I don’t know what happened in 2021 because I’m still trying to process 2020. Yet here we are at the end of it getting ready to welcome 2022 in hopes that things change enough for us to have some sense of motion in our lives. But looking back there are some things that distinguished 2021 as a new vibe felt across the world. Places opened and closed and opened again. Concerts finally happened with the understanding that a mask must be worn at all times except for the entire show when you’re holding a beer. Schools are doing some weird hybrid learning thing. The country seems more divided than ever. We had an insurrection and then a new president. Things looked different but in the end, felt the same. But strangely enough, the literary world has felt more open now more than ever. Diverse voices mixed with abstract ideas gave us a mixture of hope and new perspectives.
With that in mind, below are the 21 books that did just that:
1. In Defense of Ska by Aaron Carnes
Why doesn’t ska get its due as a rich, diverse genre the way punk, metal, hip-hop and electronic music does? Or more to the point, why are ska fans so embarrassed of this music they love? The era of ska shame is officially over. In Defense of Ska is the much-needed response to years of ska-mockery. No longer do ska fans need to hide in the basement, skanking alone in their sharp suits, slim ties and porkpie hats. Now the time to take to the streets and fight music snobbery, or at least crank up the ska without being teased ruthlessly.
In a mix of interviews, essays, personal stories, historical snapshots, obscure anecdotes, and think pieces, In Defense of Ska dissects, analyzes and celebrates ska in exactly the way fans have been craving for decades. This book will enlist ska-lovers as soldiers in the ska army, and challenge ska-haters’ prejudices to the core.
2. A Door Behind a Door by Yelena Moskovich
In Yelena Moskovich’s spellbinding new novel, A Door Behind A Door, we meet Olga, who immigrates as part of the Soviet diaspora of ’91 to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. There she grows up and meets a girl and falls in love, beginning to believe that she can settle down. But a phone call from a bad man from her past brings to life a haunted childhood in an apartment building in the Soviet Union: an unexplained murder in her block, a supernatural stray dog, and the mystery of her beloved brother Moshe, who lost an eye and later vanished. We get pulled into Olga’s past as she puzzles her way through an underground Midwestern Russian mafia, in pursuit of a string of mathematical stabbings.
3. Nudes by Elle Nash
4. Funeral for Flaca by Emilly Prado
Funeral for Flaca is an exploration of things lost and found-love, identity, family-and the traumas that transcend bodies, borders, cultures, and generations.
Emilly Prado retraces her experience coming of age as a prep-turned-chola-turned-punk in this collection that is one-part memoir-in-essays, and one-part playlist, zigzagging across genres and decades, much like the rapidly changing and varied tastes of her youth. Emilly spends the late 90’s and early aughts looking for acceptance as a young Chicana growing up in the mostly-white suburbs of the San Francisco Bay Area before moving to Portland, Oregon in 2008. Ni de aquí, ni de allá, she tries to find her place in the in between.
Growing up, the boys reject her, her father cheats on her mother, then the boys cheat on her and she cheats on them. At 21-years-old, Emilly checks herself into a psychiatric ward after a mental breakdown. One year later, she becomes a survivor of sexual assault. A few years after that, she survives another attempted assault. She searches for the antidote that will cure her, cycling through love, heartbreak, sex, an eating disorder, alcohol, an ever-evolving style, and, of course, music.
5. Capitalism, Technology, Labor: A Socialist Register Reader, Vol. 2: Edited by Greg Albo, Leo Panitch, and Alan Zuege
The Socialist Register has been at the forefront of intellectual enquiry and strategic debate on the left for five decades. This expertly curated collection analyzes technological innovation against the backdrop of the recurrent crises and forms of class struggle distinctive to capitalism.
As we enter what some term the “fourth industrial revolution” and both mainstream commentators and the left grapple with the implications of rapid technological development, this volume is a timely and crucial resource for those looking to build a political strategy attentive to sweeping changes in how we produce goods and live our lives.
