Five of the Best Books of 2021
Much of 2021 has been filled with a dull sense of déjà vu as the coronavirus pandemic has continued to shrink social worlds and batter morale. Many of the books our writers and editors were drawn to investigated failure, grief, apocalypse—resonant themes at a time of constant rupture and regression. Others helped jolt readers out of routines, and stretched the imagination. The works below span fiction, poetry, memoir, and reportage, but they share a keen sense of the world as it is and as it could be.
You can read the Culture team’s full selections here.
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What We’re Reading
Assembly, by Natasha Brown
“Dissolve yourself into the melting-pot,” says the narrator of Assembly. “And then flow out, pour into the mould. Bend your bones until they splinter and crack and you fit. Force yourself into their form.” Natasha Brown’s debut novel is propelled by elegant, elliptical, violent lines like that. Its story, on the surface, is sparse. The narrator, a Black woman living in London whose name is never revealed, goes to work (the job is a financially lucrative and spiritually vampiric role in banking). She goes to a party (thrown by the parents of her wealthy, white boyfriend, on their ancient estate). She goes to the doctor. There is a pointed plot twist I won’t spoil, but what makes Assembly singular, in the end, is less its story than the manner of its storytelling. The narrator’s assessments of her life, rendered primarily in the first person, are studies of evocative contrasts. She reveals, and she withholds. She observes, and she watches herself being observed. She documents the casual cruelties that shape her daily life—and she defies them. — Megan Garber
Tin House Books
Always Crashing in the Same Car: On Art, Crisis, and Los Angeles, California, by Matthew Specktor
Matthew Specktor’s sad and entrancing book takes as its topic failure, “a pattern of mind,” he writes, that is also, “when we are close to it, delicious.” A child of Hollywood—his mother was an unhappy screenwriter, his father a high-powered agent—he focuses his attention on its denizens, exploring artists meaningful to him “whose careers carry an aura of what might … have been.” Specktor is a sharp cultural critic, but he also writes with the sweet conviction of someone who still has heroes, and he opts to consider foundering a virtue. With that lens, he examines the lives of folks such as the coolly talented writer Eleanor Perry, who never got sufficient credit for work that she’d done with her husband, Frank, but then wrote a gimlet-eyed novel about her marriage; or the vibrant yet aloof actor Tuesday Weld, constantly on the verge of becoming a starlet but perhaps also saved by her ambivalence about fame. Specktor threads into these essaylike chapters a portrait of his own tempestuous allegiance to this city of dashed fantasies. Dreams, he suggests, don’t protect you. But he begins to wonder, as I did, whether failure, brutal though it is, “mightn’t have been the real pursuit all along.” — Jane Yong Kim
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
The Right to Sex, by Amia Srinivasan
In 2018, the philosopher Amia Srinivasan published a viral essay for the London Review of Books that interrogated the formation of our sexual desires. Modern feminism’s impulse to think about sex in individualistic terms, she wrote, fails to acknowledge how broader political forces shape what we want. Her incisive book expands on the original essay, covering sexual assault, false rape accusations, porn, #MeToo, and sex work. Srinivasan excels at closely analyzing, then questioning, the facts of our sexual lives that we might take for granted. In the essay “Talking to My Students About Porn,” she is surprised by both her students’ and her own conservatism, expressing wariness of porn’s power to define sex for kids raised in the internet age. She doesn’t accomplish her lofty aim of completely reimagining sex, but that very ambition is what makes the book so successful. The Right to Sex clears the slate for others to imagine a future in which physical intimacy is, in her words, equal, joyful, and free. — Kate Cray
Afterparties, by Anthony Veasna So
Afterparties often moves like a boomerang––zippily flitting back and forth among its characters to create a ricochet effect. The nine short stories in Anthony Veasna So’s debut collection feature an ensemble of young Cambodian Americans whose parents and grandparents fled the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime; this generation, though, is more familiar with the streets and storefronts of Stockton, California. So writes about this community—and about family, sex, and cultural inheritance—with a sharp-toothed, darkly comic bent. “Every Ma has been a psycho since the genocide,” one character muses; another achieves enlightened clarity about his boyfriend’s VC-funded “safe space” app while in the throes of a threesome. This Khmer choir of voices is, at turns, horny, haunted, irreverent, and hustling. The stories careen between doughnut shops and Buddhist temples, and spiritual reincarnation figures into several plotlines. So’s narrators sometimes balk at their parents’ religiosity, but they still can’t quite abandon the belief that their ancestors move among them. The author died last year unexpectedly, months before the book’s publication; one can’t shake the feeling that he, too, meanders through these stories now. — Nicole Acheampong
Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival & Hope in an American City, by Andrea Elliott
The investigative reporter Andrea Elliott met Dasani, an 11-year-old Black girl living in a Brooklyn homeless shelter, in 2012. Her family of 10 was crammed into a single room where roaches scaled the walls and the baby’s crib was heated by a hair dryer; just blocks away were posh townhouses. One of 22,000 unhoused children in one of the most unequal cities in America, Dasani—named after the bottled water that her mother could never afford—stood out to Elliott for her astuteness and idealism. Every morning, before getting her siblings ready for school, she would stare out at the Empire State Building, which, she told Elliott, made her “feel like there’s something going on out there.” For eight years, Elliott followed the family almost everywhere—to school, court, welfare offices, and therapy sessions—and researched their ancestors. (Elliot learned that Dasani’s great-grandfather was a decorated World War II veteran who—unaided by the GI Bill that elevated millions of white veterans into the middle class—was unable to secure a mortgage in redlined Brooklyn.) The resulting book is at once a tender portrait of a family, and a tour of America’s broken welfare systems and racist policies. — Stephanie Hayes
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