2021: A Few Books I Read for Pleasure and Work

Below are a few books I read in 2021, with some very brief annotations. 

2021 was a year when I rediscovered my joy in reading genre fiction -- especially science fiction, mystery/detective fiction, and fantasy. The pleasure reading got me through some fairly dark and difficult stretches, especially the gloom and boredom of the 'Delta' and 'Omicron' waves... People who have known me for a long time will also see that there are some new ideas percolating with respect to research interests. Perhaps a future book project on extractive fiction & colonial modernity?

I also felt it would be helpful to list both pleasure reading and more serious literary fiction (i.e., books that I read with an eye towards the classroom -- or research). 

I think both are important! 

For pleasure (mostly)

Leigh Bardugo, Shadow and Bone Trilogy and Grisha Trilogy. I watched some of the Netflix fantasy series based on book one of Shadow and Bone (though the Netflix actually combines that series with Bardugo's Grisha series set in the same world). I thought, "maybe I would enjoy the books more?" And in fact, I did. These are essentially young adult, but the Russian culture orientation and world-building is compelling and the characters and plot are pretty satisfying, especially in the Grisha series. That said, the Netflix series has richly multicultural casting that is a plus from my perspective.

Kim Stanley Robinson, Aurora. The ship has been moving towards its goal for many years; as it approaches a hopefully habitable planet, things suddenly start to go wrong. More generally, though: Interstellar colonization? Let's not. Maybe -- just maybe -- we should just take care of the planet we have? This book has a lot of the familiar 'hard' science fiction angles of other later KSR novels, including a serious consideration of AI. 

Kim Stanley Robinson, Red Moon. Very enjoyable hard sci fi + political thriller imagining a (fairly realistic) scenario where China takes the lead in colonizing the moon. Also has a serious engagement with the internal complexities of the actually existing Chinese political system, and what life might be like in a total surveillance state. Again, a thoughtful consideration of the role of AI, both as a tool of the state (i.e., data mining and surveillance), but also as a possible tool for resistance. 

Kim Stanley Robinson, Fifty Degrees Below. Earlier KSR, book two in the "Capital" trilogy. Has more of a political thriller feel, though also with a strong climate change message. Imagining what winter in DC would be like if the Gulf Stream suddenly stopped & temperatures dropped to -50 F. 

Kim Stanley Robinson, Forty Signs of Rain. An early KSR entry in the "Cli Fi" genre. Book one in the "Capital" trilogy. I liked this one less than Fifty Degrees Below -- seemed a little elementary from the point of view of characterization as well as the science. You can pretty much go straight to book two. 

Harlan Coben, The Boy From the Woods. I read a profile of Harlan Coben in the New York Times, and was intrigued. I zoomed through this twisty ebook thriller in a couple of days and found it pretty satisfying. 

Harlan Coben, The Stranger. Another very smart Coben story with some interesting formal invention (i.e., the stranger who approaches people, seemingly at random, and tells them secrets about the people in their lives).

Harlan Coben, The Woods. What happened at summer camp back in 1994? Lots of entertaining twists and turns in this murder mystery thriller. 

Anne Rice, Interview with the Vampire. Anne Rice died in December & I realized I had never read this. So I read it as an ebook in mid-December. I hadn't realized there was so much homoeroticism in Anne Rice (interesting! juicy!), but I was distressed by the way enslaved people were treated throughout the book. 

Chris Colfer, Land of Stories Series and Tale of Magic. My daughter read all of these multiple times and loves them with a passion. At some point over the summer, I also read through the whole series. So enjoyable! Much better in terms of the lessons about difference and 'otherness' than Harry Potter, I think. We also listened to a lot of the series on audiobooks while on various road trips last year; Colfer, a former star on Glee, reads them himself as audiobooks with wonderful energy. (A very clever inventive writer who's also an accomplished actor -- makes for brilliant audiobooks!)

For work/teaching (mostly): 

Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, Tar Baby, Beloved, Paradise, Love, God Help the Child, A Mercy, Home. I taught a class on Zoom in the spring of 2021 on Toni Morrison! I ended up creating a lot of materials for the class & worked with a graduate research assistant over the summer to develop a Scalar site that expanded considerably on those lecture notes. I had read most of Morrison's novels before at various points, but never so close together. And they really hold up! Obviously, the later novels are not quite as compelling as the first five novels, though they are all interesting and rewarding. 

