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Favorite reads, 2021 edition

Jason Gurley
Jason Gurley
6 min read

Since 2015, I've been tracking my reading habits on this web site. Each year about this time, I look over everything I've read and select five-ish standouts.

It's not easy selecting just five books when you read, you know, more than five books. In 2021, I read 117 books or book-like things. I abandoned 22 of those book-things; the rest I read to completion.

Here, then, are five of my favorite reads this year:

Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube: Chasing Fear and Finding Home in the Great White North

Blair Braverman

This was, I think, the book I sincerely loved the most this year. It's a memoir about Braverman's years spent in the frozen north: In Norway, in Alaska, on glaciers, with sled dogs. I wrote a bit about this when I read it earlier this year. Just read this incredibly visual passage:

Across the fjord, sharp white mountains softened near the shore, sloughing into low mounds like melted wax. Like most communities in northern Norway, the twenty or so homes that made up the village of Mortenhals were spread on the thin strip of land between mountains and fjord, along a beach dotted with fat wooden rowboats and wooden racks for drying cod. The fish would be served with bacon grease, a delicacy, while their heads were ground into protein flour and sent to Africa. From one rack hung two dead crows, tied by their feet with string, whose wings reached toward the sand.

In the Quick

Kate Hope Day

I read both of Day's novels this year (her other is titled If, Then), but it's this one that resonated so much with me. In it, a girl with a talent for science and mechanics finds her way from Earth to a space program, and eventually begins pulling at an old mystery's threads: The disappearance of an experimental spacecraft years before. I'm a sucker for stories of youngsters who search for answers to complicated questions—Liz Moore's The Unseen World tackles similar themes, and was one of my favorites in 2017—then put their skills to work finding those answers when they discover their true potential.

Also, that cover. Damn.

The Office of Historical Corrections

Danielle Evans

This is a marvelous, wonderful book of short stories. This is the first time I've read Evans (who also wrote the collection Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self), and I hope it won't be the last. Her short stories explore issues of culture and race in inventive, oblique ways. It's the title story that I loved most of all, which examines a public agency which annotates the real world with corrections to the historical record; its agents move about the world, affixing corrections to museum exhibits, to monuments, interjecting in overheard conversations, all to set the record straight. The narrator finds herself drawn into a faraway mystery, a historical event that might not have happened the way history itself believes it did, and...well, it's terrifically complicated in the best way. I'd say more, but I'm off to read Evans's previous collection now.

Several People Are Typing

Calvin Kasulke

I really love unconventional novels, particularly epistolary ones, and Kasulke's book more than fits the bill. It's the story of a PR firm employee who is accidentally uploaded into his company's Slack workspace, and can't escape. The entire novel is a transcript of Slack conversations. It's criminal to say more than that, I think; if that intrigues you, and none of it annoys you, then this book is exactly for you.

Weather and Dept. of Speculation

Jenny Offill

I was a bit late discovering Jenny Offill's books. Dept. of Speculation came out in 2014, and I only got around to it this year. I love it when a very-hyped book turns out to have been worth every bit of its praise. Speculation was fantastic, and I moved straight into Offill's most recent release, Weather. It's hard to describe what these two novels are about, except to say they're charming and smart. Each is written in such a way that you occupy the narrator's brain: They slip effortlessly from one thought to another, in a series of tiny, chiclet-sized paragraphs. It's almost impossible to stop reading either of these books; the little paragraphs, each so easily conquerable, just keep pulling you deeper into the books.

But wait...!

This year wasn't like other years, not really. I mean, it was sort of like 2020, no? It wasn't a normal year. I don't know about you, but my reading habits weren't typical this year at all. For the first three or four months of the year, in fact, I read only Superman comics, and nothing else at all.

