What We Read in 2021
Today, The Masters Review staff looks back on the great reading—old and new—that we enjoyed in what seemed like an eternal year.
You know how your mind goes blank when a relative you haven’t spoken with in a few years sits down next to you at the family holiday party and says, So, you’re a writer? and you nod, not really wanting to engage, and they say, What book should I read? and now you have to sit there and try to recall the name of literally any book you’ve read recently but nothing is coming to you even though you’ve surely read a book recently, haven’t you? And suddenly it feels as though you’ve lied your way through your whole life and you’re not even sure you could name five living authors.
Anyway, that’s how I feel sometimes when I try to think of what The Best Thing I Read was in the last month, let alone the last 12 months. I’ve read, and read, and read, but when I sit down to name those things I’ve read, it’s like: Did I actually read anything? Yes, I have. I really enjoyed The Crying of Lot 49, which was my first foray into Pynchon. Disgraced, a play by Ayad Akhtar was upsetting in a powerful way. What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi was transportive. I also finally sat down with Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys, which I think earns the title of Best Novel I Read in 2021.
In the last week of 2021, my daughter showed me a poetry anthology. My brain hummed with excitement as I raced through old favorites. Suddenly, I came across “Birches,” a poem by Robert Frost.
I first read this as a Master’s student in an American Literature class. Years later, my daughter, then four years old, threw her wet hair over her head one day and, bending down, said, “Look, mom, my hair looks like the branches of a tree!” I immediately remembered “Birches,” and said to her, “Wow, that’s exactly what Robert Frost says in his poem! You are a poetess!” I then told her about the relevant lines from the poem, “You may see their trunks arching in the woods/ Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground/ Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair/ Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.” What is striking in this piece is how a natural occurrence has been interpreted from a human angle by Frost. He observes that, in the winter, one can find birch trees that are bowed down. He likes to think that they have become so by boys swinging on them day after day; though the reality is that ice storms weigh them down and they never really do straighten up after that. The boys in the countryside put in endless hours of play on the birch trees; this is their equivalent of baseball, their internship; for in these aerial cradles, they “learned all there was/ To learn about not launching out too soon.” Frost’s imagery in this poem is an auditory and visual delight. See how he describes the birches shedding the ice that has crystallized on them: “…They click upon themselves/ As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored/ As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel./ Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed their crystal shells/ Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust-/ Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away/ You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.” To conclude, Frost’s “Birches” was my best read of 2021. An interesting footnote: The four-year old who dried her hair at the beginning of this write-up was nominated for the Pushcart Prize for poetry a few months ago, followed by a nomination for fiction for the same prize in the first week of 2022!
Just like in 2020, I can’t pick my favorite thing I’ve read for 2021. I read 103 books and many, many short stories and essays. My top five are the books I think will stay with me for a long time. I feel like my list is full of sad books, but most of them are at least a little hopeful, too. Top of the list goes to Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither by Sarah Baume with the warning that when I finished this book, I was crying the ugly cry and I immediately texted the person who recommended it to me and demanded to know why she hadn’t warned me. That said, it’s an amazing book about a socially outcast middle-aged man who adopts an old dog. Do not expect a happy ending. Number two on the list is 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak. This one opens with the narration of a dead prostitute, and while that sounds very bleak, it’s really about the life she’s built for herself with this unlikely and lovely gang of friends. It’s quite a beautiful book, and I don’t think I’ve read many books set in Turkey, so that was good, too. Number three goes to Fight Night by Miriam Toews. I didn’t think I could love any of her books more than I loved All My Puny Sorrows, but this one comes darn close. Fight Night is the story of a grandmother and granddaughter. Toews captures the love, tenderness, hilarity, and real sadness of letting go. This one is sad, but it’s the least sad of my top five. It’s also laugh-out-loud funny. Number four goes to Evie Wyld’s All The Birds, Singing. Jake is a sheep sheerer who has run away to the English coast to escape her past. I really love the structure of this book, and I particularly like Wyld’s style of letting the reader do a lot of the work. I think a lot of people don’t like her writing because she’s obtuse, but I love it. Lastly, and the only memoir to make my top five, is A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas. I want to write like Abigail Thomas when I grow up. This book, so unflinching and honest and just plainly written but also delicate and tender and funny. I’m not sure how she does it. This was an excellent year of reading. I can’t wait to see what 2022 has to offer!
