2021, A Year in Reading: Best Books of the Year
I read 86 books in 2021, which is about where my reading was last year. I my review of 2020's reading, I talked about feeling as if the books I'd read hadn't leave much of an impact. I'm not sure that things have been much better this year, and I suspect that the ongoing, seemingly interminable global crisis has a lot to do with that. It's easy to anesthetize yourself with entertainment (see also my list of favorite TV shows over at Lawyers, Guns & Money), but a lot harder to give books that attention and though they deserve. So this list feels less substantial than it has in previous years. Still, there are some excellent books here that I feel privileged to have read, and here's hoping that in the coming year I find myself more able to give my full attention to all of my reading.
Best Books of the Year:
Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica
I read this book early in the year (it was a contender in the Tournament of Books, though like most genre entries in that competition it was quickly eliminated), enjoyed it, and didn't think much more of it. But as I come to compile the year's best reads, I find that it has lingered with me far more than I would have expected. Bazterrica imagines a world where beef has become irrevocably tainted, and in response some groups of people have been deemed livestock, and are grown and slaughtered for meat. The protagonist works at a slaughterhouse, and is laboring under a constant awareness of how this work is shredding his soul, an awareness that he doesn't dare express. In interviews, Bazterrica has made it clear that she intends the novel as a pro-vegetarianism screed, and indeed its descriptions of industrialized livestock rearing and slaughter are tough to get through. But to me it also felt like a story about how our society so casually designates some people as Other, unworthy not just of life, but of compassion. The society in the novel has constructed psychological barriers that not only prevent sympathy towards the livestock human, but pathologize that sympathy and make it illegal. It's a brilliant depiction of how our morality is constructed by the worldview we've been taught to take in, how hard it is to break through that indoctrination, and how heavy the cost is when we do.
The Animals in That Country by Laura Jean McKay
This incredibly accomplished debut, which also won this year's Clarke award, does several things very well. It flawlessly executes its central SF novum, in which a new type of flu gives humans the ability to understand animals, by imagining their speech not as something immediately comprehensible but as a chaotic, overwhelming flood of sensory impressions and impulses, a perspective shift that viscerally brings home how partial and limited our understanding of the world around us actually is. It impeccably brings to life the social collapse that would result from this sudden opening of humanity's eyes, and how the authorities would dedicate themselves to stamping out the growing understanding that maybe humanity isn't as in control as we like to think. And it places at the center of all this chaos an utterly unique character, an alcoholic, perennial fuckup grandmother who means well and wants to be of service to her family and the animals she's dedicated her life to taking care of, but can't pull herself together enough to make this happen. The central relationship of the novel, between this woman and the dingo she rescued and hand-reared, but who now views her rescuer as a troublesome puppy who must be corralled and guided, is a perfect encapsulation of the novel's central message: we think of animals as existing on our sufferance, when really we're just a small component of the tapestry of their lives.
To Calais, In Ordinary Time by James Meek
I've read and watched a lot of pandemic stories in the last two years, but somehow the one that most accurately captures the feel of this period is a novel from 2019 about the early days of the Black Death. As a mixed group of travelers--a troupe of soldiers, a lay priest who wants to take their confessions, the French woman they've kidnapped, their officer, a noblewoman who is running away from an arranged marriage to be with him, a young serf who wants to buy his freedom by becoming an archer, his childhood sweetheart, who presents sometimes as a man and sometimes as a woman--set out from England for the war in France, they encounter growing rumors of the plague, which is initially dismissed as an exaggeration, a way for priests to sell snake oil cures and get people in churches, and then almost from one moment to the next becomes a terrifying reality. The upheaval of the plague also upends the established social order, and creates new opportunities that would have once seemed impossible: for the soldiers' victim to speak where before she was spoken for; for the noblewoman to disentangle her romantic fantasies from the person she actually wants to be; and for the serf and his sweetheart to embark on a genderqueer romance whose definition only they get to determine. This is a bold, exhilarating piece of historical fiction that feels relevant not only because of the accident of its timing, but because of its characters' constant reevaluation of the received wisdom they've been raised with, and their willingness to reinvent themselves in the face of a new reality.