6. It’s Hard to Say by Claire Hopple
“Give me unlikable narrators and holographic selves, remembered through strange artifacts: Bob Ross Chia Pets, talismanic jars of tonsils, oversized alligators. Give me Claire Hopple’s epistolary novel, where formal gestures towards intimacy are undermined by the content. Each chapter is addressed to someone (coworkers, old friends, former neighbors, family members, strangers, the speaker, herself); intimacy collides with estrangement to alienate what it seems to draw near. With one foot on the sustain-pedal of second-person address, Hopple’s voice is stereoscopic, conversational, baroque, displaced by questions of power and perspective. What do we know about shared experiences and closeness? What is friendship in collapsed contexts? What is “witness” when our own take is the primary allegiance? Color me haunted, disturbed, and thoroughly fascinated.” – Alina Stefanescu, author of Ribald
“Written in prose that’s poetic and rambling like a Bob Dylan song, IT’S HARD TO SAY is inhabited by characters you’d swear you’ve met before: too strange to be fictional and too funny to resist recounting to a friend.” – Shannon McLeod, author of Whimsy
“Claire Hopple writes with such concision and style, I had to scrape my jaw from the floor after reading it’s hard to say. It’s hard to say just how good this little book truly is without sounding hyperbolic, but I’ll try. It is great.” – Troy James Weaver, author of Temporal
“Acerbic, observant and wise, Claire Hopple makes magic with the flash epistolary form, translating the experimental into an emotionally affecting, lovely book.” – Chaya Bhuvaneswar, author of White Dancing Elephants, a PEN/ American Bingham Prize finalist.
7. Transmutation by Alex DiFrancesco
Transgressive, transformative short stories that explore the margins of trans lives.
Building on the success of All City, here is a wry, and at the same time dark and risk-taking, story collection from author (and baker) Alex DiFrancesco that pushes the boundaries of transgender awareness and filial bonds. Here is the hate between 16-year-old Junie, who is transitioning, and their mom’s boyfriend Chad when the family moves into Chad’s house on Lake Erie. And here is the love being tested between Sawyer and his dad, who named his boat after his child and resists changing it from Sara to Sawyer now. There is DiFrancesco’s willingness to enter lands that are violent and comfortless in some of these stories, testing the limits of what it means to be human, sometimes returning stronger and wiser and sometimes not returning at all as their characters surge forward into unknown spaces.
8.White Magic by Elissa Washuta
Throughout her life, Elissa Washuta has been surrounded by cheap facsimiles of Native spiritual tools and occult trends, “starter witch kits” of sage, rose quartz, and tarot cards packaged together in paper and plastic. Following a decade of abuse, addiction, PTSD, and heavy-duty drug treatment for a misdiagnosis of bipolar disorder, she felt drawn to the real spirits and powers her dispossessed and discarded ancestors knew, while she undertook necessary work to find love and meaning.
In this collection of intertwined essays, she writes about land, heartbreak, and colonization, about life without the escape hatch of intoxication, and about how she became a powerful witch. She interlaces stories from her forebears with cultural artifacts from her own life–Twin Peaks, the Oregon Trail II video game, a Claymation Satan, a YouTube video of Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham–to explore questions of cultural inheritance and the particular danger, as a Native woman, of relaxing into romantic love under colonial rule.
9. This Life by Quntos KunQuest
This Life is the debut novel by Quntos KunQuest, a longtime inmate at Angola, the infamous Louisiana State Penitentiary. This marks the appearance of a bold, distinctive new voice, one deeply inflected by hiphop, that delves into the meaning of a life spent behind bars, the human bonds formed therein, and the poetry that even those in the most dire places can create.
Lil Chris is just nineteen when he arrives at Angola as an AU–an admitting unit, a fresh fish, a new vict. He’s got a life sentence with no chance of parole, but he’s also got a clear mind and sharp awareness–one that picks up quickly on the details of the system, his fellow inmates, and what he can do to claim a place at the top. When he meets Rise, a mature inmate who’s already spent years in the system, and whose composure and raised consciousness command the respect of the other prisoners, Lil Chris learns to find his way in a system bent on repressing every means he has to express himself.
Lil Chris and Rise channel their questions, frustrations, and pain into rap, and This Life flows with the same cadence that powers their charged verses. It pulses with the heat of impassioned inmates, the oppressive daily routines of the prison yard, and the rap contests that bring the men of the prison together.
This Life is told in a voice that only a man who’s lived it could have–a clipped, urgent, evocative voice that surges with anger, honesty, playfulness, and a deep sense of ugly history. Angola started out as a plantation–and as This Life makes clear, black inmates are still in a kind of enslavement there. This Life is an important debut that commands our attention with the vigor, dynamism, and raw, consciousness-expanding energy of this essential new voice.