In spring 2021, with the UK still in Covid turmoil, I had time to read. Having just finished Grossman’s Stalingrad and intrigued by this part of European history, I ordered Life and Fate. Stalingrad, heavily censored by the Stalin state, only really came to light when Robert Chandler translated it into English from around thirteen different versions and various notes. The result is extraordinary. However, it holds back, Grossman probably not wanting to end his life miserably in a Siberian gulag. He subsequently and secretly wrote the sequel to Stalingrad, Life and Fate. By a miracle, one complete copy survived and ended up in the west; again, brilliantly translated by Chandler.
If the greatest Russian novel of the nineteenth century is War and Peace, then this is the greatest Russian novel of the twentieth century. The difference being, Tolstoy was not the even born at the time he set War and Peace, unlike Grossman who was a Red Army war reporter in Stalingrad during the Nazi siege. As the story goes, a grenade landed at his feet but failed to explode: he had lived this story before he even put pen to paper.
This is the story of a family, The Shaposhnikovs, their complicated interwoven lives under the siege of Stalingrad. It doesn’t hold back, it tells the horrors of life under Stalin, endless bombings by the Nazis, starvation, persecution, but above all it tells the story of the human condition, a mirror to the pit that people desperately tried to survive and give meaning to their lives.
For me, the book is genius, not sentimental, not playing things for the sake of it; but most of all, it tells a story unlike any other story I have ever read. Grossman was Jewish, his own mother taken away by the invading Nazis and dying in a concentration camp. He turns his own reality into one of the best novels I have ever read.
Last year saw, for many of us, a slow and hungover return into society after extended periods of isolation. With that return came a decline in the appetite for and act of reading which the earlier year fostered. Despite a decline in my reading to roughly a third, a number of works stand out for their language, the land or dreamscapes they paint, the interiority they magnify or the path they pave through the desert of craft.
In the realm of fiction, the works Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson and Milk Blood Heat by Dantiel W. Moniz stand out. Open Water examines two unnamed characters who swim through the open and often murky waters of affection and intimacy in a London that resists their Black British persons. As with love affairs, the book develops its own language through refrain and form as it examines art and music and dives into the characters, weighing each reappearance with meaning and questioning and memory.
Milk Blood Heat by Dantiel W. Moniz is a memorable collection of stories linked by the interiority it magnifies in its characters and the landscape it paints of Florida. The opening and eponymous story shines in its stark grappling with suicidal ideation, family dynamics, and the sacred bond girls swear to each other. The women in the collection are as striking as they are varied and the motifs are immersive in their rhythm, ranging from the biblical to the lexical to the culinary.
I am late to the party, but I also read Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom and Raven Leilani’s Luster which has been spoken of highly and aptly.
I’m using this list as an opportunity to celebrate the best novels that kicked me in the belly last year. Rumaan Alan’s novel Leave the World Behind so tightly captures the looming sense of dread that defined 2021, also known as Pandemic Redux. The novel was published in 2020 and written before we began stocking up on surgical masks, but Alam’s prose is as prescient as it is atmospheric; the slow dissolution of civilization is contrasted by the characters’ desire to find comfort in domesticity and willful ignorance (too real, Alam). Speaking of the end of the world, I devoured Robopocalypse by Cherokee author Daniel H. Wilson. If you want to question your relationship with technology, read a science fiction novel about the robot uprising that also happens to be written by a robotics engineer. Notable: The robot uprising takes place on Thanksgiving Day, and I was 100% here for Wilson’s commentary on the role of Native American people in maintaining civilization and humanity in crisis because, oh yeah, they’ve already lived through one apocalypse. Tanya Tagaq’s genre-bending work Split Tooth will sit with me for a long time; it combines fiction, poetry, memoir, and Inuit folklore to create a radically unique novel that is in conversation with Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony. Milk Fed by Melissa Broder floored me because it so willingly, and so authentically, describes the amalgamation of anxieties that is disordered eating, sexual identity, and fraught parent-child relationships. It’s a coming-of-age story about a young woman who discovers how to self-soothe, how to self-love, and how to be a person at peace with her body in a culture that demands otherwise—exactly the palate cleanser I needed last year.
