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.

Sylvain Cypel: The State of Israel vs. the Jews (2021) | cover

The State of Israel vs. the Jews

Sylvain Cypel


For Jewish people who live outside of Israel but are raised “within the fold”, Sylvain Cypel’s The State of Israel v. The Jews offers rare and refreshing clarity on Israel’s policy toward Palestinians and its effect on Jews throughout the world. It is emotionally and morally grueling to read – but indispensable. It seems that many American Jews, myself included, are looking for the emotional courage to admit that commentary on Israel that is not also supportive of the Palestinian people implicitly approves – wittingly or unwitting – the state’s mission of avoiding accountability. More than anything, Cypel’s book succeeds in pushing us to reckon with this reality.

As more young Jews immerse themselves in social justice conversations online, in schools and universities, and elsewhere, they begin to see that there is one issue on which they are out-of-step with many of their non-Jewish peers. For those of us taught that Jews are generous people who believe in justice and peace, it becomes a matter of personal dignity and moral imperative to bring our organizations in line with our values. It is in these conversations that the concepts discussed in Cypels’s book will be most useful. – Read Jeremy Levine’s feature article here.

Sylina Hastings: Sylvia Bedford (2021) | cover

Sybille Bedford: An Appetite for Life

Selina Hastings


Sylvia Bedford’s work is characterized by a profound joie de vivre. Her style is sprightly, upbeat, expressing her delight and fascination with human nature. Her analytical essays – even those on law – are deeply insightful, yet never ponderous or didactic, always written with a light touch and a view toward the inherent comedy and pathos of the world. Her writings on food and travel – the things she loved, perhaps, the most — are a pure delight, fully expressive of her joy in these pursuits and informed by a broad base of knowledge and experience. 

To Sybille’s delightful body of work, we can now add Selina Hastings’ biography, a delightful read which combines a light narrative touch akin to Bedford’s own with engrossing and impeccably researched detail. It’s a fitting tribute and an aspirational reminder of what it looks like to live life to the fullest.  – Read Rhea Rollmann’s full review here.

Nona Fernández: The Twilight Zone (2021) | book cover

The Twilight Zone

Nona Fernández


Few populations in the world have seen the consequences of the brutal means of so-called protectors fully convinced of their cause as intensely as Chile. All ends justified the means in eradicating the ‘Communist scourge’ that had gained political ascendancy at the ballot box in 1970. The General Augusto Pinochet-led coup bombed the nation’s democracy into the ground three years later. The exterminations of the ‘ideologically unfit’ began soon after and continued — denied or ignored by most — for nearly 17 years. It is during the latter years of this era, characterized by routine sadism, that Nona Fernández’s ingenious work of imagination is set.

In search of answers from Chile’s painful past, she imagines and reconstructs the events surrounding the testimony of a real-life torturer. Almost everyone likes to believe that they would have the courage and wherewithal to refuse an order to harm another person. Perhaps, the thinking extends one step further into having faith that authority is just and would never demand that the men and women charged with keeping order hurt their fellow citizens, or at least not without good reason. Fernández tells a tangled and disturbing story, one that requires wading through an unsettling fog in a “dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity.” – Read Derick Gomez’s feature article here.

Vibrate Higher: A Rap Story

Talib Kweli

[Farrar, Straus and Giroux]

This book serves as a gorgeous record of the influence of early hip-hop and how one of its greatest practitioners found himself immersed in the culture. Vibrate Higher isn’t just a story of hip-hop music and culture, but also a coming-of-age story of a young, intelligent artist who was finding his voice and place in his society in the 1980s and ’90s when old-school hip-hop and the Golden Age of Hip-Hop saw artists like Kool Moe Dee, Grandmaster Flash, KRS-One, Public Enemy, De La Soul, and MC Lyte, among others, as they created new, innovative sounds that electrified popular music. Talib Kweli helpfully offers a list of 16 albums that have influenced his work during this fruitful era.

He also folds in issues of feminism and misogyny and racism and Black Lives Matter, offering astute observations, such as highlighting the opportunistic attempt to de-radicalise the work and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As someone who grew up in such a tumultuous time as New York City in the ’80s and witnessed and lived through some of the most important moments of the past 40 years, Kweli has developed into a wonderful author. His synth and drum-machine-scored childhood of the ’80s is lovingly written and reveals a genuine literary talent. – Read Peter Piatkowski’s full review here.

