The Best Things We Read In 2021
2:00 PM EST on December 29, 2021
This is what the Defector staff enjoyed reading in 2021.
Detransition, Baby, by Torrey Peters
I wrote about how much I loved this book at length back in February, but with the benefit of the rest of the year behind me, I’d like to not only spotlight Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters again because it’s an instant classic, but also to note that no other work of art or culture brought me closer to the women in my life (cis and trans) in this year. I loved hearing everyone’s reaction to it, from what it made them consider about their relationship with motherhood to which characters’ dilemmas spoke to them the most. Was it Ames and his anxious, introverted frustration? Reese and her desperate desire to achieve her illusive dreams? Or Katrina and her shaky steps into a world she’d never even considered experiencing before? And as we had all these illuminating, comforting conversations, the late-arriving realization increasingly dawned on me: All of my precious and special feelings about moving through this world as a woman, gained through my unique experience as a trans girl, were, in fact, an ordinary component of something far more universal.
In the past year I’ve grown more attuned to the ways in which a small, loud minority of transmisogynistic activists work seemingly without rest to falsely portray trans and cis women as enemies with conflicting needs and desires. But at the same time, either when we needed comfort in a dark winter or when we excitedly rediscovered the outside world as changed and matured people, I’ve never treasured my bond with the women I love more than I did in 2021. Detransition, Baby is, in one sense, just a particularly fascinating novel about an unconventional trio attempting to be a family. But with the book’s impressive success and the way that it’s positively impacted so many of its readers, Peters’s work is also to me a symbol of how at least a few of the old, hateful dividing lines continue to fade away, as TERFs become more and more stigmatized and trans people become less and less remarkable. Because of Detransition, Baby, I feel like I’m entering 2022 a stronger woman than ever before. - Lauren Theisen
The Philip Marlowe Novels, by Raymond Chandler
Raymond Chandler was obsessed with the tension between the detective stories he wrote and what was considered respected literature. He probably would have denied caring, but he talked about it endlessly, and kept returning to the question of mystery fiction's place in the critical canon. He was dismissive of most of his peers, and of the people who read the books, but also of a definition of literature that held no room for him. "The murder novel," he wrote, "has also a depressing way of minding its own business, solving its own problems and answering its own questions. There is nothing left to discuss, except whether it was well enough written to be good fiction, and the people who make up the half-million sales wouldn't know that anyway."
This tension becomes clearest by reading his seven novels about Philip Marlowe, ethical and world-weary private eye, in chronological order. In the first, The Big Sleep, Chandler has perfected the pulpy, hard-boiled writing he had been developing in short stories for the better part of a decade. It is a wonder what he is able to convey, about his characters and their world, without giving any glimpse of their inner thoughts. Subject-Verb-Object never carried so much weight. It is an accomplishment on its own, even if it is only "good fiction."
But by the sixth in the series, The Long Goodbye, the books have become something else. Something more reflective, more elegiac. They put the lie to the idea that the murder novel need be a self-contained story with no relevance to the real world. They feature Chandler working through the traumas of his own life: love and loss and addiction. They are not precious about this. A man still walks into a room with a gun to keep the plots moving, as Chandler famously put it. But these characters are more real, feeling without saying, and the reader must now consider the big questions of the universe raised in a snappy piece of fiction. The detective novel is not a limitation any more. It's a vehicle.
So, of the two ends of the temporal spectrum, which represents the greater accomplishment in Chandler's work? I'd argue it's the earlier stuff, the stuff that's "merely" genre fiction, because it's just so damn good that it's able to begin blurring the lines of genre fiction and lit-fic. He may have refined the formula over the years, and moved the art of detective stories toward critical respectability, but his real victory occurred the other way around: pulling the critical consensus toward his nasty, beautiful little murder novels by the sheer weight of presence. The 20th century American literary canon is not so inclusive that it might've considered genre fiction on its own, not without being dragged kicking and screaming toward it by a writer too strong to resist. - Barry Petchesky
Unless, by Carol Shields
Carol Shields was born in Illinois and died in Canada, where she taught English, wrote prolifically, and raised five children with her husband, Don. In the last year of her life—she had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer—she published Unless, a quietly astonishing novel about an author named Reta Winters grieving the estrangement of her daughter Norah. Rather suddenly, Norah has dropped out of school and withdrawn from her life to sit on a street corner in Toronto, holding a sign that says "GOODNESS.” Her distressed, confused mother tries to make sense of the loss. Characters are seldom so fully, lovingly realized as Reta is. The scope of her thoughts can be dazzling; the simple imagery of a dust mop dragged across an oak floor swirls into a beautiful abstraction about disorder. Shields’s work centered the “ordinary” and “domestic.” She wrote about, as Reta puts it, “small individual lives [that] apprehended the wide world in which they swam.” Unless left me with an odd post-reading feeling, one I attribute to the author’s palpable compassion. In the moments after I finished, I regretted that I’d never get to meet and thank the sharp, clever, generous woman behind such a remarkable book. - Maitreyi Anantharaman
The Organs Of Sense, by Adam Ehrlich Sachs
Gottfried Leibniz was one of the 17th century's most accomplished thinker-guys, a man of many talents who furthered humankind's understanding of science, philosophy, and the bridge between the two now seemingly distinct fields. He is one of rationalism's greatest thinkers, which meant he was therefore surrounded in his lifetime by all manner of scoundrels and idiots. It's this tension that animates The Organs Of Sense. Leibniz is sort of the main character in this puzzle box of a book, which is nominally about a blind guy looking through a big-ass telescope, told through several nested narratives.
