By the time this newsletter reaches your inbox, I will still be sweaty from writing it. I read a total of eighty-two books this year, and tasked myself with narrowing them down to twenty-one, which was daunting to say the least! What if I missed one? What if I forgot to include one of my friends’ books that I loved? What if someone reads a book I recommend and hates it/me???? I am wrought, Mary Louise!!!!!
What-ifs be damned, because here are the twenty-one books I loved most in 2021, and I hope you—if you pick up any of these—love them, too.
*Denotes an entry published in a previous SOS Book Log.
1. Pop Song by Larissa Pham*
If it could, Google would translate that to: I felt beyond seen and understood reading this book. Like the title suggests, every other sentence takes on the form of an infectious melody, filling your brain until they're reverberating beyond a sonic level. For me, Pham pushes the boundaries of vulnerability—and then pole-vaults over them. The way she writes about love—and all of its facets—is something I can’t even achieve in my journal, and I’m not writing that from a place of jealousy, but gratitude—for this author’s ability to validate a stranger’s insecurity over their unmitigated sensitivity when it comes to matters of the heart.
Beyond turbulent young love, Pop Song also explores art, loss, trauma, distance, threading the entire collection with a tenderness that rivals my brand-new Casper mattress. She tries to find meaning—from Agnes Martin’s abstract paintings to Frank Ocean’s Blonde—by piecing together all of these elements in search of totality, only to discover that the distances traveled—from Taos, New Mexico to Shanghai—are ones whose destinations remain the same: herself.
2. Dear Senthuran by Akwaeke Emezi*
Like many, I’ve been a fan of Emezi’s since their groundbreaking debut with Freshwater in 2018. They’ve gone on to write two more critically lauded novels since, the most recent being the New York Times-bestselling The Death of Vivek Oji last year. (I don’t know anyone else who churns out work like this; they have probably written their next novel in the time it took to write my last email, and all it said was “Confirming receipt.”) At long last, Emezi makes their non-fiction debut with Dear Senthuran, a memoir-in-letters that offers an unfettered glimpse into the life of a creative spirit dwelling within human flesh, and how its residence informs their gender and body, their rise to literary stardom, and their relationships with both humans and other non-humans. While there are many aspects of this memoir I can’t relate to—but respect tremendously—there are some whose arrows pierce beyond the target for me. From their relationship to their work ("All that mattered was that I took care of the book, that I became a stronger writer so I could keep telling these stories. Anything that got in the way of that had to be burned down, so I burned it down.") and with things like chronic pain ("The pain is demanding, and it takes up a lot of space. I am a ragged thing, and yet I have a community of people around me who care for me when I am suffering, which is no small miracle. Maybe that's something the pain has taught me—that I'm not alone."), they had me crying tears long overdue. It exorcised so many emotions that I didn’t even know I was harboring. Fuck, what a book.
3. Girlhood by Melissa Febos
Melissa Febos is one of those writers who doesn't just makes me feel seen, but also safe. I know the latter may be an odd thing to say about a writer, but it’s true. I need to be within seven feet of a book by Febos at all times to feel even a modicum of okay. I have her debut memoir, Whip Smart, in my bedroom, her second memoir, Abandon Me, in my living room, and now, her latest, Girlhood, looks down on me from the shelf of books in my kitchen where I love writing the most, at my dining room table.
Girlhood brims with glorious complexity, and invites us to examine our own selfhoods without the caveat of a filter. Febos considers her own selfhood by revisiting her youth and examining how her sense of self changed alongside her body, and questions the influence of growing up in a world that prioritizes the feelings, pride, and power of men before even considering the happiness, freedom, and personal safety of girls and women. Dismantling the patriarchy is in everyone’s best interests, which is just another reason why this book is required reading for all.
4. Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead by Emily Austin*
This book makes me want to write a novel. I never thought that I would shy away from non-fiction; I have one memoir under my belt and am perfectly happy with writing ten more (and a few essay collections in between) until I inevitably die an early death from choking on a cinnamon sugar pretzel from the Target café. I want to pay forward the feeling I got from reading this book. There’s a line in the book where the protagonist, Gilda, a twenty-something anxious lesbian obsessed with death (we stan), is at a bar and the band performing that night shrieks at the crowd, “How is everyone doing tonight?!” While the crowd cheers in response, Gilda says out loud, "I actually haven't been feeling well lately." Like, how is Austin that good???? Even though I finished this book months ago, I will still randomly remember that scene—or any of the countless others this book offers up—and chuckle to myself, wherever I am, whatever I'm doing. I want to give my readers that same gift. Every other sentence had me wishing I had written it—which is the hallmark of any great writing.
