurraqib, A Little Devil In America: Notes In Praise of Black Performance
Abdurraqib’s latest essay collection is unified by its focus on 20th century black artists: from Josephine Baker and Ben Vereen to Merry Clayton and Michael Jackson, he approaches each subject with a modern, personal angle that often comes off as if this is the first thing you’ve ever read about the person.
Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, When Women Invented Television
Armstrong’s written books about Seinfeld, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Sex and The City; this one jumps back to the very early days of television, profiling four women whom as content creators, producers and personalities (one of them Betty White, R.I.P.) laid the groundwork to make such later shows possible.
Emm Gryner, The Healing Power of Singing
Longtime indie Canadian singer/songwriter Gryner blends the process and encouragement of a self-help guide (in this case, becoming a better singer) with anecdotes and recollections from her own life (often delving deep into how to make a living as a musician) to the point where it reads more like a philosophy than just a mere instructional guide.
Mark Harris, Mike Nichols: A Life
Harris’ long-awaited Nichols biography does not disappoint: highly readable, it masterfully weaves together all the strands of its subject’s extraordinary life and accomplishments yet also retains a critical eye that Nichols himself might’ve appreciated. Most filmmakers should be so lucky to receive such a thorough, entertaining and incisive overview.
Patricia Lockwood, No One Is Talking About This
I picked this up not long after reading Lockwood’s hilarious memoir Priestdaddy, whose intricate, sly wordplay carries over to this, her first novel. Few authors capture the feeling, the serotonin rush of infinite scrolling through social media as well as Lockwood but the kicker is how her narrator gradually disentangles herself away from it and back into the real world.
Elizabeth McCracken, The Souvenir Museum: Stories
Her ambitious 2019 novel Bowlaway went over my head a bit, but McCracken’s latest short story collection sustains her predilection towards charming oddballs in more digestible installments. Five of the twelve stories revolve around the same two characters (Jack and Sadie), but each one approaches them from different angles and time periods so that they all individually feel complete.
Tom Scharpling, It Never Ends
Veteran comedic radio host/podcasting pioneer Scharpling often comes off as a likable smartass over the air; while his persona successfully translates into print, what’s more notable about this memoir is in how candidly he opens up about his mental health issues, rendering them in the same urgent, crackling language as such anecdotes as his failed audition for the cast of The New Monkees.
Barry Sonnenfeld, Barry Sonnenfeld, Call Your Mother
Cinematographer-turned-director Sonnenfeld is either secretly a humorist at heart or just a very funny person. This might be the most loving, damning and self-deprecating book written about neuroses passed down from one’s parents since Gary Shteyngart’s Little Failure—rendered so vividly at times that one can imagine the hilarious feature film (or streaming series) Sonnenfeld could easily adapt it into.
Tracey Thorn, My Rock ‘n’ Roll Friend
Her most candid and searing book since her first, 2013’s Bedsit Disco Queen, Thorn’s fourth memoir focuses nearly entirely on Lindy Morrison, former drummer for the Australian cult band The Go-Betweens. As someone often written out of that band’s story, Morrison is reclaimed by Thorn as a musician, a feminist and most importantly, an artist while she also charts their decades-long friendship within a male-dominated industry.
Stanley Tucci, Taste: My Life Through Food
Tucci’s 1996 film Big Night, a celebration of food as a design for living manifests itself in this memoir, which, like Ruth Reichl’s books combines reminiscences with recipes, the latter spanning from the Perfect Martini to the intricate, days long preparation of a Timpano (as seen in Big Night.) The son of Italian immigrants, Tucci also relays with wit and grace his family’s story by way of the food they cooked and cherished.
I had ample time to read this year but I didn’t break any personal records: 55 books, same as in 2019. Granted, I spent much of 2021 gradually consuming two 1,000+ page tomes: the final, supersized-compared-to-the-others volume of Knausgard’s six-part magnum opus, and Don Quixote, which I’ve always wanted to tackle despite having long since given away my used paperback copy acquired in my 20s. I feel like I never need to re-read either again but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy them. Both exemplified the notion “the journey outweighs the destination” that Infinite Jest and 1Q84 had for me previously.
My complete 2021 Booklist, with titles in chronological order of when I finished reading them (starred entries are books I’ve re-read):
- Michaelangelo Matos, Can’t Slow Down
- Jennifer Lewis, The Mother Of Black Hollywood: A Memoir
- Merrill Markoe, We Saw Scenery: The Early Diaries Of…
- Emma Cline, Daddy: Stories
- Mo Rocca, Mobituaries
- Jill Lepore, The Secret History of Wonder Woman
- Rachel Bloom, I Want To Be Where The Normal People Are
- Mark Harris, Mike Nichols: A Life
- Patricia Lockwood, Priestdaddy
- Hanif Abdurraqib, A Little Devil In America: Notes In Praise of Black Performance
- Karl Ove Knausgard, My Struggle, Book Six
- Jonathan Lethem, The Arrest
- Lockwood, No One Is Talking About This
- Kurt Vonnegut, Palm Sunday*
- Bill Cunningham, Fashion Climbing
- Ann Patchett, The Magician’s Assistant
- Jenny Lawson, Broken (In the Best Possible Way)
- Christopher Finch, Jim Henson: The Works
- Dave Holmes, Party Of One: A Memoir In 21 Songs*
- Elizabeth Hardwick, Sleepless Nights
- Alison Bechdel, The Secret To Superhuman Strength
- Dale Peck, What Burns: Stories
- Dylan Jones (ed.), Sweet Dreams: From Club Culture to Club Style
- Donna Tartt, A Secret History
- Haruki Murakami, First Person Singular
- Kate Atkinson, Transcription
- Tom Scharpling, It Never Ends
- Barry Sonnenfeld, Barry Sonnenfeld, Call Your Mother
- Karen Tongson, Why Karen Carpenter Matters
- Ian Bourland, 33 1/3: Blue Lines
- Joseph Lanza, Elevator Music
- Greil Marcus, Real Life Rock
- Rob Sheffield, Dreaming The Beatles*
- Francine Prose, The Vixen
- Michelle Zauner, Crying In H Mart: A Memoir
- Jennifer Finney Boylan, She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders*
- Marilynne Robinson, Lila
- Jonathan Ames, A Man Named Doll
- Douglas Coupland, The Gum Thief
- Rachel Kushner, The Hard Crowd: Essays 2000-2020
- Richard Russo, Chances Are
- John Dos Passos, The 42nd Parallel
- Dana Spiotta, Wayward
- Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, When Women Invented Television
- Emm Gryner, The Healing Power of Singing
- Tracey Thorn, My Rock ‘n’ Roll Friend
- Peter Heller, The Guide
- Elizabeth McCracken, The Souvenir Museum: Stories
- George Saunders, Tenth of December
- Geoff Dyer, But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz*
- Michael Cunningham, The Hours*
- Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote
- Stanley Tucci, Taste: My Life Through Food
- Susan Orlean, On Animals
- David Sedaris, A Carnival of Snackery: Diaries 2003-2020