10. Antiman by Rajiv Mohabir
Growing up a Guyanese Indian immigrant in Central Florida, Rajiv Mohabir is fascinated by his family’s abandoned Hindu history and the legacy of his ancestors, who were indentured laborers on British sugarcane plantations. In Toronto he sits at the feet of Aji, his grandmother, listening to her stories and songs in her Caribbean Bhojpuri. By now Aji’s eleven children have immigrated to North America and busied themselves with ascension, Christianity, and the erasure of their heritage and Caribbean accents. But Rajiv wants to know more: where did he come from, and why does he feel so out of place?
Embarking on a journey of discovery, he lives for a year in Varanasi, on the banks of the Ganges, perfecting his Hindi and Bhojpuri and tracing the lineage of his Aji’s music. Returning to Florida, the cognitive dissonance of confederate flags, Islamophobia, and his father’s disapproval sends him to New York, where finds community among like-minded brown activists, work as an ESL teacher, and intoxication in the queer nightlife scene. But even in the South Asian paradise of Jackson Heights, Rajiv feels like an outsider: “Coolie” rather than Desi. And then the final hammer of estrangement falls when his cousin outs him as an “antiman”–a Caribbean slur for men who love men–and his father and aunts disown him.
But Aji has taught Rajiv resilience. Emerging from the chrysalis of his ancestral poetics into a new life, he embraces his identity as a poet and reclaims his status as an antiman–forging a new way of being entirely his own. Rapturous, inventive, and devastating in its critique of our own failures of inclusion, Antiman is a hybrid memoir that helps us see ourselves and relationships anew, and announces an exciting new talent in Rajiv Mohabir.
11. This Is What Happens When You Leave Me Alone by D.T. Robbins
THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU LEAVE ME ALONE is nothing short of an absurdist trip through childhood trauma leading into existential crisis and soaked in last night’s beer-flavored self-loathing.
12. Waterfall Girls by Kimberly White
A book about suicide goddesses and waterfalls.
Legend has it that the first waterfall was created when an angry sea god threw his trident into a cliff with such force that the cliff split open, spewing water like a volcanic eruption. Through the eyes of Nereid, daughter of this angry sea god, we witness the evolution of this primal waterfall into a powerful symbol of beauty, danger, and sacrifice. Through Nereid, we witness the stories of women and girls who commit suicide by waterfall, beginning with Nereid herself, and the waterfall otherworld into which they awaken. Unfolding in spiral rather than linear fashion, this bible of shifting realities and portals between life and death shines light and dark into a world never before imagined. An afterlife which is neither heaven or hell, it is as uncertain as it is beautiful.
Intertwined with the tales of Nereid and others in her world is the commonality of the Waterfall, whose elemental/diselemental voice adds its own layers to Nereid’s bible. When the Waterfall speaks, we taste the purity of the first waterfall, we catch the scent of primal element, we are enchanted by the face of magnificent beauty, and we feel the very heartbeat of water as we drown in the roar of the falls. From Nereid’s lifetime of water, through the hidden pools and passages of her watery world, Waterfall Girls is but a small sampling of legends inspired by waterfalls, woven into the heartbreak of suicide.
13. Runaway Train by Lee Matthew Goldberg
They told me I was an out-of-control train about to crash…
Everything changed when the police officer knocked on the door to tell me – a 16-year-old – that my older sister Kristen had died of a brain aneurysm. Cue the start of my parents neglecting me and my whole life spiraling out of control.
I decided now was the perfect time to skip town. It’s the early 90’s, Kurt Cobain runs the grunge music scene and I just experienced some serious trauma. What’s a girl supposed to do? I didn’t want to end up like Kristen, so I grabbed my bucket list, turned up my mixtape of the greatest 90’s hits, and fled L.A… The goal was to end up at Kurt Cobain’s house in Seattle, but I never could have guessed what would happen along the way.
At turns heartbreaking, inspiring, and laugh-out-loud funny, Runaway Train is a wild journey of a bygone era and a portrait of a one-of-a-kind teenage girl trying to find herself again the only way she knows how.
