If on your death bed you, like me, will never say you read too many books, enjoyed too much music, ate too many frozen desserts, or loved any one thing or person other than yourself beyond all reason, we understand each other. We will recall days when choosing between cookies ’n cream fro yo and lemon gelato represented complete gustatory angst. We will have mostly given up pondering and accepted our addiction to Beethoven, Nina Simone, a career, pet ownership, whacking small balls with big sticks, or That Person we can’t live with or without. We will recognize that an assignment to select the best books read in 2021 is an impossible task.
Which means a narrowed, more refined focus is needed to get this job done. Whittling back to select books written by or having to do with people and events in the Bay Area makes the project seem doable. But then there’s the internal conflict if you are wary of the hubris behind “Best Of” lists. Perhaps we share a belief that it’s impossible and even presumptuous to mount the platform of superiority to declare certain books most worthy of attention.
Faced with this dilemma, an idea dawns. What if, instead of writing about the “best” books under typical rubrics having to do with imagination, craft, singular vision, and the like, a list was composed according to books that in 2021 most changed a reader’s thought patterns. Books with bump-ability that grabbed attention and held on. Presented in a simple format minus extreme hype that identifies each book and provides the primary “because” explaining the reasoning behind the selection, these six books spring to the front of the line.
With encouragement to pick up your own copies, read and decide for yourself what you think, then find and add your own disrupters, I ask one favor. Don’t tell me what your additions are. Why not? Because every horizontal surface of my condo already looks like a Jinga game-in-progress played with books. Because my idea of interior decorating is adding more places and ways to store books. (Hey, books adhered to the wall as wallpaper, has anyone thought of that? I just did.) If you do share your thought pattern-changing books, send glue. I’m thinking of edecorating my walls.
Black Food: Stories, Art, and Recipes from Across the African Diaspora [A Cookbook], edited by Terry Bryant
I never in a million years would have predicted a cookbook would be my favorite book of the year. Friends and family know my kitchen ambitions and culinary pride are defined by being able to produce perfectly steamed fresh vegetables and knowing where to buy the best cinnamon rolls in the country. (Shout out to Great Harvest Bread Bakery in Minneapolis, MN.) Bryant’s astonishing book hits every single literary note possible and includes impeccable design, unsurpassable artwork, provocative photography, deeply personal stories and essays from contributors, and highly relevant, rigorously researched history relating to Black food. That’s not even mentioning the recipes, which foodie friends tell me are well-designed and result in delicious dishes. It’s also a product of 4 Color Press, Bryant’s new imprint under the umbrella of Ten Speed Press, so I have a new publisher to follow (and future books to add to the Jenga towers). Black Food proves a cookbook can be so much more than just recipes.
Fuzz, by Mary Roach
I love to read about science and, in a year of scorching personal loss and a global pandemic that epitomizes grief in every imaginable way, this book made me smile and often laugh out loud. Science writer Roach has a flare for finding unusual topics—in this case, the many collisions between humans and wild animals attempting to occupy the same planet. A master wordsmith of concise, witty sentences and references and questions that flirt on the surface with funny, sexy, disgusting, or just plain weird innuendo, Roach is nonetheless an intense, sophisticated researcher. The facts are many, the learning broad and references to learn more nearly unlimited, the ethical and moral implications of her topics are laid bare and nag months later for answers—and all along, I chuckled. Fuzz proves serious science can be fun.
The Confession of Copeland Cane, by Keenan Norris
I was astounded that a second novel from a writer whose first novel I admired could show such tremendous, dramatic growth and depth. I expected Norris’ sophomore outing to be unflinching when presenting a narrative set in the modern day tragedies relating to violence, racism, misinformation, and inequities experienced by Black people in America. I knew the characters would be compelling, raw, with a blend of funny and tragic personality traits and behaviors. But I didn’t expect everything about the book to echo for months in my head or to be blown away by the exponential increase of his command of language, plot, pacing, and everything else a great book delivers. Copeland Cane proves a novelist can raise the bar and topple expectations in the distance traveled between two books.
Steve Kerr, by Scott Howard-Cooper
I learned why a man who was always reluctant and resistant to being in the media placed himself as a target on the frontline in the political arena during the Trump administration. I had dismissed the Golden State Warriors coach’s aversion to media attention as an act, a little cat-and-mouse game actually meant to garner more attention, not less. For that reason, I hadn’t explored Kerr’s bio beyond basketball stats from his playing and previous coaching days. But Howard-Cooper digs deep in this biography and opens the window on why unbridled gun violence in the United States—among other issues—launched Kerr into the public eye. This is not hero worship for another NBA star: Howard-Cooper includes multiple fact-checked, first-person sourced stories about Kerr and leaves no doubt Kerr is, like all of us, flawed. Steve Kerr proves new information in an eyes-wide-open biography can entirely change misperceptions.
Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019, edited by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain
With this book I began to update and renovate lopsided knowledge gained in fifth and sixth grade civics classes, deepened in high school and college American history courses and underscored by every book involving America I have read as an adult. Ninety amazing contributors in essays and stories divide four hundred years of African American history from 1619 to the present day. Black people’s achievements, hopes, dreams, struggles, defeat, victories, enslavement, freedom, love, resentments, dignity, and more—this one-volume collection begins to fill in the gaps of what we call American history that has for so long been a tale told on the margins that erases or reduces the contributions and vitality of people of color in the United States. Four Hundred Souls proves learning is lifelong, never finished.
Street of Widows, by Cassie Fancher
Complete disclosure about this collection of short stores: Street of Widows is written by my niece. Pardoning the nepotism, or looking past it as possible motivation, this first book from a young writer simply blew my socks off. Take for example, Socks, a story with a title relating to having lost mine. In two-and-a-half pages, Fancher delivers three clearly defined characters, an instantly shocking and visceral climactic scene, a complex trail of woe following, an outline of a convincing soulmate love relationship, and more. All this, in two-and-a-half pages! Other stories live up to that one; most featuring women and girls as protagonist experiencing loss, love, violence, sexual desire, and longing while remaining resilient not only in their power but in confront their own weaknesses and ambiguousness. Street of Widows proves its worthwhile to explore young writers at small publishers like Vermont’s Green Writer’s Press. It makes me half wish she wasn’t a Fancher but proves that when good writing is involved, nepotism is OK.