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.

Latinx Photography in the United States

Elizabeth Ferrer

[University of Washington Press]

Compiled by writer, curator, and activist Elizabeth Ferrer, this work is an impressive and urgently needed survey to launch a conversation about Latinx people’s role in visually chronicling the United States. Ferrer meticulously sketches out profiles of more than 80 photographers of multiple backgrounds, styles, and thematic interests, along with displays of their work. Over the course of the book, it becomes clear that Latinx photographers, much like the Latinx population at large, which encompasses nearly 20 percent of the population in the United States, cannot be reduced to a simple monolith. 

It also makes clear how many of the struggles from generations past continue to this day. As a new generation of Latinx photographers comes of age, establishing creative lineages and role models is essential. Ferrer does an excellent job of putting these trailblazers’ names and profiles in a thoughtfully curated and lovingly crafted collection.  Read Derick Gomez’s full review here.


Lecklider: Love's Next Meeting (2021) | cover

Love’s Next MeetingThe Forgotten History of Homosexuality and the Left in American Culture

Aaron S. Lecklider

[University of California Press]

In the virulently anti-Communist and homophobic climate of the postwar era, many feared any association between the emerging lesbian and gay cause and Communism. As Aaron S. Lecklider points out in Love’s Next Meeting, the “Cold War targeting of both homosexuals and Communists was not…an entirely irrational coupling.” Rather, “it responded to the very real—and legitimately overlapping—threats each group posted to the dominant social order of the postwar United States.” As Lecklider shows, through a combination of meticulous archival research and astute, often surprising analysis, in the decades before Stonewall, homosexual and gender nonconforming men and women were fighting for liberation through involvement with the Left, which in this account, is mainly the Communist Party, the largest and most significant leftist organization.

Lecklider’s characterization of the Left-homosexual relationship as “never easy” must be kept in mind. Some Communists and fellow travelers were hostile to non-normative sexuality and gender expression. He aims to “demystify the attraction of the Left for many sexual dissidents” while capturing the complexity of the relationship between the radical Left and homosexuality before sexual liberation. – Read George de Stefano’s feature article here.


The Magician

Colm Toibin

[Simon & Schuster ]

There is a very real possibility that Colm Toibin’s obituary will describe him as a novelist who was best remembered for his novels about other novelists. Certainly, 2009’s Brooklyn was a hugely popular, light and cheerful (by Toibin’s standards, anyway) immigrant tale that was far more likely to be picked up by book club members than The Master (2004), his weightier and complex portrait of Henry James.

Toibin cements his reputation with The Magician, a novel that tracks novelist Thomas Mann from childhood (disappointing son of a wealthy merchant) through young adulthood (struggling writer in competition with golden-boy brother) to maturity (world-famous writer) against the tumultuous, convulsing backdrop of mid-century Germany. The layered, unhurried style fittingly evokes the period and Mann’s style, which preferred to subtly hint at rather than unravel secrets. Mann himself comes across as a man quietly determined to keep to himself and let his passions (frustrations about the world, his barely acknowledged homosexuality) unfurl on the page, at least until the world and its attendant Nazis smash in the door. – Chris Barsanti


Lauren Groff: Matrix (2021) | cover

Matrix

Lauren Groff

[Riverhead]

In a drizzly England bearing “the weariness of late Lent” circa 1158, 17-year-old Marie—recently outcast from the court of France’s Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, the object of her affection—shows up at the doorstep of a crumbling abbey filled with starving nuns who have been ordered to take her in as their new prioress. Though heartbroken and marooned, Marie takes to her new life with a surprising determination. In a few years, she has turned the abbey into a thriving center of power, acquiring enough land and influence to incur the wrath of nearby commoners, who suspect feminine witchcraft.

Lauren Groff’s novel thrums with the electric sensations of a pre-modern world, sparked with manias and lyrical passions. Its energies are channeled through the voice of Marie, who balances keen rationality (deftly maneuvering her sisters through the dangers of a patriarchal and vengeful world) with heartfelt religiosity (her visions are written with the richness of medieval tapestries) and heated passions. While all that might sound like an overstuffed bag, Groff’s style is clean and cutting, shivering with mortality: “one blustering afternoon, blind singing useless kind Abbess Emme takes to her deathbed, where she will linger, more music than body.” – Chris Barsanti


Questlove: Music Is History (2021) | cover

Music Is History

Questlove

[Abrams]

Each chapter in Questlove’s Music Is History begins with a kind of ticker tape or circling digital signage of headlines from that given year: disasters alongside human and animal triumphs, with a particular emphasis on the success stories of Black Americans“Barbara Jordan gives the keynote speech at Democratic National Convention; Hank Aaron hits his 715th home run, surpassing Babe Ruth; Blacula is released; vs. white embarrassments: Nixon resigns; Calvin Parker and Charles Hickson are allegedly abducted by aliens; Rocky launches Sly Stallone’s career.” The Questlove Time Machine moves from historical figures to sidemen, to singers, to classmates, to backstories, to events in his personal exploration of chronology. 

Through it all, Questlove is often on foot, narrating a path, both shaggy-dog and direct, and sometimes going in reverse. While Questlove was working on his essay that would become this book, about the dissipation of Black Cool during the hip–hop era, he had to change his question from What is Black Cool? to Who is Black Cool? We’ll leave it unspoiled here, but it’s an interesting trip that concludes with Black Cool dicing out to be the difference between letting someone and making someone approach you. – Read Jason Waldrop’s full review here.


Quiara Alegría Hudes: My Broken Language (2021) | cover

My Broken Language

Quiara Alegría Hudes

[Penguin]

Writer and self-described “barrio feminist” Quiara Alegría Hudes — best known for writing the book for the musical In the Heights — has written an electrifying memoir. Her stories are told over simmering pots of rice by the strong-minded “Perez women” in her family create a base from which Hudes makes sense of her life. This work is at once a writer’s coming-of-age story, a love letter to the women in her life of all shapes and colors and circumstances, a rousing manifesto of Boricua pride, and a celebration of a diverse, lively Philadelphia. Throughout, Hudes reckons with the dissonance of telling a multilingual narrative that has survived dislocation, colonialism, discrimination, disease, and silence. 

The memoir’s evocative specificity carves out paradigms that could serve as the base — a perfectly fluffed white rice — for further exploration by generations of writers from the Latin American diaspora to come. Every sentence is filled with joy and resistance, every anecdote with the women’s resilience that pulls the family forward across any boundary if it means something better is on the other side. In sharing her story and that of the Perez women with sazón and defiant honesty, Hudes lays the groundwork for multitudes of narratives about ourselves and our families rooted in radically transformative love. – Read Derick Gomez’s review here.

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