14. Therapists Gone Wild by Jeff Schneider
15. Two Million Shirts by Zac Smith and Giacomo Pope
16. A Snake Falls to Earth by Darcie Little Badger
Nina is a Lipan girl in our world. She’s always felt there was something more out there. She still believes in the old stories. Oli is a cottonmouth kid, from the land of spirits and monsters. Like all cottonmouths, he’s been cast from home. He’s found a new one on the banks of the bottomless lake. Nina and Oli have no idea the other exists. But a catastrophic event on Earth, and a strange sickness that befalls Oli’s best friend, will drive their worlds together in ways they haven’t been in centuries. And there are some who will kill to keep them apart.
A Snake Falls to Earth is a breathtaking work of Indigenous futurism. Darcie Little Badger draws on traditional Lipan Apache storytelling structure to weave another unforgettable tale of monsters, magic, and family. It is not to be missed.
17. Sankofa by Chibundu Onuzo
Anna is at a stage of her life when she’s beginning to wonder who she really is. In her 40s, she has separated from her husband, her daughter is all grown up, and her mother–the only parent who raised her–is dead.
Searching through her mother’s belongings one day, Anna finds clues about the African father she never knew. His student diaries chronicle his involvement in radical politics in 1970s London. Anna discovers that he eventually became the president–some would say dictator–of a small nation in West Africa. And he is still alive…
When Anna decides to track her father down, a journey begins that is disarmingly moving, funny, and fascinating. Like the metaphorical bird that gives the novel its name, Sankofa expresses the importance of reaching back to knowledge gained in the past and bringing it into the present to address universal questions of race and belonging, the overseas experience for the African diaspora, and the search for a family’s hidden roots.
Examining freedom, prejudice, and personal and public inheritance, Sankofa is a story for anyone who has ever gone looking for a clear identity or home, and found something more complex in its place.
18. Psychros by Charlene Elsby
A woman’s lover commits suicide. Why does everyone expect her to grieve? What if he wasn’t one of the good ones? Was his suicide another cruelty? Her grief and rage are expressed through increasingly violent sexual encounters with strangers, acquaintances, and past lovers. How many deaths does he deserve?
And why did he love death more than her?
19. Pedro’s Theory: Reimagining the Promised Land by Marcos Gonsalez
There are many Pedros living in many Americas . . .
One Pedro goes to a school where they take away his language. Another disappears in the desert, leaving behind only a backpack. A cousin Pedro comes to visit, awakening feelings that others are afraid to make plain. A rumored Pedro goes missing so completely it’s as if he were never there.
In Pedro’s Theory, Marcos Gonsalez explores the lives of these many Pedros, real and imagined. Several are the author himself, while others are strangers, lovers, archetypes, and the men he might have been in other circumstances. All are journeying to some sort of Promised Land, or hoping to discover an America of their own.
With sparkling prose and cutting insights, this brilliant literary debut closes the gap between who the world sees in us and who we see in ourselves. Deeply personal yet inspiringly political, it also brings to life those selves that never get the chance to be seen at all.
20. The Inland Sea by Madeleine Watts
Drifting after her final year in college, a young writer begins working part-time as an emergency dispatch operator in Sydney. Over the course of an eight-hour shift, she is dropped into hundreds of crises, hearing only pieces of each. Callers report car accidents and violent spouses and homes caught up in flame.
The work becomes monotonous: answer, transfer, repeat. And yet the stress of listening to far-off disasters seeps into her personal life, and she begins walking home with keys in hand, ready to fight off men disappointed by what they find in neighboring bars. During her free time, she gets black-out drunk, hooks up with strangers, and navigates an affair with an ex-lover whose girlfriend is in their circle of friends.
Two centuries earlier, her great-great-great-great-grandfather–the British explorer John Oxley–traversed the wilderness of Australia in search of water. Oxley never found the inland sea, but the myth was taken up by other men, and over the years, search parties walked out into the desert, dying as they tried to find it.
Interweaving a woman’s self-destructive unraveling with the gradual worsening of the climate crisis, The Inland Sea is charged with unflinching insight into our age of anxiety. At a time when wildfires have swept an entire continent, this novel asks what refuge and comfort looks like in a constant state of emergency.
21. on a distant ridgeline by Sam Reese
In his second collection, on a distant ridgeline, Sam Reese creates twelve vivid and tenderly drawn tales with moments and memories that linger just out of reach. Between the past and present and potential reconciliations—and with a keen eye on the subtle balance of human connection—relationships and their fractured qualities are central to this new gathering of stories.