Discover more from Emma Straub's Newsletter
My Top Twenty Books of 2021
I know, I know, it’s early for a "Best Of" list, but in case you haven’t heard, there are supply chain issues.
I usually read about sixty books a year. Some people think that’s a lot and some people think it’s bupkis. It is what it is! I should say, I usually finish about sixty books a year. (This is, of course, not counting children’s books, which I would estimate is probably closer to five hundred? A thousand? I read three books to Miles most nights, and a few chapters with River, and there are repeats but, I don’t know, it’s a lot.) I read bits and pieces of dozens more, sometimes abandoning ship after a hundred pages, or maybe just leaving the book in the wrong tote bag and forgetting about it. I try to read at least some of our top sellers at the store, enough to have an informed conversation with a customer. I read cookbooks. (Shout-out to Snacking Cakes, the absolute GOAT.) So you can give me points for those or not, up to you. I keep an imperfect list in the back of my diary (which, by the by, is designed by Tamara Shopsin, who as you will see below, can do no wrong) and while sitting here, now, in my kitchen, I see several books that I have shoved horizontally onto my shelves that I forgot to add to my list. Ah well. Such is life.
What is weirdest about my reading is that I read most things six months before they’re published. I am swimming in galleys, all day every day. Writers send me galleys, agents send me galleys, editors send me galleys, publicists send me galleys, sales reps send me galleys. Here is a picture of the galley shelf at Books Are Magic, looking pretty neat, actually.
I try to read as many debuts as I can, and write as many blurbs as I can. Some writers hate writing blurbs, but I see it as a simple, easy way to offer my support, a kindness I have been given and need to return. I think writers who have been blurbed but then refuse to blurb are assholes.
This list is a hodgepodge. Some new, some old, some forthcoming. It’s not a “Best Of” list by any stretch of the imagination, because I’m not a one woman prize committee. I’m just one reader with two jobs and two small children and a penchant for reality television and old movies. I haven’t read everything. But here it is—the books I loved the most in 2021, which I think we can all agree was a pretty weird year.
(Also: just on the off chance there is a writer who published a book in 2021 reading this, I’m sure your book is GREAT. I probably just haven’t gotten to it yet! I have unread galleys from 2017, I have unread books from my whole life, and when I get to them, I will shout from the rooftops. Maybe you weren’t worried. But if I know writers—and boy, do I know writers—you were maybe a little worried. As I’ve been saying to friends, right now I am in the absolute sweet spot of publication—the book is announced and has a beautiful face and absolutely no one has read it, so no one expresses any feelings other than excitement. I feel you.)
This list also doesn’t include the books that I’m reading now, or hope to read in the next month, including the very very good Taste Makers by Mayukh Sen, and my sister Ann Patchett’s These Precious Days, and Ben McGrath’s Riverman, that I mentioned last week, a book that will stay with me for a long, long time.
Okay. In no particular order, here are my favorite books of 2021!
Libertie, Kaitlyn Greenidge
Kaitlyn is one of the brightest lights of contemporary letters. A fascinating portrait of Black womanhood and motherhood in reconstruction-era Brooklyn. (She also has a truly killer newsletter.)
Who Is Maud Dixon?, Alexandra Andrews
Oooh, this was a delight. Literary murder, with an American Elena Ferrante-type figure at its center. Positively juicy.
Laserwriter II, Tamara Shopsin
Here is what I love about Tamara Shopsin: literally everything. Her writing is crystal clear and precise, she loves New York City, she makes perfect pancakes. Just every single thing, I love.
This is a picture of one of my children eating a pancake from Shopsin’s. You can tell it’s from Shopsin’s because it’s on a stick. You can tell it’s true love because it’s blurry.
Dream Girl, Laura Lippman
Another murder-y one about a writer! Laura Lippman is a goddamn PRO. I would have loved this anyway, but there are several shout-outs to my dad’s book Ghost Story in it, which made it extra special.
Nightbitch, Rachel Yoder
Awoooooo! Another debut. If you are a parent and you’ve ever licked something off your child, you should read this.