This may sound tedious, but I promise you it is not. Adam Ehrlich Sachs writes prose that is delighted with itself, replete with unnecessary yet welcome linguistic flourishes and warm invitations to join Sachs on his journey into the arcane. This is a book that revels in the line between rationality and the untouchable, and while you do not need to be into Pynchonian nonsense or Calvino-esque cuteness, it helps. - Patrick Redford
Orwell's Roses, by Rebecca Solnit
In college, I took a class on floral arranging. Specifically, it was the course ORH 3053C: Principles of Floral Art. When I needed one more class to fill out my final semester, I took this one on the recommendation of a friend, who said it was tough but fun, and that the trick was signing up early because it filled up fast. I recall being the only journalism major in the class, which perhaps wasn't terribly surprising. When, out in the field, does a journalist need to arrange flowers?
I got a B. We were quizzed on the scientific names of flowers, which then and now I struggle to recall, let alone recite, as well as the proper titles for types of arrangements. We learned about the types of flowers that go into an arrangement, balancing accent flowers with filler flowers and greenery. We learned about vases versus foam, a low arrangement versus a tall one, and the basic economics of how to price out an arrangement and why they cost what they cost. Part of the class involved building floral arrangements, and I still remember the days of driving home in my maroon Saturn after class, a block of foam stuffed with flowers and held inside a plastic base delicately resting on the front passenger seat. This all fulfilled, by the letter of my degree requirements, exactly nothing.
And yet I would turn back to it. After getting out of work at 10:00 or 11:00 p.m. following a stressful night shift at the newspaper, I would stop in a 24-hour Walmart in South Florida and buy a bouquet or two of alstroemeria lilies—because I considered them the cheapest flower that didn't suck and could stay alive with minimal effort—take them home, and arrange them in a vase. There was something soothing about bringing beauty into my home, the crisp snip of the trimmings hitting the ground as I cut the stems shorter, the silent flutter of stray green leaves falling to the kitchen floor, the small magic of clasping, then releasing, the lilies in the vase, pumping them like brake, until every lily petal magically fell into the perfect position. I knew this was not a guilt-free habit; more than 90 percent of the nation's imported flowers first pass through Miami International Airport, and it does not take an Ivy League MBA to deduce the type of labor practices that keep flowers cheap. And yet, when nights were bad enough, I'd go back to the front of the Walmart, plucking alstroemeria lilies from black bins, and run them through the checkout.
You could say I was in denial about the costs behind my small pleasure, and I should have known better. But perhaps George Orwell would disagree. Orwell's Roses, by Rebecca Solnit, is ostensibly a book about Orwell, his love of gardening, and what that can illuminate to readers about the man, his work, and the world he lived in. But Solnit, an essayist operating at the highest level, knows that even our flowers are political, perhaps none more than the rose. Her book gets into the price of the fuel required to grow a rose thousands of miles away, then harvest it, refrigerate it, and ship it to a final destination where the already old and world-weary bud will be sold for a hefty holiday markup as "the perfect gift for Mom." Solnit details the cost of the repetitive stress injuries that befall those working for the flower companies as they perform the same action over and over and over again. She reveals the truth about what's left of the rose itself, a flower manipulated and reimagined so many times to increase its petals, to downsize its thorn, and to extend its shelf life that it now has no scent. I kid you not. Stick your face in the roses the next time you see them at the grocery store. Let me know what you smell.