Rebecca Hall: Wake (2021) | cover

Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts

Rebecca Hall

[Simon & Schuster]

Given the paucity of historical data (although she has meticulously extricated a remarkable amount of it, despite being denied access to key records by the present-day corporations borne from slave-profits), Hall gives life to history by alternating narrated accounts of the facts-as-we-know-them, with passages reconstructing how the stories may have played out. She puts flesh on the bones of history, bringing stilted historical legal language to life with narratives that are stirring, emotional, inspiring.

Repeatedly–and often led by women–enslaved Africans and their descendants used every means at their disposal to fight the white supremacists who oppressed, abused, and murdered them, until they won their freedom. Their example is a vital one for the fraught present, and Hall, along with comics artist Hugo Martinez, deserves tremendous credit for their work in making this research accessible. Wake is a superb accomplishment on every level and a book that every American needs to read. – Read Rhea Rollmann’s full review here.

Tanya Pearson: Why Marianne Faithfull Matters (2021)

Why Marianne Faithfull Matters

Tanya Pearson

[University of Texas Press]

Tanya Pearson is pursuing a Ph.D. in History at the University of Massachusetts. She doesn’t need the academic cred, but it’s a detail that highlights her main mission: to legitimize the contributions of women-identified people to rock ‘n’ roll music and to rock criticism. Fans of Faithfull will find so much to love in this book, and it will surely convince those who don’t know anything about her beyond the label of “Jagger’s pathetic, junkie ex-girlfriend” that Faithfull’s enormous body of work is worth a proper listen. But the true joy of Why Marianne Faithfull Matters has relatively little to do with its specific subject and everything to do with the voice of its author.

Pearson deserves the widest possible audience and her mission to make rock music more inclusive deserves expansive, expensive support. She is analytically lean and self-aware where most rock critics are bloated and self-indulgent. She is organically super funny where most rock critics are cocky showboats. Did I mention she’s also the drummer for a cool, drag-infused punk band, Feminine Aggression? The world badly needs more feminine aggression and Tanya Pearson is doing the work.Read Megan Volpert’s full review here.

Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone

Sarah Jaffe

[Bold Type]

The idea that we work because we want to, not because we need to, is a pernicious one. And although the notion that work should be ‘fulfilling’ can seem commonsensical, in her deeply researched work, Sarah Jaffe refers to the Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci as a reminder that ‘common sense itself is a product of history,’ determined by material forces. Jaffe includes a touching epigraph from scholar Silvia Federici: ‘We want to call work what is work so that eventually we might rediscover what is love.’ Although written in 1975, this sentiment rings as true as ever when words like ‘fun’ and ‘love’ have, through gamification of the work environment, taken on entirely different meanings.

When work becomes love, and we begin to see jobs, or joblessness, as markers of deservability, we underplay the need for specific legal protections. This paves the road for exploitation. Jaffe argues that the global pandemic of 2020 ‘just made the brutality of the workplace more visible.’ By dividing the workforce into one of two brackets: essential and non-essential, the language of love seems as superfluous as ever. Jaffe explains that, while she does not set out to vilify work, and that, ‘there are occasional pleasures’ to be had from it, she also believes that: ‘our desire for happiness at work is one that has been constructed for us, and the world that constructed that desire is falling apart around us.’ This book is an invitation to imagine what a different, better world could look like. – Read Airelle Perrouin’s feature article here.

Honorable Mention

Virginie Despentes | King Kong Theory | book cover | 2021

King Kong Theory

Virginie Despentes

[FSG Originals]

The autobiographical feminist manifesto that first appeared in French in 2006 and in English in 2010 had been out of print, but this year we have a new translation by Frank Wynne. Our writer makes a compelling case for the urgent relevancy of Despentes’ work today. It’s a series of seven essays on a variety of topics that each head in the same direction in the same bluntly accessible manner. The introductory essay pumps a fist in the air on behalf of all punk girls who don’t fit in. Despentes is keenly aware that most people dislike or are afraid of her, and she flips them the bird.

King Kong Theory still feels fresh, and it definitely shouldn’t fall out of print until its targets lose their stranglehold on women everywhere. Spoiler alert: Despentes will, unfortunately, continue to prove herself a necessary and sustaining voice. I expect to feel her pain and agree with her arguments no less at 60 than I do now at 40, which is no less than I did when I was 20.” – Read Megan Volpert’s full review here.