5. Outlawed by Anna North
Listen, all I heard was “queer feminist Western” and my chips were all in. This book is cinematic, and I’m not just using that adjective because it’s being adapted into a television show by A24. The text allows your imagination to run as wild as its characters, and by the time you’re done, you don’t actually feel finished reading it, not just because you don’t want it to end, but also because the characters feel so real that you forget that you’re not in a band of outlaws in 1894. You finish the book and for a second you’re like, “Uh, who is firing up the beans for dinner tonight???” before remembering you have a coupon for DoorDash.
We join seventeen-year-old Ada, whom we learn has been married for a year and apprentices for her mother, a reputable midwife in their community. But the only thing worse than an unmarried woman in 1894???? A barren one. So, after a year of marriage and no pregnancy, Ada’s survival depends on leaving everything she knows behind to join the notorious Hole in the Wall Gang, which is led by a mercurial yet effortlessly charming preacher-turned-robber known as the Kid, who has devoted their life to creating a safe space for outcast women. We then meet the other members of the gang, and, in no time, we’re rooting for them to transform the Wild West into a place untethered by small-mindedness and fear. It’s fucking irresistible.
6. Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters
This book is everywhere—literally. If you’re in Times Square right now, just look up, and you’ll probably see it listed as one of the best books of 2021 chosen by Amazon’s editors. This book is hilarious as much as it is moving as much as it is provocative. Its intention isn’t vulnerability—that’s just an outcome by default—but instead plunges into the messy, and reveals the beauty of the possibilities that result from confronting the taboos surrounding sex, gender, and relationships.
When Reese’s girlfriend, Amy, detransitions and becomes Ames, her hopes for a life of comfortable mundanity falls apart, and begins down a self-destructive path of boning married men. But when Ames impregnates Katrina, who is also his boss, Ames proposes raising the baby with Reese, who wants nothing more than to be a mother. It’s the possibility of this trio forming an unconventional family for me (and so many others)!
7. Milk, Blood, Heat by Dantiel W. Moniz
This was a hell of a year for short stories, starting with this collection by Dantiel W. Moniz. This book had me writhing—in the best of ways—from the beginning: the first story, the title story, is about two thirteen-year-old girls mulling over—and even flirting with—the idea of death before an unexpected tragedy strikes. Reader, I screamed! My roommate at the time was like, “WHAT HAPPENED?” I almost flipped a table—but in the best way possible. Each subsequent story threads race, womanhood, and the lives of different Floridians in their own way: a woman mourns the loss of her daughter after a miscarriage; a girl is accused of worshipping the devil by her family’s church; two estranged siblings embark on a road-trip with their father’s ashes. By the end you’re left with a collection that has charmed its way into your heart and mind.
8. Darryl by Jackie Ess*
This book by literary-star-on-the-rise Jackie Ess (who is also my pressmate! Shout out to CLASH Books forever) has been capturing the attention of every corner of the printed world, from the indie circuit to literary titans like Garth Greenwell and Samantha Irby singing its praises. And for good reason. I’ve been dying to read this book, and was finally able to sit down with it to truly devour every delicious morsel it has to offer. I did not think I could ever relate to its eponymous protagonist—a white, middle-aged cisgender man living in western Oregon exploring the cuckhold lifestyle—but stranger things have happened. *Gestures broadly at the last two years.* Like any powerful work of literature, there I was, seeing parts of myself in this gloriously imperfect man who is peeling back layer after layer of himself, trying to gain a deeper understanding of the pieces that make him up, only to discover that identity is a carousel, always moving. He's realizing that, over time, pieces that once fit seamlessly will sometimes never again. It is an ode to the messiness of self, which I will always show up for, peppered with empathy and hilarity. Darryl Cook forever.