And yet Orwell loved roses. This is what Solnit examines, exquisitely, over hundreds of pages: how Orwell could write thousands of words warning against the rise of totalitarianism and yet also write thousands of words about British puddings. How a man could write with rage and fury about the conditions of coal miners, and also keep a detailed diary of how his garden was doing. How he could spend his final year alive writing the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, and yet optimistically request that roses be planted and kept at his grave. Solnit raises questions about our pleasures, what they cost us, and why we need them precisely so we can continue to fight for a better world, perhaps one where our pleasures don't come at the expense of others.
Solnit did not plan to write this book during a pandemic, and at times in the text she makes clear what her plans had been and how COVID-19 made a few of them impossible. But it is also what made the text feel so necessary to me. Physically, what has gotten us through and will continue to get us through this pandemic are vaccines and our shared capacity to do the right things for each other. But mentally, what has gotten me through are the smallest pleasures: reading books I like. Listening to the latest music from BTS. Finding a new favorite bakery and splitting the giant cinnamon bun with a friend. Getting holiday cards in the mail. It's not always the principles, but the pleasures that keep us fighting. - Diana Moskovitz
No One Is Talking About This, by Patricia Lockwood
In a way that is wholly and hilariously wrong given the scope and scale of her talent, I have always thought of Patricia Lockwood as One Of Ours. In reality, and in every possible sense, she is Something Else—not just an extremely successful writer, someone who writes brilliantly about seemingly whatever she wants for the London Review Of Books and published the dazzling novel No One Is Talking About This in 2021, but the only person alive who writes the way she does. She seems like a pleasant and well-adjusted person on top of all that, which is to her credit but assuredly not the source of my One Of Ours delusion.
That part is because she is and has long been an idiosyncratic but consistent online presence; a poster’s poster, not in the floridly unbalanced Greenwaldian sense but in the sense that she seems both to get and be getting what you’re supposed to get out of Being Online, and to have resisted the sort of curdled, involuted, performative fate that seems to befall extremely online writers. She has the same bad online habit that I do, but the comparison is less “I am somewhat like LeBron James because I also play basketball” and more “LeBron James and I both drink wine,” with LeBron also doing all the other things he does as a basketball player in that scenario, and with me just doing the drinking part.
And yet, because Lockwood is also A Poster, and someone who seemed instantly to grasp what Twitter was for and use it the way it is supposed to be used, I think of her as somehow a member of the same tribe to which I and a bunch of similarly brain-damaged goons unwittingly swore an oath sometime last decade. The first half of the book is about living like that, and also about moving around the rest of the world with all that life and all that noise obfuscating and ironizing and complicating things from within your brain. It is very funny, and very astute, and I have it on good authority from less-online readers that it still works even for those who were wise enough not to turn half their consciousness into an LED screen across which words like “Don’t Email My Wife” and “Oh holky fuck” scroll ceaselessly.
There is a turn about halfway through, a real-life thing that happens and brings with it real-life obligations, and the book turns with it. This makes it sound like a Judd Apatow movie, maybe, where somewhere along the line the guy who is high all the time learns that he needs to get some pale blue shirts and go to work in IT, so that he can be a grownup. It is not like that. I can also say that while this bit deals with a sick child, it is not only not mawkish or exploitative, but is so tender and humane that is both crushing and transcends sadness. The book’s two worlds, the archly chaotic hypermediated one and the equally chaotic but much quieter one that just unfolds across some difficult days in Ohio, collapse into and over each other. The protagonist, and the reader, are both blind and somehow illuminated in the fullness of that glare. You may know the feeling, even if you have not had any of these specific experiences.
Lockwood is probably the best writer of sentences working at this moment, and No One Is Talking About This is strange and brilliant and dead-honest and pyrotechnically comedic in ways that no other book I’ve read in this or many other years has been. It’s a struggle for me to describe the book without resorting to the sort of clammy critical rave syntax that used to adorn movie posters back when it notionally mattered whether critics liked a movie or not. It really is hilarious and heartfelt … unclassifiable … a triumph. It really is all those things, but there is something fitting in how fully the language we’ve got to describe what this book does and is winds up so insufficient. Lockwood diagrams those limits and brakes, the ways in which it becomes harder to say and see things without imagining replies unspooling underneath it, and then she just slips away from them. It’s not that one world, or one experience of being in it, is more real than the other. The thrill of the book is in its understanding of how the two share the same space, how all of this exists over and alongside itself, and how small, vulnerable, and valuable everyone is within it. - David Roth
Stories Of Your Life And Others, by Ted Chiang
In April, along with millions of other New Yorkers, I got my COVID-19 vaccine. When the nurse rubbed my arm with a sterilizing pad and asked me how I felt, a lump formed in my throat and I could only nod. The door of possibility to a post-virus life was starting to open and I was overwhelmed. As each day passed and more and more people got vaccinated and fewer and fewer people got sent to the hospital and the morgue, relief welled in me and around me. Curiosity started to return and then creativity, like jungle animals creeping back to a newly replenished watering hole. I felt free and susceptible, and not unpleasantly foreign to myself.
