The pandemic shut down or curtailed many activities, but as long as the public libraries remain open, reading will always be an option. Speaking personally, I had more time than usual to read this year, in part because I spent so much time at home. For all that, I still don’t read enough to claim any kind of comprehensiveness in this list, so it’s not so much a “best ten” as a “ten I enjoyed and would recommend” list.
Bechdel, Alison. The Secret to Superhuman Strength (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021): For my money, Bechdel is the most talented and interesting graphic novelist working in America today, and her particular gift is looking inward and making what she finds meaningful to a broad public. In her latest book, Bechdel examines her experiences with aging, achieving mainstream success, and caring for her mother, while also looking back at her lifelong obsession with fitness. Like all her books, The Secret to Superhuman Strength is meticulously planned and executed, but this time she uses a full-color palette which gives the pages a lightness suggesting a new focus outward gained from years of experience.
Elliott, Andrea. Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival & Hope in an American City (Random House, 2021): Elliott follows up her 2012 New York Times series on Dasani Coates and her shelter-dwelling family with a book-length treatment that brings the story up to the present. The story it tells is complex and rooted in historical wrongs as well as present-day political and economic forces in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in New York City. Things start to look up when Dasani is admitted to the Milton Hersey School, a free, private boarding school in Pennsylvania, but what happens next shows that complex problems resist simple solutions.
Hall, Rebecca, and Hugo Martinez. Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts (Simon & Schuster, 2021): Hall, a lawyer and historian, and Martinez, a graphic artist, combine their talents to create a graphic novel highlighting, as the title says, slave revolts led by women. The process of writing and researching these stories is part of the larger story also, since the historical record has little to say about slave women, and even less to say about those who successfully defied the authority that enslaved them. Even when such records may exist, those who gatekeep the rights to them have every reason to keep them from being made public, as Hall learned after an unsuccessful interaction with Lloyd’s of London.
Jaouad, Suleika. Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted (Random House, 2021): Everything seemed to be going Jaouad’s way—graduation from an Ivy League university, an overseas job, a boyfriend—until she was diagnosed at age 22 with a life-threatening form of cancer. In this memoir, she examines the experience of being seriously ill, reflects on her early experiences as the precocious child of immigrants, and relates her experiences on a road trip, much of which was spent visiting others who had stared down death and wrote to her while she was in treatment.
King, Billie Jean, with Johnette Howard and Maryanne Vollers. All In: An Autobiography. (Knopf, 2021): If you want the condensed version, here’s a summary from King herself: “Even if you’re not a born activist, life can damn well make you one.” As a talented working-class kid in an elite sport, a girl competing in a sport where boys were favored with more privileges, and a woman who was expected to accept prize money a mere fraction of what the men were receiving, she had plenty of chances to feel like a second-class citizen. Instead of giving up, she fought back, creating the first women’s independent professional tour and setting in motion the process that led to equal prize money for men and women in the Grand Slams.
Marçal, Katrine. Mother of Invention: How Good Ideas Get Ignored in an Economy Built for Men (Abrams Press, 2021): This latest book by Marçal, author of the brilliant (and brilliantly titled) Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? (spoiler alert: his mother), looks at how ignoring the experiences of women (or worse, considering anything coded “female” as frivolous) harms innovation and delays the development and use of common-sense solutions like wheeled luggage and the electric car.
Porter, Billy. Unprotected: A Memoir (Abrams Press, 2021): Porter, star of (among other things) Kinky Boots and Pose, wants you to know that 1) he’s no overnight success, and 2) he got to where he is by overcoming enough abuse and discrimination to bury 10 people. Porter’s is a story of a survivor who figured out early on how to use the resources available to him, including the public schools and extra-curricular arts programs of Pittsburgh, to develop his talents (which also explains why he’s such a vigorous defender of arts education, which are often regarded these days as an unnecessary frivolity).
Salesses, Matthew. Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping (Catapult, 2021): Salesses, a Korean American writer of fiction and essays and a Professor of Creative Writing at Oklahoma State University, offers a useful critique of how the teaching and practice of creative writing is shaped by unexamined assumptions of the majority culture. Even if you’re not in the creative writing business yourself (I’m not), his explanations of how academic conventions can stifle creativity and lead to literary monoculture are useful, and if you are in that business, you’ll have particular interest in the strategies he offers to help get real diversity in our print culture.
Wang, Qian Julie. Beautiful Country (Doubleday, 2021): For most of us, the experiences of undocumented people are just an abstraction. For Qian Julie Wang, who came to the United States with her family at age seven, it was her everyday reality. While her parents, formerly college professors, labored in sweatshops and restaurants and hair salons, she thrived in the New York City public schools, despite the best efforts of some of her teachers to put her down. Beautiful Country captures the immediacy of a child’s experience while also offering the perspective of an adult who is now a successful lawyer (and who wrote this book on her phone while commuting to work).
Waters, Alice. We Are What We Eat: A Slow Food Manifesto. (Penguin, 2021): Waters, famed founder of Chez Panisse and early advocate of eating organic, local food, makes a strong case for the political importance of those decisions, which she contrasts with a fast food culture that has increasingly come to dominate American life. It’s not just about food, of course, but about the importance of community and hospitality and taking the time to experience your life rather than rushing from one task to the next—things that should be available to everyone, not just to a privileged few. | Sarah Boslaugh