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Best Books of 2021
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The Best Books of 2021

As is PopMatters‘ ethos throughout our 22 years of publishing, there’s a strong current of feminism electrifying our picks for the Best Books of 2021.

Consent

Vanessa Springora 

[HarperVia]

French writer and publisher Vanessa Springora brings childrens’ rights to the fore in her memoir. Consent is a difficult read but an important one. Springora articulates with crystal clarity not only the ways in which predatory men pursue their victims but the difficult and conflicted mindset this produces among victims. For years Springora blamed herself for the abusive situation she wound up in. In Consent, she doesn’t just explicate this mindset but shows how wrong it was, and how the blame lies both with the predators and the broader society that accommodates their behaviour.

Making exceptions for influential men remains a critical problem beyond the literary world. As we can see, it encompasses the athletic sphere, the scientific sphere, and the political sphere — as demonstrated across the partisan spectrum from Donald Trump to Andrew Cuomo. The scale of the problem can seem overwhelming. Yet accounts like Springora’s are a stirring example of the power that comes with speaking the truth of one’s experience. Consent has spurred a groundswell of popular protest and legislative action in France, just as #MeToo brought a number of abusive men to account in the United States.  – Read Rhea Rollmann’s feature article here.


Livaneli: Disquite (2021) | cover

Disquiet

Zülfü Livaneli

[Other]

Zülfü Livaneli has produced a novel that, despite its brevity, manages to perfectly encapsulate the remarkable diversity of modern-day Turkey. The cosmopolitanism of its protagonist – a secular journalist living a fast-paced life in Istanbul contrasts with the slow pace of life in the medievalesque rural villages where he pursues the story. He depicts to striking effect the changes that have occurred in the country during the past decade of dictatorship. His protagonist remembers the easygoing, tolerant Islam of his youth and contrasts it with the harsh, angry conservatism that’s taken hold in recent years; an Islam that feels it’s got something to prove.

Livaneli is urging us to reflect on the ways in which we engage (or don’t) with refugees, and our motives in doing so. He also offers a gentle and nuanced appreciation of Yazidi culture. He doesn’t pretend to be thorough–his narrator is in a process of discovery as well. This approach allows him to temper an exoticizing western vantage with an appreciation that verges on the mystical and poetic at times. – Read Rhea Rollmann’s feature article here.


Gay: Fugitives of the Heart (2021) | cover

Fugitives of the Heart

William Gay

[Livingston]

In William Gay’s posthumous Fugitives of the Heart, we find a dark coming-of-age tale of youthful lust tinged with comic relief. Gay’s friends and editors did a good job of creating the narrative structure of Gay’s novel, in that Fugitives of the Heart is composed of a series of set pieces that lead from one to another in a straightforward and logical fashion. What makes this novel masterful, though, is that the plot points that Gay strung along this rational throughline are, in and of themselves, wild and far off the beaten path of reason.

There is volatile tinder everywhere, and whenever these flinty folks bump up against each other they generate sparks. Gay serves up a seriously nasty brew, redolent of cruelty and revenge yet couched in highly evocative, even poetic language. – Read R.P. Finch’s full review here.


Arielle Zibrak: Guilty Pleasures (2021) | book cover

Guilty Pleasures

Airelle Zibrak

[Avidly Reads, NYU]

I just finished having brunch with author Arielle Zibrak and – okay – it wasn’t actually brunch. I curled up on my couch at home alone to read her new book, Guilty Pleasures. The book is such a fun and fast conversation that it feels like having brunch with a hilarious dear friend. Brunch like the four ladies of Sex and the City have. Where one eats piles of carbs while talking about one’s diet. Where one complains about one’s idiotic boss, who is inevitably a rich white male living a life so fancy it reads as fictional. Where one fondly remembers the finer psychological details of great sex with bad boys from days of yore.

This book is for people who wouldn’t dare change the channel if there’s an episode of Susan Harris’ The Golden Girls on. It’s for people who regularly cite the “big mistake, huge” scene in Marshall’s 1990 film, Pretty Woman, to convey their dissatisfactions. Zibrak is writing for people who have had a compact disc of the Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion (Mirkin, 1997) soundtrack ready for spinning in their car at top volume in any emotional emergency. – Read Megan Volpert’s full review here.


Michael DeForge | Heaven No Hell (2021) | book cover

Heaven No Hell

Michael DeForge

[Drawn & Quarterly]

With Heaven No Hell, Michael DeForge relishes exposing his prowess as an intelligent designer. His collection, an assortment of rich, complicated, and grandiose narratives, is founded upon his aptitude for poignant societal deconstruction, coupled with unrestrained character-driven narratives and, as long-time readers of his work have come to expect, his incomparable virtuosic use of abstracted-style cartooning. 

Through 17 short comics, DeForge guides the reader through a relentless journey of philosophical quandary and political exploration that, though thematically and ideologically connected, alternate mood, tone, and genre at an almost disorienting pace. From everyday thriller (“Role Play”) to existential and revelatory (“No Hell), from murder mystery (“One of my Students is a Murderer… But Which?”) to sci-fi allegory (“My New Stepdad is a Disgusting Bug, and I Hate Him”), each new comic feels like a perfect fit for DeForge, as he takes the best that the genre has to offer and forces it to dance with his personal artistic style. – Read Zachary Rondinelli’s full review here.


Klara and the Sun

Kazuo Ishiguro

[Knopf]

Kazuo Ishiguro’s literary feat is the pervasive irony of Klara’s sincere, unironic point of view on humankind. Even from her periphery, we glimpse a society of pervasive personal loneness coupled with and caused by sinister, systemic political and economic portents. Whispers of encroaching fascism; adults who have been “substituted”, others wearing clothing that Klara observes as “high” or “low” status.

And yet, there is something of the children’s book, the YA novel, the coming of age story, to Klara and the Sun, in its focus on adolescent self-discovery, of leaving a small world while taking something of it into a larger, more complex one. Yet Klara is not an adolescent. She doesn’t age. Can she change, the reader wonders; can she learn anything from her brief existence? Can any of us? The story ominously implies. – Read Jesse Kavadlo’s feature article here, and R.P. Finch’s full review here.

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