As is tradition for, well, all book blogs ever, we compiled a list of the best books we each read in 2021.
Where has Joy Williams been all my life? Well, I know the answer: she’s been criminally underrated for the better part of her career. The Changeling, which was famously panned when it came out but is now a cult classic, starts off deceptively conventional, with a young woman named Pearl fleeing her sinister husband with a baby in tow. But from there it gets progressively stranger, especially when she arrives at an island filled with feral children who say things like “the sun is called the sun because the real name for it is too terrible.”
The first thing I loved about Detransition, Baby was the title; every time my partner saw it lying on our coffee table he would exclaim, “Detransition… BABY!!” And the novel is just as funny, playful, and irreverent as that well-placed comma. It follows a trans woman Reese, and her detransitioned ex Ames (formerly Amy), who gets his girlfriend pregnant and proposes that Reese co-parent with them. Come for the title and beautiful cover, stay for the indelible characters and razor-sharp insights about the performance of gender.
I love an author who’s willing to break his own narrative. For the first three-quarters, Real Life is a beautifully written story about a black gay biochemistry student named Wallace who faces constant microaggressions and that diffuse despair of graduate education, where you constantly wonder if you’ve based your whole life on a scam. But then the narration “breaks” from third-person to first for one climactic chapter, and like Wallace, you realize this story is layered with the complex lingering effects of trauma.
There have been many “millennial pink” books, but this is the first one I’ve loved. Remy and Alicia are dating and mutually obsessed with an Instagram influencer named Jen, who happens to be Remy’s ex-girlfriend. This obsession gradually builds to a Cronenbergian, psychedelic ending that is very love-it-or-hate-it (I loved it!).
I had no plans to read this book, and I only picked it up because it was recommended by my mentor and Ottessa Moshfegh. I was actually ready to hate this book about disaffected rich kids who do drugs and watch snuff films, but you know–the writing is really good. I’m no fan of BEE on the whole, but I now understand why this book made him a literary star when he was only 21 years old.
I was turned off by the title of this book, but boy did I get the wrong idea. Instead of a twee retelling of Little Women, this is an acerbically funny, horrifying and suspenseful literary thriller—and I do mean literary. The premise is that a pathologically shy woman becomes convinced that her husband’s latest novel is about her. It’s an absolute thrill and delight. Read it!
Ishiguro’s great gift is to create strangeness through very simple narration. Sometimes he uses this for good (as in The Remains of the Day) and sometimes for evil (as in the nearly unreadable The Unconsoled). Here, he uses his gifts for good, and gives us the story of a robot who desires above all to do good for the person they love.
A gorgeously written memoir-slash-novel about a man whose father ends up voting for Trump. If this book were what all autofiction looked like, autofiction would not have such a bad rap: it’s lyrical, emotional, potent, personal, funny, and intensely authentic.
More modern literature should tackle the problem of finding a way to live in this world that keeps you fed without making you utterly miserable. There’s no such thing as an easy job—why aren’t more books about this fundamental problem? Luckily, we have this one, which is funny and realistic and yet never boring in the way real terrible jobs are.
Rooney’s third novel follows two that made her a literary celebrity. It’s hard to follow up such a performance, but this book attacks from the angle of self-doubt: why does literature exist? What are we all doing here? It remains as funny and observant as Rooney’s earlier, rather more pleasant to read novels, but it is also self-conscious and awkward. Still, it’s a pleasure to read a gifted writer whether she’s at the height of her achievement or not.