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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.

Michael Gray on Bob Dylan: Outtakes (2021) | cover

Outtakes on Bob Dylan: Selected Writings 1967-2021

Michael Gray

[Route]

In realising that works such as Highway 61 Revisited (1965) and Blonde on Blonde (1966) warranted – and, indeed, withstood – deep and prolonged analysis in his early music writing, Michael Gray was prescient. Having the critical faculties and the wherewithal to pull all of it together on paper was another matter. That he was able to do so gives Gray an unassailable claim to having inaugurated the now-widespread practice of treating Dylan’s songwriting to the same sort of critical analysis once reserved for more obviously ‘deserving’ endeavours such as Art or, in particular, Literature.

Gray’s prose is lithe, pellucid, and elegant. It’s cultural criticism as literature – not just informative and illuminating but enjoyable for its own sake as well as for what it has to say about its subject or what thoughts it provokes. With Outtakes on Bob Dylan, Gray has achieved a unique blend of fan passion and clear-eyed, objective critical judgement. – Read John Carville’s feature article here.


Eva Baltasar: Permafrost | book cover

Permafrost

Eva Baltasar

[And Other Stories]

Eva Baltasar’s Permafrost is an aesthetic novel that underscores the magnificence of a poet successfully translating poetic awareness into prose. One doesn’t read the book with a desire to know how things will turn out but simply for the pleasure of immersing oneself in Baltasar’s rhythmic prose and indulging in her darkly sardonic outlook on life. The unrestrained cynicism, coupled with the free narrative form, permits a deeper honesty than is possible for writers constrained by more conventional approaches.

It gazes in a searing way at women’s burden in a still deeply patriarchal society: the struggle of the narrator’s sister to cope with a growing family; her aunt’s struggle for a viable heterosexual marriage; the socially respectable rut that entraps her mother. But also, and crucially, the story is a paean to freedom in all its forms: freedom from the tyranny of work; from the tyranny of relationships with men; from the tyranny of social obligations. – Read Rhea Rollmann’s feature article here.


Brenda Peynado: The Rock Eaters (2021) | cover

The Rock Eaters

 Brenda Peynado

[Penguin]

The themes that Brenda Peynado tackles in The Rock Eaters, her debut collection of short stories, are rarely light. Her stories explore budding adolescent sexuality, xenophobia, and post-collegiate financial precarity, to name just a few. In the hand of a less deft writer, the collection could have become a joyless read within a few dozen pages. Peynado’s penchant for fantastical reimaginings of contemporary ails, however, makes for a page-turner.

Pulsing with imagination, The Rock Eaters is a bold statement of intent from an emerging voice worthy of the hype. Peynado’s daring alchemy of literary styles into weird, funny and deeply, compassionate stories are only a hint of the intriguing mixtures to come. – Read Derick Gomez’s full review here.


Gottlieb: Saint 1001 (2021) | cover

Saint 1001

Daphne Gottlieb

[MadHat]

Daphne Gottlieb carries around more dead girls than anyone else you have ever known. The latest one is S, and in Gottlieb’s brilliantly conceived epistolary novel set in the heyday of sex ads on Craigslist, readers will indulge in the sick pleasure of watching a young woman try and fail to run a gauntlet of usual and unusual violence between 1982 and 2013. Her name remains unknown, but the title of the novel is Saint 1001. This is a one-sided correspondence with her first love—her first lover? Boyfriend, statutory rapist, abuser, adulterer, pick what you want. 

Is this novel Gottlieb’s Bell Jar? Is it just barely falsified and sensationalized enough to count as fiction? The author has a history of inserting herself into her manuscripts in a variety of deceptive and obvious ways, and her entire collection of published work has remained focused on all kinds of violence against all kinds of women. Furthermore, to entertain the notion that the invigoratingly exhaustive catalog of harms against us in Saint 1001 is not “queer content” is dangerously insulting and laughably inane.  – Read Megan Volpert’s full review here.


The Smallest Lights In the Universe

Sara Seager

[Crown]

In The Smallest Lights In the Universe, astrophysicist Sarah Seager is revealed to be an astute practitioner of metaphor as both a form of reasoning and illustration as well as a source of artful emotional resonance. So thoroughly, in fact, is this memoir steeped in metaphor and analogy, a proper reference point for Seager’s style not that of Humboldt or Sagan, for whom an analogy is drawn up periodically to establish a particular point, but rather that of Charles Darwin, for whom analogy is found to be at the root of his entire system of thought.

Seager draws a parallel between the challenges she has faced in her scientific work in astrophysics–which is, she notes, essentially the study of light–and the challenges she has faced in her personal life as neurodivergent, as a woman in a male-dominated field, as a mother, and a wife, and a widow. She endows her experiences with emotion and poignancy using an idiosyncratic but accessible and resonant metaphorical language. – Read Jordan Penney’s full review here.


Street Cop

Robert Coover, Art Spiegelman

[Atomic / Isolarii]

Less a book perhaps than a tiny little pocket-sized issue of a magazine (isolarii), Street Cop is nevertheless one of the year’s great graphic novels. It’s conceived by postmodernist trickster Robert Coover as a messy kind of jokey cyberpunk dystopia featuring a clueless cop trying to make his way through a world gone wacky. Spiegelman illustrates the hapless hero’s adventures with a kind of deadpan collage that slurries in riffs on prewar cartoons from Buck Rogers to NancyLil’ Orphan Annie, and his beloved Krazy Kat.

Maybe this is a result of a couple of artists looking for something to do during the pandemic, but there’s still an anarchic thrill to this dizzying gauntlet of end-times modernity. – Chris Barsanti

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