I gravitate towards stories that are dark (or darkly funny) even in years that aren’t 2021. Given the times we live in, however, it’s no surprise what fiction stood out for me last year.
2021 saw the first novel by Joy Williams in over 2 decades: the haunting (and often hilarious) Harrow. As soon as I finished, I rushed to re-read an earlier Williams novel, 2000’s The Quick & The Dead, because the two books—both of which look askance at the American landscape through the eyes of its youth—felt like they were calling out to each other across some strange void. I was also happy to be introduced to Yōko Ogawa’s 1998 collection of short stories Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales (published in an English translation by Stephen Snyder in 2013) and re-introduced to Shirley Jackson’s Dark Tales, a collection that came out in 2016. 2021 was a good year for reading stories that are fearless in the face of our collective discombobulation.
I spent last year mainly reading poetry books. It was the second year in what appears to be a never-ending pandemic, and my brain craved the brief relief that only poetry can give us. As always, I deep-dived into a few authors, reading everything I could find by them. One of these authors was Jordan Abel, whose book NISHGA (published in 2021), which threads memoir, visual art, and poetry to explore identity, quickly became one of my favorites. I love books that explore identity, and I love it when the book invites me to see identity in a different light.
Another book I enjoyed in 2021 is Shrapnel Maps (2020) by Philip Metres, a poetry collection that explores the Israel/Palestine conflict through different art forms from vintage postcards and travelogues to first-person testimonies. It was unreal to see 1960s travel ads inviting tourists to visit Palestine.
During the weeks I spent in bed healing a leg fracture, I read The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait (2005) by Carlos Fuentes. Her journal, a fascinating collection of poems, dreams, thoughts, and illustrations, offered a glimpse into the inner life and mind of Frida while making me feel as if on a psychedelic journey (although the pain medication might have contributed to that.)
I ended 2021 by dedicating the whole month of December to reading novels by Mikhail Bulgakov, my favorite one, The Master and Margarita (1966), became immediately one of my all-time favorite books. If this book were a person, it would be my best friend. Or my very unhealthy celebrity obsession.
My entry for best read of 2021, cliche as it may be, is the bananas New York Times Magazine piece “Who Is the Bad Art Friend?” Endorsement below:
What would 2021 be without “Who Is the Bad Art Friend?” It has it all—abominable netiquette, casual plagiarism, racial animus, Facebook tattle-tales, good old “lying to your face,” supreme acts of cattiness (Kindly!), pettiness ($425!), and subpoenaed group textiness (brb, off to clear my iMessage history immediately), and one very underappreciated kidney donation. I’ve read this bonkers piece (nonfiction! this is real life!) so many times and it’s truly the gift that keeps on giving—it manages to get more hilarious, more outrageous, and more cringe inducing with every go. It’s a pitch-perfect gasp-out-loud gossipy dumpster fire (about a bunch of writers, no less!) that you cannot, and should not, resist.
Trent Kay Maverick
This was a year of short stories for me—their quick-hit, put-down-and-return format made a lot of sense with a new baby in the house. The two collections that I can’t get out of my head: Land of Big Numbers, by Te-Ping Chen, which managed to convey all the grandiosity suggested by that title while focusing tightly on character studies exploring exactly the kind of people who seem like they would be easily overlooked in a land of such enormity; and Gordo, by Jaime Cortez, which takes as its setting the Salinas-Gilroy-Monterey-