9. Milk Fed by Melissa Broder
I’ve been obsessed with Melissa Broder ever since I joined Twitter in 20**. Like many, I was first introduced to her through her wildly popular Twitter account, @sosadtoday. If you read my own book, you know how important this writer is to me. Her latest novel, Milk Fed, is, in my opinion, a goddamn masterpiece. It is the literary equivalent of an appetite stimulant—once, in Belgium, in the middle of an eight-course-meal, I was served a sherbet-like substance in a bowl, which reignited my hunger and ergo, helped me power through the remaining courses—and the more you read, the more rewarding the satiation.
Milk Fed is a story of appetite: Rachel, a twenty-four-year-old calorie-counting lapsed Jew living in Los Angeles, structures her day around obsessive food rituals. An underling at a talent management company by day and a firm proponent of the elliptical each night, she decides—with the encouragement of her therapist—to take a ninety-day communication detox from her mother, who raised Rachel to abstain from most food intake. It’s during this detox that Rachel meets Miriam, a zaftig young Orthodox Jewish woman who works at the frozen yogurt shop Rachel frequents during her work breaks. What follows is a burgeoning relationship that intertwines food, sex, and good, all layered with the riotously funny and supremely imaginative that can only be delivered by one Melissa Broder.
10. I’m Not Hungry But I Could Eat by Christopher Gonzalez
First of all, let’s just start with the title. I’m not one for publicly calling someone out, but Christopher Gonzalez: how dare you? Now no other book can ever be titled ever again because nothing will ever be as good as this one!!!!!! This collection of stories threads tales of long nights and the cravings that come with them: we follow the lives of bisexual and gay Puerto Rican men as they reunite with a high-school crush at a bachelor party, overindulge at a diner just to extend their time with the friend sitting across from them, and discover what lies at the intersection of desire and a chicken finger. These stories are a gift and remind us that belonging comes in all different flavors.
11. Beautiful Country by Qian Julie Wang*
I met this author (and her partner) back in June when they came to one of my readings. I was twitterpated with Wang from the get-go, especially when she told me about her upcoming book, which I made a mental note to pre-order because not only is memoir my favorite genre to read, but I was especially excited to spend time on the page with my new friend. Then I read from my embarrassing gay rag, which included an anecdote about the time I drunkenly torpedoed gravy into my mouth from a solo cup, in front of this future instant New York Times-bestselling author, and now I can never look her in the eyes ever again!!!!!!!!
I started reading Beautiful Country one night last week and was cockblocked by sleep before I had a chance to finish. As I lapped it up the next morning, I already knew it was going to become one of those books that would be taught in college classes to writing workshops and talked about everywhere in between. In her debut, Wang shares her story of growing up undocumented and poor after following her father with her mother from China to New York City in 1994. Its lyrical beauty, coupled with undeniable charm, strength, and humor, not only makes it an instant classic, but unwittingly opens itself up to invite others who’ve been historically underrepresented in literature not to just embrace their stories, but share them, too.
12. White Magic by Elissa Washuta
Signs are something I believe in, which is why I was not spooked when, time and time again of making mental notes to pick up this book the next time I was at a bookstore, I was assigned to interview its author and had to finally buy this book that I’ve been wanting to read. Some might call it a coincidence; I don’t. Regardless, there’s meaning assigned to this moment of happenstance, and it’s meaning that Native American author Elissa Washuta mines in White Magic.
In this collection of exquisitely crafted essays, the writer and educator catalogs becoming a powerful witch on the heels of heartbreak, living with PTSD and addiction, and contextualizes her relationship with witchcraft in a world where it’s become more aesthetic than practice. It is also a stark reminder of the grim reality Native women face: four out of five Native women are affected by violence today. These essays wedge themselves between colonial impositions and the surreality of the ordinary. What we’re left with is one writer’s ability to find love and meaning among wounds healed and unhealed.
13. Greedy by Jen Winston
“Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.” – Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights
“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
“Is bisexuality queer? In your head you know it is—another few years and you’ll realize you’re just as entitled to Chromatica Oreos as twinks are.” – Jen Winston, Greedy
I am 1000% comfortable including Jen Winston among the pantheon of literary luminaries for this sentence alone. So much of being queer is existing in a constant state of questioning, and it’s this state that Jen Winston burrows into in her debut. Winston interrogates the things that we as queer people have learned (either consciously or adopted through social cues), our wants and desires, and how we move through the world on the whole. It is an embrace of the messiness of identity, and gives us permission to let things within us sit side by side without sacrificing one part of ourselves for another. And while Winston explores this through the lens of her bisexuality, it is also a blueprint for the many of us who are constantly discovering the new layers of ourselves, and learning to reconcile them with who we are—and who we are to become.