This was my mindset when on a whim I picked up Stories of Your Life and Others. The book was published in 2002 and many of the stories were published elsewhere before that, but every single one was new to me. In the book’s first short story, “The Tower of Babylon,” entire generations live and die on a massive tower that stretches into space, rising even above the sun. The plants growing up there shoot down toward the light, not up. In a short story called “Hell is The Absence of God,” a widower will do anything to reunite with his dead wife, who was killed by an angel’s earthly visitation. In this world, angels are powerful, even terrible beings, whose arrivals on earth are represented by natural disasters. In “Understand,” a man is given an experimental drug to repair his neurons after an accident. Things escalate as he becomes super intelligent, and is sought by the government before meeting his match.
The stories are full of the sort of detail that suddenly makes you pay close attention to everything around you. They’re impeccably done—reading them sent me down various rabbit holes about math and linguistics—but they’re also full of feeling. Saying that they changed the way I think isn’t quite right; it’s more that they re-landscaped my inner life, adding new dimensions and roads on which my thoughts could travel. Chiang made impossible worlds feel plausible, and his careful world-building reminded me of my own imagination. - Laura Wagner
Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey
I have probably visited more national and state parks over the last two years than in the rest of my life put together. The whole time I was too grateful to be outside, surrounded by things that were unmistakably alive, to have a single critical thought about those parks. When I was in New Mexico, I saw Desert Solitaire everywhere, and in retrospect, it's a hilarious book to discover in a gift shop, seething among all the tchotchkes. Edward Abbey 's account of his time as a park ranger in Utah is full of bile and poetry; he's as convincing describing the bloat of the National Park Service as he is the silvered elegance of a juniper tree, and as fluent in the polemic as he is in the tall tale. It was the perfect complement to a time in my life spent as outside as possible. I wish America still made cranks like Abbey—blinkered and bitter but ultimately, painfully sincere—unlike the freaks the internet mints on a daily basis. You probably could have guessed that the desert turns you more interestingly misanthropic than YouTube does. - Giri Nathan
How To Blow Up A Pipeline, by Andreas Malm
The best book to recommend, in my experience, to a large swath of people, is a book that you can't stop thinking about, a book that you have brought up by accident in conversations, a book that challenged you and changed you and made you see the world in a new way.
That book for me this year was How to Blow Up a Pipeline: Learning to Fight in a World on Fire, by Andreas Malm. This book came out in January 2021, and I bought it immediately. It sat on my shelf of books to read for a long time. When I picked it up in August of this year, I devoured it, and then almost two months later returned to read it again. How To Blow Up a Pipeline is not a manual for how to physically blow up a pipeline, but it is, in its way, a manual for how to think about blowing up pipelines.
Malm is Swedish. He is a climate activist. He is a Marxist. His book is an argument both against climate pacifism and climate fatalism. His book is an argument for doing something, anything, right now, to save the planet. At first, I did not agree with all of his ideas (though I am much closer to him in ideology than probably many of you), but I have thought about the arguments he makes about comfort and about what we are willing to tolerate and about who really has power and who has convinced everyone else they have none.
This year, more than ever in my life, I have realized that the Earth is dying and that I will be alive to see it burn. It's terrifying and it sucks. How To Blow Up a Pipeline made me feel like we don't have to just watch the world burn—like maybe, if we try, we can do something. - Kelsey McKinney
Butcher's Crossing, by John Williams
Back in July I read Butcher’s Crossing, a 1960 Western novel by American author John Williams. I liked the sound of it from its summary: In the early 1870s a Harvard kid named Will reads some Emerson, gets a wild hair up his ass, and takes a long journey to a frontier town in western Kansas, to “find himself in the great West.” There, he teams up with an experienced hunter whose fur-trading ambitions are revealed as a kind of religious zealotry, a frightening quality almost of personal vengeance. Together they form an expedition to a remote, utterly unexplored valley deep in the Colorado Rockies, for a bloodthirsty attack on the last great herds of American bison. I was looking for something taut and plot-driven, and Butcher’s Crossing is for sure that. It’s an efficient and well-told there-and-back-again set in a fascinating untamed wilderness, a deeply satisfying story of things happening.