Harlem Shuffle, Colson Whitehead
Obviously, everything Colson writes is A++. This isn’t even the only Colson on the list! In today’s vernacular, it’s a bop.
Minor Feelings, Cathy Park Hong
This book is pure fire, pure rage, pure brilliance. Have poets write everything, I say! An astonishing portrait of the Asian American experience.
Last Call, Elon Green
True crime lovers, this one's for you! This tells the story of a serial killer who targeted gay men in Manhattan piano bars in the 1990s, and it’s terrific.
Smile, Sarah Ruhl
Another book for moms, or anyone who is used to using their face to communicate to the world. So, people? This one is for people. But particularly for people who like to smile at stranger’s babies, or their own babies. The sentences are glorious. Sarah Ruhl is magnificent.
Kindred, Octavia Butler
As I mentioned in my last newsletter, I read a lot of time travel novels while I was writing This Time Tomorrow, and this was my favorite. Butler’s writing feels absolutely fresh, and if you’ve never read her, you should.
Want, Lynn Steger Strong
This is actually the exact hardest kind of backlist to read! A book that is maybe a year old, and you just missed it when it was out. I am so glad I picked this up. Yet another crackling one for mothers of young children. I loved it.
The Noble Hustle, Colson Whitehead
Depressed Colson at the poker table. If Harlem Shuffle is a bop, this one is a dirge, but a dirge set to the EZ-listening soundtrack of a casino. I laughed out loud over and over again, and I’d read it before. This is the kind of sports book I can read. (This may, in fact, be Books Are Magic’s entire sports section.)
Landline, Rainbow Rowell
Another time travel joint! Rainbow is, of course, best known for her YA smash hits, but I love love love this tender adult love story, and it was a delight to reread. In fact, this is the kind of thing that one could read every year during the holidays.
COMING ATTRACTIONS (Click the titles to pre-order! Pre-orders matter.)
Brown Girls, Daphne Palasi Andreades
You know, it wasn’t until just this moment that I realized how many books on this list are love letters to New York City. This is a symphonic debut.
I Came All This Way to Meet You, Jami Attenberg
I think this is Jami’s best book, and the most honest. People are going to go crazy for it.
Woman of Light, Kali Fajardo-Anstine
Dang dang dang this woman is good. The debut novel from the author of the beloved Sabrina and Corina. Absolutely epic.
Mouth to Mouth, Antoine Wilson
Smart and sharp and zippy, just delectable. Not murderous exactly, but murderous- adjacent, I’d say. Suspenseful!
Book Lovers, Emily Henry
You know her, you love her, another goddamn slam dunk. There is some sex in a grotto.
The Candy House, Jennifer Egan
Jennifer Egan is the writer I most often text my writer friends about. She’s just so good. Like, Jennifer Egan doesn’t worry that she’s getting Alzheimer’s. Jennifer Egan’s brain is a fucking steel trap. If you read and loved A Visit from the Goon Squad, you are going to eat this up with a spoon; if you didn’t, well, then you have two perfect books to look forward to.
Trust, Hernan Diaz
Give me a book about the unreliable nature of books any day. Who is telling the story? Where is the truth? I think my pal Hernan should clear space on his bookshelf for some shiny things, is what I’m saying.
I am susceptible to mass hysteria. If a weatherperson tells me there is going to be a hurricane, I believe there will be a hurricane. If the forecast calls for rain, I will carry an umbrella. You may be more of a skeptic. I know there’s been a lot of noise about the supply chain, so much so that it feels fabricated by the consumer gods in order to get people to buy more things, and faster, but it’s actually really a thing. Books are taking longer to be printed, to arrive in warehouses, and to land in bookstores. If you are giving gifts this holiday season, especially book gifts, please do shop early. And please, please, if you’re shopping at small businesses, be nice.
Also! There are other great things to give that don’t have to be shipped! Like a subscription to Libro.fm, the non-evil audiobook company!
Also also, I would be remiss if I didn’t add, of course, that you can still pre-order This Time Tomorrow. Every time you do so, an angel gets its wings! Or at the very least—this writer gets a teensy bit less anxious.