14. Filthy Animals by Brandon Taylor
Motion to replace Paris with Brandon Taylor’s writing as the new moveable feast. Every sentence from this Booker Prize finalist is just a delight: every sense is accounted for. Few can elevate the ennui of daily life—the mundane, the overlooked, the ordinary—into a prismatic, multilayered composition. Teeming with tenderness and sophistication, this collection explores longing, desire, and violence among a group of young adults living in the Midwest. In one story, a potluck sends the protagonist spiraling into a panic attack in the bathroom, followed by a turbulent love triangle with two dancers in an open relationship. In another, a young man contends with his feelings for his best friends before being sent away to an “enrichment program” by his parents. A young woman’s battle with cancer offers an intimate portrayal of a fractured family in “What Made Them Made You.” This vivacious collection is a triumph. No thoughts, just Brandon Taylor.
15. Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner*
Many know Zauner as the helm of the indie band Japanese Breakfast. You may also recognize her from the viral essay bearing that same name which appeared in The New Yorker in 2018. But what a gift it is to meet the debut author whose book serves as an extension to the aforementioned essay, an acutely lyrical memoir that blooms with the beauty found in complexity. Zauner navigates growing up Korean American, pendulating between the two, struggling to find a sense of equilibrium and staking her rightful claim to both; the loss of her mother; and creating a space for herself in the overlap of family and identity —all filamented by food. The love permeating from a dish prepared specifically for a loved one, which is how Zauner’s mother expressed her love. Food as communication when language barriers interrupt. Food as comfort, as memory. This book is ultimately a testament to what bonds us to one another, and to embrace the value in the most ordinary of them.
16. With Teeth by Kristen Arnett
You know that quote/meme about how the world is over four billion years old and you somehow managed to exist at the same time as David Bowie? That’s how I feel about Kristen Arnett. How fortunate are we to watch this former-librarian-turned-literary-superstar carve her space in the literary landscape with her one-of-a-kind heart and humor?
With Teeth—or, as Arnett calls it, her “mean lesbian mommy book”—grapples with the fear and uncertainty that comes with being a queer mom trying to raise a family outside the confines of heteronormativity. Despite how much she loves him, Sammie Lucas is scared of her own son. Samson’s reticence towards his mother leads Sammie to question her maternal instincts on top of taking on the responsibilities of the household while her partner, Monika, continues to devote more of her time and attention to work. Sammie’s resentment towards Monika grows alongside Samson and his increasing hostility, forcing Sammie to examine the cracks in her family’s foundation—and herself. It is a testament to the challenges queer people face—especially as parents—and honors the nuances of queerness in day-to-day life on the whole, all while finding respite in laughter along the way.
17. Hola Papi by John Paul Brammer
To say I’m a fan of John Paul (JP) Brammer would be an unequivocal understatement: his art hangs in every room of my apartment; his newsletter, ¡Hola Papi!, is the first thing I open when I see it in my inbox; and I have to fight the temptation to tattoo one of his Tweets across my clavicle daily. His debut book—which is, in some ways, a spin-off of his wildly popular eponymously titled advice column, as in it employs the advice-column format—shares his stories of growing up queer and biracial in the middle of the United States. Brammer answers the questions he poses himself about his past, his authority to dole out advice himself, all while effortlessly exuding the same charm and humor that has earned him the global readership he’s amassed over the past few years. Brammer is a writer worth keeping both eyes out for.
18. Intimacies by Katie Kitamura
I was lucky enough to interview Katie Kitamura about this book, her fourth, and then, a few months later, while we were both in a green room together waiting for our respective panels to start at the Brooklyn Book Festival, all I did was gush to the point where I imagine she made a mental note to hire security going forward. After I read Intimacies, I started to question my own talent—do I truly understand subject-verb agreement????—because the care and attention at the syllabic level Kitamura writes at is nothing short of extraordinary.
