First, a confession: I read fewer books during the first year of the pandemic than any other time in my reading life. It was easier for me to catch up on episodes of Shahs of Sunset than crack open a book. My mind was a sieve, struggling to sift through language and meaning. Many days, I found myself too spent to glance at the pile on my nightstand.
In the summer of 2021, when Covid cases declined and my youngest child became eligible for the vaccine, reading slowly seeped its way back into my life. I’m not sure why or how it happened, but I suspect it had something to do with the fact that I’ve begrudgingly accepted that the way we live now—masks, limited in-person social engagement, limited travel, surges of cases, dwindling hospital beds, continued deaths, anti-science propaganda, and online meetings—is our new normal. This reckoning has helped me cope with pandemic-related anxiety, and in doing so, has paved the way for me to return to pre-pandemic routines, including a regular reading practice.
This past year I read some poetry, some fiction, but mostly nonfiction. The six dazzling books that conclude my 2021 year of reading largely reflect this. They have left me inspired, energized, and ready to take on 2022, no matter what the year may bring.
I hope they do the same for you.
There are so many more interesting things about perennial Hillary Clinton staffer Huma Abedin than her relationship with her ex-husband, former congressman and convicted sex offender Anthony Weiner. Thankfully, Abedin’s memoir, Both/And: A Life in Many Worlds, focuses on her childhood in Jeddah and her illustrious career, which began with an internship with the former first lady, and spanned major advisory roles with the two-time presidential candidate and President Obama’s first secretary of state. It’s rare for me to say I can’t put a 500-page book down—but I could not put down Both/And. The daughter of Pakistani and Indian academics, Abedin is a brilliant, talented, and humble public servant, who has been a key player in shaping the past 20-plus years of U.S. policy. She has more than earned this starring role in her own engrossing narrative.
Victoria Chang’s books, whether prose or poetry (her last poetry collection, Obit, was long listed for the National Book Award in 2020) are a master class on short, tight, potent phrases. In Dear Memory, a sentient epistolary book, Chang avoids flowery and dramatic language to unspool an enchanting anthem. If the pandemic had a theme, it would be that time is slippery, that our memories serve as life jackets in an uncertain world, and that our letters to others are really letters to our lonely, broken selves. Here, Chang unspools family archives to tell a deeply provocative tale in an era when we are all relying on our memories now more than ever.
Alison Kinney’s essays about opera for various publications are an art form that matches the breadth and depth of the art itself. Her new book, Avidly Reads: Opera, incisively explores opera as a statement on politics and culture. One contemporary work she examines, Derrick Wang’s Scalia/Ginsberg, tells the story of the two supreme court justices’ bizarre friendship in light of their diametrically opposed interpretations of the law. As Kinney deftly reveals, opera, like all art, is not only a searing comment on a specific socio-political moment, but also a useful tool to expose oppression. “It convenes powerful people and forces them to listen to what’s good for them,” she writes. “But only if they’ve bought tickets.”
Steve Majors is a veteran broadcast journalist who grew up in the rural poor farming town of Batavia, N.Y. He and his family members are Black, but the source of Majors’s confusion as a child derives from his very light skin tone. In his riveting debut memoir, High Yella, he writes, “While I began to learn how to move between worlds on the outside, I still struggled to find my identity within my own family.” As an adult, Majors marries Todd, a white Jewish man, and together they adopt two Black infant girls. The adoption both fortifies and complicates his journey to understand his own origins, his community, and his ideas about what makes a home. Majors is a patient and gracious storyteller who, despite a very difficult childhood, doesn’t shy away from turning a critical eye on himself.
Saadat Hasan Manto’s posthumous short story collection, The Dog of Tithwal, translated from Urdu by Khalid Hasan and Muhammad Umar Memon, is an ode to his quirky, dark, punchy short stories. Manto, a Muslim from what was then known as Bombay (now Mumbai), was beyond prolific. When he passed away in 1955, at the age of 43, he had completed 20 short story collections. The Dog of Tithwal touches on prostitution, infertility, surprising friendships, and the subject he is most known for—the 1947 Partition of the subcontinent, an event he found to be unnecessary and absurd. This snappy collection is a must-read.
In her collection of essays, Dark Tourist, Hasanthika Sirisena does what I love most as a reader of nonfiction—she challenges, disrupts, and reinvents the form. This astute book knits seemingly disparate events of the personal, political, and cultural persuasion into a cohesive quilt. An insightful storyteller who examines disability, queerness, her Sinhalese roots, as well as “great love under duress,” Sirisena is also a critic at heart who scrupulously dissects political upheaval. Dark Tourist is also a stirring exploration of the self. “I feel like so much of my trajectory—career, cultural, sexual—has been the result not of choice or deliberation but of a series of evasions, near misses, stumbles, and, too, a deep inability to perceive clearly,” she writes. “But I am, after everything, whole.”
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