There were many more than just five books I loved reading this year. I can't not mention those, too:

Light from Uncommon Stars

Ryka Aoki

This is the last book I read in 2021, and it defies easy synopsis. It's a novel about a violin teacher who sold her soul to the devil, and to regain it, must give hell seven more violin prodigy souls. That would be enough, I think, wouldn't it? This is a novel of escaping: The teacher escapes her fate by trading others' souls. A transgender prodigy escapes her abusive father. And a family of extraterrestrials escapes interstellar war, hides out in Los Angeles and runs a donut shop. It's a lovely, baffling, hilarious novel.  

Naomi, Season One

Brian Michael Bendis

During my comic book bender early in the year, I came across this book, about a teenager whose curiosity about superheroes and her own history triggers a cosmic search...for her. This book is marvelous. Naomi's intelligent, defiant, strong, and multi-layered, and her quest for understanding keeps unfolding until the picture is galaxies wide. And holy hell, Jamal Campbell's art is beautiful.

Factory Summers

Guy Delisle

As a teenager, cartoonist Guy spent his summers working for a Canadian pulp and paper factory. This graphic novel follows him as he tries to fit in with the stereotypically macho worker crowd, as he learns to operate immense, life-threatening machines, as he searches for himself after hours in library stacks, finding a piece of him, eventually, in the world of comics and animation. Loved every bit of this book, a peek into a world I've never spent any time in.

The Encyclopedia of Early Earth

Isabel Greenberg

Isabel Greenberg's book is majestic and wild, and I loved every page of it. In Encyclopedia, she tells the story of the history that came before our own, where the people of early Earth believed in things larger than themselves. While the book contains many interlinked stories, the primary story, of a young man and woman who fall in love but can never touch, is one of the best things I read all year.

Klara and the Sun

Kazuo Ishiguro

This is Ishiguro's first novel since he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017, and it's absolutely not what I might have anticipated he would write next. Klara is a novel of science fiction in a grounded world, the story of an Artificial Friend who hopes to be chosen someday, and eventually becomes the companion of a young girl. It's a novel in which very little seems to happen, as with many of Ishiguro's novels, but with whose characters I hope to spend more time someday. It practically begs for a second and third and fourth read-through; there's a lot more here to reveal, I think. And Ishiguro's prose, as always, is spare and delicate.

Several Short Sentences About Writing

Veryln Klinkenborg

I've been reading this book in bursts all year long. Vinton McCabe, in the New York Journal of Books, wrote, "Best book on writing. Ever." And I think he might be right. Klinkenborg's book is written unconventionally, almost like a prose poem, and focuses on the most valuable tool a writer has: Their sentences.

In fact, you're distracted from the sentence by your intention
And by wondering how soon you'll be done.
You're distracted from the only thing of any value to the reader.

or

But imagine this:
You begin to compose a sentence in your head.
You don't write it down.
You let the sentence play through your mind again.
         (It's only six words long.)
You replace one or two of the words.
You adjust the rhythm by changing the verb.
You discard the metaphor.
You decide you like the sentence.
You write it down.
Is this composition?
Or revision?

I read this book with a pencil in hand. After scribbling notes and highlighting passages on a page, I'd dog-ear the bottom corner, so I wouldn't forget which pages mattered. By book's end there were easily a hundred dog-eared pages. This book is a treasure trove.

Severance

Ling Ma

What could I possibly say about this one except: It mashes up an apocalypse novel and a workplace novel, and what more could anyone want from fiction?

Superman Smashes the Klan

Gene Luen Yang

Of all the Superman books I read this year (and there were lots of them!) this one stuck with me the most. It's the 1940s, just after World War 2 has ended, and a Chinese family has settled in Metropolis. Soon after, they're targeted by the Klan of the Fiery Kross, and Superman—who hasn't discovered the fullness of his powers yet—gets involved. I loved this one. My favorite Superman stories aren't the ones with giant bad guys or cosmic invaders, and this one fits squarely in there, pairing Superman's own struggle to fit into society with the immigrant struggle of belonging in a new country. There's real magic here.

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