In this writer’s latest opus, our nameless protagonist leaves New York for The Hague (can I be vulnerable and expose my embarrassing stupidity for a second? This whole time I thought The Hague was just, like, an ominous-looking, nondescript building built on a cliff overlooking a tempestuous sea where Bad People are sent to be punished for their misdeeds, but it turns out that it’s an actual city, with apartment buildings and Starbucks and everything?????) to work at the International Criminal Court as a translator. In pursuit of a place to finally call home, she juggles several personal dramas: a lover, though separated from his wife, continues to be embroiled in his marriage; her friend, Jana, witnesses a crime that she finds herself increasingly invested in, especially after befriending the victim’s sister; and, when she’s asked to interpret for a former president accused of war crimes in a high-profile case, she’s forced to reckon with the unpredictability at the center of it all.
To sum it all up: THIS BOOK SLAPS.
19. The Atmospherians by Alex McElroy
One of the most remarkable debuts of the year, Alex McElroy’s The Atmospherians is a meditation on the seductive nature of faith. It is a treasure trove of themes—influencer culture, toxic masculinity, self-mythology, cults, and more—all linked together by a wit sharper than an obsidian knife blade. Truly, the humor is beautifully textured and knows when to shift from tongue-in-cheek to direct, the perfect vehicle for delivering the truth hidden at the bottom of a glass of discomfort.
Sasha Marcus, a social media darling and creator of a high-profile wellness brand, loses everything overnight—her friends, followers, and job—after a confrontation with an abusive troll online takes a horrifying turn. While the furor of men’s rights protestors rages outside her apartment to which she is sequestered, Sasha reaches out to her oldest childhood friend, Dyson, a failed actor with a history of body issues, who proposes collaborating on a new business venture: a cult. Their cult, called The Atmosphere, is located in an abandoned summer camp in rural New Jersey and is conceived with the intention of rehabilitating toxic men under the guise of a workshop for job training. Things go awry—to say the least—but your eyes stay glued to the page (or ears unflinchingly trained to the audiobook) as what transpires is a beguilingly imaginative story told in a voice deserving of a spot on everyone’s bookshelf.
20. Afterparties by Anthony Veasna So
It was pretty much agreed upon—by both critics and early readers alike—that Anthony Veasna So was a star poised for literary stardom and beyond. Unfortunately, we lost this beautiful soul unexpectedly earlier this year, but what he left behind was a legacy of words whose insight, humor, and infinite compassion glow just as bright as the light that shined from this young talent.
Afterparties examines Cambodian American life with acute emotional depth and adroit humor, while, at the same time, subverting immigrant tropes So has come across in other fiction. The stories in this collection center around the children of refugees who survived the Khmer Rouge genocide, and follows them as they try to envision a future for themselves while contending with inherited trauma. It would not be entirely true to say he is no longer with us for his words—which are an extension of him, and, in many ways, an extension of a community he’s loved and belonged to—remain a beacon of hope for many already, and many to come.
21. Land of Big Numbers by Te-Ping Chen
I’ve called Te-Ping Chen’s Land of Big Numbers a multivitamin in book form and I stand by my statement: each story serves a different purpose, but ultimately, they are all in conversation with one another. With her debut, Chen, also a journalist, aims to capture how the recent economic boom has affected the lives of people in China, and also follows the universal desire for purpose in a place where mobility is limited. “Lulu” is about a twin brother and sister who embark on drastically different paths, one a professional gamer, the other a fervent activist devoted to exposing injustice, even if it means risking everything. “New Fruit” brings joy to a community, everyone relishing each bite from this strange produce no one really knows the origin of, but the sweetness is soon overshadowed by a nefarious side effect. In “Gubeiko Spirit,” commuters find themselves trapped underground on a train platform for months, desperation to return home slowly fading into acceptance—even embrace—of their new reality. This collection—born from years of reporting on contemporary China—is a stark reminder of the challenges those swept by the riptide of unchanging bureaucracy face, but, above all else, is a love letter to its people and their resilient spirit.
21a. Born to Be Public by Greg Mania
Technically my book was released in 2020, but the paperback was released in 2021 so…just get it anyway?????????? (And, because we love a deal and supporting a small press, get thirty percent off now through January 2nd by using code “CLASHXMAS” at checkout here.)
What were some of your favorite reads of 2021? Drop ‘em below! (And don’t be surprised if I throw in another fifty down there, too.)
Art by: James Jeffers
Editorial assistant: Jesse Adele