It was a tough reading year for me. Coming off my own challenging book launch of 2020, the devastation of Covid, and the socio-political upheavals across the world, I was searching for the opposite of what publishing wanted me to be distracted by—I was searching for a bit of quiet. The books I have chosen are of that ilk. There are no wild plot lines, no unthoughtful gimmicks, no car chases, rather, these are stories and essay collections written by and about people who are interested in examining the world. This is what I needed in books this year, so I offer them to you, as a healing balm for all our 2021 wounds that don’t feel far different from our 2020 wounds, except we are all the more weary.
Somebody Else’s Mama is a 1995 novel by David Haynes. Haynes is a beloved, retired professor of creative writing and has advised some of the best scribes living today. So, why did it take me so long to read his work?! Insert eye-roll emoji here. This is an enchanting story about a married Black woman, Paula, who accepts responsibility for her spouse’s elderly mother, a cantankerous woman who is not at all interested in returning to a home where terrible things happened, a house she despises. I’m at the age now where stories about elder care resonate more than they might have 20 years ago, and yet, this story doesn’t center grief and loss. In fact, I have never giggled so hard reading the first half of any book in my entire life! Haynes is a fierce humorist and though the book is sentimental in all the right places, it does not forget the healing properties of laughter. Haynes creates beautiful characters, particularly Black women, and his work is a joy to discover.
Lauren Groff does not need my endorsement. Groff has been on President Obama’s summer reading list several times, not to mention the many nominations and awards, but when you see a writer doing this level of work, you cannot help but be excited. Groff’s latest novel, Matrix, is historical fiction inspired by the life of Marie de France, a medieval poet, and the illegitimate half-sister of the queen, sent to live in a run-down abbey filled with starving nuns. Frankly, the story is bad-ass any way you cut it. Groff’s sentences, written in Francien dialect, are lean and delicious, and she creates a world in under 260 pages that makes no apologies about it belonging to women.
Monster in the Middle, Tiphanie Yanique’s novel-in stories, is quiet and wise and ultimately born of a romantic. Yanique doesn’t shy away from matters of sexuality, race, and religion, but what Yanique hefts with such care is the matter of love. The voices in these stories are rich and earthy, and while reading them, you feel like your mother and your aunty are standing over a pot, telling you about how all the mess got started when that boy Gary took off across country with that white girl, Ellie. Then, your aunty hands you a taste of whatever piping-hot delightfulness they are cooking, and though it registers as delicious on your tongue, all you want to do is get back to hearing the story. Yes, that’s the feeling I had when I read this novel. But what to make of all these stories of love? Yanique writes that “when you meet your love, you are meeting all the people who ever loved them or who were supposed to love them but didn’t love them enough or, hell didn’t love them at all..” and if you have ever been the monster in the middle of any kind of love, you know that what Yanique writes is true.
Florence Adler Swims by Rachel Beanland is the kind of novel that launches a storied writing career. It is an immersive tale about the true-life drowning death of a young woman who had hoped to swim the English Channel. Florence dies in the first chapter, but how Beanland manages the aftermath of her tragic death is what makes this story remarkable. It is suspenseful and touching, as it explores the many grieving and reflective layers of one Jewish family in mid-20th-century Atlantic City. If one can suspend one’s modern-day belief that there are no secrets, if one can remember what it was like when family could deny or persuade or manipulate or hide, then one will be rewarded with a historical novel at its finest.
I finished Memorial Drive by Natasha Tretheway and all I could say was “My God….” Tretheway is a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and the former U.S. Poet Laureate, who is also the only child of a woman who was murdered in Atlanta when Tretheway was only 19 years old. Memorial Drive is a memoir, but I wished the entire time reading it, that it was fiction. Tretheway’s writing is stunning, and her inner-child’s reflections are breathtaking. Her deep dive into the parts of her life leading up to the brutal murder of her mother by her stepfather, is not just brave, it is what people in the church call “God’s work,” because Tretheway is saving lives. Domestic violence is the terror we refuse to discuss in this country, but Tretheway doesn’t shy away from it, and her willingness to share the contents of the notebooks her mother kept until days before her death, is the antidote to the silence around this epidemic. Thank goodness for poets who make our horrors speakable.
I don’t usually read more than one essay a collection a year because I have a fiction TBR stack that can fill palaces, but when I opened Kei Miller’s Things I Have Withheld, I could not put it down. It is brilliant. And funny. And deeply rewarding. Over the years, everybody from X to Y has been crowned “the new James Baldwin,” but Miller may just be the one. He is Jamaican and gay and well-traveled and…I could go on, of course, because Miller is many things, all of which culminate into a cross-cultural, intersectional, examination that is at once heart-wrenching and hilarious. The way Miller reads the world’s response to certain bodies, particularly Black bodies and/or queer bodies and/or Caribbean bodies, and the way he explains the things we do not speak of, is unparalleled. Truly. And if you want to give yourself an extra treat, just listen to him read the collection. It is pure delight!
So, I guess I’m going to be made a liar, because I have one more book of essays, launching in January 2022, that I have to celebrate. Zora Neal Hurston’s You Don’t Know Us Negroes is a book I have been waiting for my entire life. It took me back to my AFAM 101 days, where some beloved professor explains, in the most ravishing terms, all the wondrous things about Blackness that you knew to be true but for which you never had words. Hurston’s essays begin in the 1920s and are filled with her thoughts on Black cultural expressions from the religious to the secular, and they are unrivaled, for Hurston’s voice is stout and resolute. In one essay, she claims that there has “never been a presentation of Negro spirituals to any audience anywhere,” which made me laugh aloud because all I could imagine were all the fuming choirmasters waving their hands to disagree. But what Hurston contends is that there are parts of Blackness that cannot be confined or packaged for mass consumption. And Hurston pulls no punches in this or any of her assertions. She leaves me breathless with wonder at her observations, and though in today’s world, we might consider her arguments akin to a gatekeeping of Blackness, Hurston’s work is an attempt to help folks preserve and appreciate the contributions and uniqueness of Black Americans.
Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.