This One Sky Day by Leone Ross
An utterly unique fantasy, This One Sky Day (published in the US as Popisho) combines the tropes of magical realism and romance and sets them in an imagined, fantasized Carribbean where everyone has a magical gift but is still confused about the purpose of their life and the best way to pursue happiness. Set over the course of a single day, its concerns are thoroughly mundane--crumbling marriages, drug addiction, intolerance towards queerness, sexual inexperience, political corruption, the pursuit of the perfect meal, and the upcoming all-island beauty pageant. As the wide cast of characters makes their way across the islands, bouncing against one another and figuring out the things that are keeping them from being happy, Ross weaves together a vibrant, complicated community and way of life that are at once strange and very familiar, and all with a joking, irreverent tone. Tying it all together is a wonderful star-crossed love story whose lovers don't get together until the very last page, by which point the reader will be desperate for their happy ending. A brilliant accomplishment on several different levels, This One Sky Day deserves more attention from genre readers, for pushing the capabilities of fantasy writing forward in uncommon but extremely welcome ways.
Real Life by Brandon Taylor
The first great novel I read in 2021 was probably also the most harrowing one, a deep dive into the psychology of a lonely, struggling grad student who is drowning in the racism of the academic establishment and student community, even as the people around him remain oblivious to his experiences. Real Life takes place over a single, minutely observed weekend, during which protagonist Wallace hangs out with friends, looks in on his lab work, and embarks on a new relationship, at each point chafing against micro-aggressions and open hostility that the community around him refuses to acknowledge or do anything about. As the novel progresses, we realize how much the constant struggle of having to manage this friction--deciding whether to react, whether to risk being seen as difficult or unreasonable, whether to endanger relationships that might be useful later on--has worn down Wallace's psyche, leaving him steeped in a depression that may prove impossible to emerge from. As I wrote when I first reviewed the novel, the result feels almost like a work of horror, and all the more so in its final episode, when we flash back to Wallace's early days at grad school and realize how hopeful and emotionally open he once was. By no means an easy read, Real Life is nevertheless a brilliant one, and has lingered with me for most of the year.
Kristin Lavransdatter, Volume I: The Bridal Wreath by Sigrid Undset
Nobel-winner Undset's early 20th century historical trilogy follows the life of the titular young woman in 14th century Norway. In the first volume, Kristin falls in disastrous love with an unworthy man who puts her in a compromising position, and must convince her rightly skeptical father to allow them to marry. The descriptions of life in this time and place are fascinating, getting into the minutiae of a remote manor house and its workings, into the complexities of political alliances and the fortunes and misfortunes of the great houses, and into the complicated relationship that Kristin and the people around her have with religion. But what most appealed to me in Kristin Lavransdatter was the humanity and forbearance with which it treated its heroine. Everyone, including Kristin herself, knows that her marriage is a mistake, and that she's done the wrong thing by succumbing to the advances of her lover. But the novel also leaves space for her desires and passion, without punishing her for them. Having sex, lying to her father and community, and marrying the wrong man weigh on Kristin, but they may also be the mistakes she needs to make in order to become the person she should be, and as the novel progresses, her complicated humanity shines through. It's a rare depiction of a woman who is not a rebel, but whose life isn't as simple or as straightforward as she thought it would be.
Famous Men Who Never Lived by K Chess - An intriguing, thought-provoking take on refugeeism, this novel imagines a catastrophe that forces people to flee to an alternate universe, where everything is almost, but not quite, like the world they remember. It's a concept that effectively literalizes the alienation and loneliness that refugees feel, and the difficulty of creating a new life when your old one has been reduced to nothing.
Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo - My journey through Evaristo's back catalogue continues with this raucous but also thought-provoking tale of black queerness, narrated by a successful Windrush generation immigrant who has for years kept his long-standing affair with his best friend a secret from his family. As his lies start to come apart over the course of a single week, this lovable but flawed hero must contend with the damage he's done and that has been done to him, and decide whether he has the courage to live openly and honestly.
The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson - My review of this novel was decidedly mixed and frustrated, and as I wrote there, I found the actual experience of reading it rather challenging. But as I come to close out the year, I can't help but appreciate this effort, perhaps the first novel to not only address climate change but imagine how we might go about dealing with it, and what will be required to accomplish this. It's not a perfect novel, but it might be a necessary one.