Butcher’s Crossing is here and there described as one of the pioneers of realistic western storytelling. The word “realistic” should for the most part be interpreted to mean “dark,” because by and large the expansion of what its architects would’ve described as civilization into the western part of our continent was cruel and brutal and unfathomably, catastrophically destructive. It required waves of settlers. A whole new genre—the American Western—grew out of the myths of ambition and prosperity that motivated these movements. Land rights and gold and oil were out there. So too was religious freedom, and so too were the sorts of naturalistic self-exploratory deep-dives that continue to this day to motivate our history’s many Alexander Supertramps. It never occurred to me before picking up Butcher’s Crossing, but it seems to me that this latter phenomenon—educated and secure young men and women venturing into the wilderness not for food or shelter or to escape danger but as an aesthetic or philosophical undertaking—is due for the same kind of clear-eyed ethical scrutiny that long ago pulled away some of the obvious myths of gold rushes and boom towns and, uhh, Mormonism. Butcher’s Crossing is realistic about the extraordinarily bleak and marginal conditions of frontier towns, the jaw-dropping horrors of the fur trade, and all the other assorted brutalities and degradations of westward expansion, but it also has going for it that it has no weird Eddie Vedder-scored hard-ons whatsoever for a young guy who thinks wilderness exists primarily to teach him something about himself.
The book you think of when you think of dark westerns is Blood Meridian, written by Cormac McCarthy and published in 1985. I like Blood Meridian very much. After I’d finished Butcher’s Crossing I was still very much in the dark western mood, and so I went back and read Blood Meridian for probably the sixth time. I have to tell you, after spending a few days with Williams’s subtle characters and straightforward prose, McCarthy’s whole deal seems extremely excessive. His grand similes—”...lightning lit the desert all about them, blue and barren, great clanging reaches ordered out of the absolute night like some demon kingdom summoned up or changeling land that come the day would leave them neither trace nor smoke nor ruin more than any troubling dream”—start to seem writerly and tortured, as if McCarthy couldn’t stand to let the setting speak for itself. Even McCarthy’s great Judge Holden, every 50 pages or so holding forth at the very limits of comprehensible human language, starts to seem like a huge copout, for wedging into the narrative a set of flimsy and nihilistic but at least orderly motivating principles for the reader to recoil against; a bald and demonic diegetic escape hatch from an otherwise relentless recitation of events and consequences.
I realize I am making Butcher’s Crossing sound like it is somehow even more barren and brutal than Blood Meridian. It’s definitely not. Williams’s hidden valley comes across as Edenesque in its beauty and purity, and even in an objectively dark and occasionally horrifying tale Williams can’t avoid leaving the reader feeling tempted by the fortifying challenges out there in whatever is left of the planet’s real wildernesses. It’s to Williams’s enormous credit that the tantalizing quality of the untamed West survives his narrative, because to me it reflects his willingness to let the splendor and majesty of the land itself compete with whatever it is he wants to say about our largely ill-considered and ill-fated forays out into it. In this way he presents an unspoiled world as infinitely precious entirely on its own terms, without any material or spiritual or philosophical intersection whatsoever with human purposes. There are echoes of and homages to this quality of Butcher’s Crossing across the genre, in All The Pretty Horses and Unforgiven and even Red Dead Redemption, but none of them arrive with anything like Williams’s restraint and narrow, lean storytelling.
At the end of Williams’s narrative, after confronting unimaginably long odds and unendurable hardships, his main character stands at the very literal frontier of westward expansion, a boundary between our world and the wilderness, with no possible option to straddle the two, in no small part because one is pursuing the other to the literal ends of the Earth. How he feels in that moment is both simple and human and also sort of appalling, and finally seals for the reader a sense of estrangement that has been building over the course of the narrative. Just out of sight in Butcher’s Crossing—both the novel and the titular fictional town—is an unobstructed view of a glorious and pristine wilderness that is all the more magnificent for not yet having been blighted by the exploitation and desperation of colonization. I think Will and I both conceive of it as almost an incredible silence, for containing not even a distant echo of the artificialities, material and aesthetic and social and spiritual, of the settled, ordered, industrialized world. The urge to disappear into that silence need not be motivated by notions of personal glory, just the normal claustrophobia of all this, which is why I think Will’s final direction is both relatable and sort of sickening to the reader. What I think Butcher’s Crossing observes—indirectly, subtly, perhaps without even intending to—is that the silence is an infinitely precious condition that is too easily misunderstood as a resource, and is utterly unattainable for would-be explorers and escapists alike, no matter how sweetly naive and noble-seeming our intentions. You are the noise. You bring it with you wherever you go. - Chris Thompson