N.K. Jemisin, The Broken Earth trilogy. I had read The Fifth Season a couple of years ago, but never read the entire series until this year, when I assigned Jemisin in my "Postcolonial Ecocriticism" class. I had earlier been thinking a lot about Jemisin's interesting approach to racism in the book, but my students got me thinking about what Jemisin is doing with queerness & gender roles, as well as the disability / superpower theme in the book. 

Arundhati Roy, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. I had of course started reading this when it first came out in 2017, but only finished it this year (when I assigned it in my grad class). It's not without its flaws, but it's also a very rich, thoughtful book. Interesting of course for its exploration of a trans woman / Hijra's experience, but also for the way it approaches political violence in contemporary India. 

Indra Sinha, Animal's People. I had read this when it was first published back around 2006-7, but revisited it this year while teaching "Postcolonial Ecocriticism." Sinha's novel is considered a classic account of the 1984 chemical spill in Bhopal, India -- perhaps the most important work of "postcolonial ecofiction" from South Asia. And there's no doubt that Sinha's public advocacy on behalf of the victims of that disaster was important and valuable. That said, the misogyny in this 'picaresque' novel was a little hard for some of my students to swallow. I respect what Sinha is trying to do, but I'm not sure I will teach it again. 

bell hooks, Outlaw Culture, Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life (with Cornel West), Uncut Funk: A Contemplative Dialogue (with Stuart Hall). bell hooks died in December, and I spent a couple of days revisiting some of her wonderful early essays; she was particularly smart and prescient on questions of race and representation in 1990s cinema I think. (Interesting to see that her criticisms of Spike Lee's Malcolm X back in 1992 are somewhat similar to her controversial critique of Beyonce's Lemonade from 2014!) I also read some of her later stuff for the first time, including the book of conversations with Cornel West, and the fascinating conversations she had with Stuart Hall (2018).  bell hooks was often surprisingly raw, but always honest and unfiltered. 

Kim Stanley Robinson, Ministry for the Future. Near-future climate fiction. Here Robinson is thinking about climate change with a truly global orientation. What will it be like in India? In east Asia? In Europe? I thought this was so thought-provoking, I ended up assigning it in my "Postcolonial Ecocriticism" class. Students did find it to be a tough read (at times a slog), but I thought the method was original and a step forward from earlier KSR novels like Fifty Degrees Below

Merlin Sheldrake, Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape our Futures. Really eye-opening accessible science-oriented nonfiction about mycology. Mushrooms are fascinating & much more important than most people think! Mushrooms could also solve a lot of our environmental problems if we decided to try and harness them.  

Jenny Offill, Weather. Minimalist climate fiction + upper middle class marriage drama + substance abuse plots. Beautifully done; read it in one sitting. 

Rumaan Alam, Leave the World Behind. I haven't taught this yet, but will. Another example of a text imagining a near-future apocalypse with a minimalist approach. It's not about the what and how of the end of the world, it's about how it affects the compelling characters Alam creates. Also read this very quickly (two sittings?). 

Sylvia Moreno-Garcia, Mexican Gothic. Highly entertaining. I liked this so much I assigned it in my "Postcolonial Ecocriticism" class. The students also dug it & several wrote fascinating papers on it, looking at the mushroom/mycology angle, the postcolonial/decolonial angle, and all of the rich intertextual stuff in the book. 

Helon Habila, Oil on Water. Nigerian petro-fiction! An aging journalist and a young Turk are sent on a mission to talk to a militant group that has abducted a white woman, the wife of an oil executive. Habila gives us a portrait of the impacts of the oil industry in the Niger Delta, on the the people who live there as well as the ecosystem.

Richard Powers, The Overstory. Amazing first half of this much-praised work of climate fiction. The magic of old growth forests! The second half, involving extra-legal radical environmentalism, was less compelling. 

Torrey Peters, Detransition, Baby. The romantic lives of trans women in New York. I learned a lot about trans culture reading this. Well-constructed plot; sometimes a little too "first world problems"?

Ranjit Hoskote, The Atlas of Lost Beliefs. I had a student doing an M.A. thesis on Hoskote and Evie Shockley's poems. I really enjoyed exploring Hoskote's historical consciousness, especially of the intricacy and hybridity of the Indian Ocean experience under British colonialism. 

Evie Shockley, The New Black and A Half-Red Sea. I have known Evie Shockley since grad school, but somehow (criminally) hadn't actually read a lot of her poetry in book form since then; I'm happy to have corrected that now! I found the historical consciousness of A Half-Red Sea particularly powerful & compelling.