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The Best Things We Read This Year

Our brains continued to rot in 2021, but we still managed to read some pretty great books, articles, and yes, Instagram posts.

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Another year is over. Another year is over? What in the hell? Sure, time is myth and a construct, but also, it inevitably, makes you look back at the last “12” “months” and ask yourself: What just happened here?

Alas, we’re not here to answer that question, thank god. We’re here to talk about things we read that really stood out among the crap (there was so much crap) in 2021. Here are just a few of the great pieces/books/etc. that our staff read this year, and please, please, tell us your own favorites! We’re talking anything from a 800-page biography to a dumb tweet. Like honestly, if you named any line from Succession, you’d be right. Okay, let’s get reading.

Paul Blest: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

I haven’t read a whole lot of fiction in the last several years and particularly not novels. But over the summer, I decided to force myself to read something other than the monumentally depressing news I encounter every day, and so I plucked my girlfriend’s copy of this off our bookshelf. I blitzed my way through it, being equally struck by the sharpness of the writing and how emotional and unsettling the story—about a man who was ostracized out of his close friend group as a teenager and his search to find out why—was. Since then I’ve read Kafka on the Shore and I’m now working my way through Norwegian Wood and What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Kafka might be my favorite of the two, but this book was a compelling introduction to someone who’s quickly becoming one of my favorite writers.

Sam Grasso: “Dave Chappelle’s ‘Some Of My Best Friends Are Trans’ Story Doesn’t Hold Up” by Michael Hobbes

I love a good “there is actually no evidence to corroborate this moral panic” story which is journalist Michael Hobbes’ (and his co-hosted podcasts’) whole thing, but I guess I am just fascinated that no one discovered this earlier or even tried to engage with the end of Chapelle’s special in any sort of discourse-y way aside from “you are not allowed to use the deaths of trans people you know as props for your comedy.” Maybe I’m wrong, maybe that takedown already existed! But this was the first read I got into seeing the validity over this. I wonder if people just resisted engaging with it because there is something a little icky about trying to fact check Chappelle by investigating a really sad, personal thing that a relatively private person (compared to Chappelle) went through, in order to be like, “Well, actually!” But though that is my setup for this piece I don’t think that’s really the framing Hobbes takes here, and he’s also someone I trust from a listenership and readership perspective to be able to deliver these kind of pieces without also in turn further dehumanizing and making into a prop the people he’s writing/talking about.

Caitlin Schneider: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke and “To Be a Field of Poppies” by Lisa Wells

2021 was the year I finally got into audiobooks (yes, listening to audiobooks is reading), and by far the best audiobook experience I had was listening to actor Chiwetel Ejiofor read Piranesi by Susanna Clarke. I really don’t want to explain the premise much because the less you know, the better. That said, it’s a gorgeous novel about a protagonist who lives in a world consisting entirely of labyrinthine house where the ocean occasionally floods the halls, statues line every room, and there is only one other living person there. It’s a “fantasy” book but don’t let that deter you, if for some reason it would deter you. It’s a plot-driven, suspenseful story that somehow ends up being a quiet reflection on self, identity, perception, human connection, and how to find meaning. I know this description is vague! It’s short, just read it! Also, a runner up in audiobooks: Jack directed me toward Meryl Streep reading Nora Ephron’s Heartburn and I doubt there’s a better book + reader pairing in the entirety of the genre. It’s a total delight.

I’ve also been obsessing over this Harper’s piece about the process of turning cadavers into compost ever since it came out for two reasons 1) I want it for myself and 2) it’s such a lovely look at what it means to think about and make post-mortem plans. This line in particular has continued to bob around my mind during the months since I first read it: “In other words, thinking about the kind of death I wanted taught me about the kind of life I wanted.” Whew!

Jack Mirkinson: The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

I don’t know about “best,” but this was my most meaningful literary experience of 2021: my year began in quarantine thanks to what turned out to be a false positive COVID test. (Word to the wise, don’t falsely test positive for COVID if you can help it.) I was…not having the greatest time. I decided to read a book I’d been meaning to get to for ages, The Remains of the Day. It was so absorbing, and moving, and I was very grateful to be able to get lost in it for a little while during what was otherwise a pretty awful moment.

Rafi Schwartz: Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials by Reza Negarestani

Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials starts out as a fun—if somewhat disjointed—mystery, which comes across as a less-Oprah’s-Book-Club-y version of The Da Vinci Code. Don’t be fooled. Without any warning whatsoever, Iranian philosopher/author Reza Negarestani’s “theoretical-fictional” novel careens wildly into a treatise that encompasses sentient crude oil, the catastrophic war on terror, apocalyptic death-dive mysticism, Lovecraftian eldritch horrors, and proto-monotheistic demonology. …Yeah, it’s weird. It’s real weird. And, only about halfway through the book that you start to get a sense that maybe the whole thing is taking a piss at your credulous expense. Written in the recursive, impenetrably obtuse language of academic masturbation, Cyclonopedia is not so much a “story” as it is a dumping ground for Negarestani’s impish ruminations on politics, religion, geography, horror movies, and everything in between. Is it virtually unreadable at times? You bet it is — but that’s part of the joke. Like its semi-spiritual forefather, Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea’s Illuminatus! Trilogy, Cyclonopedia treats history and fake-history with equal seriousness, all in the service of a larger, more holistic joke on the you, the reader, and the rest of the world, too.

Jack Crosbie:The Quiet Boy” by Nick Antosca, “Twelve Minutes and a Life” by Mitchell S. Jackson, and “Narrative Napalm” by Noah Kulwin

Ok, I’ve got a couple. The first is this short story first published in 2019 that is now a major motion picture, which I will NOT be seeing because I hate horror movies. But for some reason I decided to read this story when a friend posted it in a different Slack a few months back. It scared the absolute shit out of me and had me checking front door locks and sleeping with the microwave light on over the stove in the kitchen for weeks so if I got up to go to the bathroom I wouldn’t be spooked. I live in a like 500 square foot NYC apartment fyi so I have no idea where spooky things would even hide, but still. I won’t tell you anything about the story except that the movie looks kinda dumb in comparison but might still be good because the story is terrifying. Moving on. 

The second thing is this Pulitzer Prize and National Magazine Award winning essay in Runners’ World about the life of Ahmaud Arbery. It’s absolutely incredible, challenging historical inequities in sports and geography and just in the everyday lives of people like Ahmaud, who was executed for going on a jog in the wrong neighborhood. 

The third thing is Noah Kulwin’s review of Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, which is great, because I fucking hate Malcolm Gladwell. So does Noah, apparently, but he hates him with a precision and level of detail that I have not seen replicated. 

Aleksander Chan: This Instagram post from Sarah Michelle Gellar

Here is the best thing I read in 2021:

Credit: Sarah Michelle Gellar / Instagram

Katherine Krueger: Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder

Every once in a while I read a debut novel that makes me supremely jealous, and Nightbitch is one of them, in part because it’s so wholly original. It’s roughly about a suburban mother left largely alone with her young son as her husband frequently travels for work and any social or professional life she’s had has fallen by the wayside to serve that ultimate female ideal: Motherhood. She’s also turning into a dog, which makes the book sound much weirder than it is. What’s really weird is how women are penalized for having children, how their bodies no longer feel their own, how “staying home,” another ideal, can make you feel batshit insane. Give it to your friend who’s thinking of having a baby in the new year!

I tried mightily to remember a great piece of journalism I read at another publication this year and came up totally empty. Read into that what you wish!