Top 10 reads for 2021
Benning staff member Charisma Lee shares her favorite reads from 2021.
Black Water Sister by Zen Cho
Secrets -- what family doesn't have them? Jess has some of her own, but Ah Ma insists that there's something larger at stake. What at first appears to be a tale about filial ties becomes a thriller involving gangsters, fake mediums, and vengeful spirits. Not necessarily my go-to as a reader, but I'm glad I took a chance.
Creatures of Passage by Morowa Yejidé
Readers are transported to Anacostia in the late 1970s, by turns familiar and otherworldly. Each of the Kinwells -- Nephthys, Amber, and Dash -- has a particular link to the spirit world, and often it's this relationship that helps the trio to process their experiences in the land of the living. Far more than a ghost story, Creatures is a love story for everyone "east of the river."
Firekeeper's Daughter by Angeline Boulley
The buzz around Boulley's novel was so intense that I dismissed it as another overhyped #ownvoices book. Fast forward to my becoming so invested in the story -- a whodunit? of sorts -- that I return the copy that I had checked out from the library and buy my own! One of those moments during which I've gladly joined the bandwagon.
Himawari House by Harmony Becker
It's unfortunately still common for accented English to be used as comic relief, especially when it's spoken by individuals of Asian descent. Thank goodness, then, for Harmony Becker's Himawari House. In this debut graphic novel, the language learning experience is depicted sensitively. Neither a cause for concern or special celebration, multilingualism is just the day-to-day reality.
In the Country of Others by Leïla Slimani (translated from the French by Sam Taylor)
I was curious about Slimani's latest work, set in post-WWII Morocco. Alongside a Franco-Moroccan couple grappling with the challenges of their new life together unfolds the larger story of the country's struggles for independence from France. Slimani is a master at depicting the interiority of her characters to the extent that the reader may actually share in their thoughts and emotions.
Memory Speaks: On Losing and Reclaiming Language and Self by Julie Sedivy
I'm keen on languages and language, so it should be no surprise that this book ended up on my list of year-end picks. My experience as a heritage speaker of Tagalog mirrors that of Sedivy and Czech. Primarily a language from my childhood, my knowledge of Tagalog has decreased over time. Sedivy does a wonderful job of blending intimate family portraits with examples from research scholarship, sure to satisfy polyglots and amateur linguists like me.
Not "a Nation of Immigrants": Settler Colonialism, White Supremacy, and a History of Erasure and Exclusion by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Even those who consider themselves to be progressive may be provoked by the title alone. But history can't always be palatable, as Dunbar-Ortiz reminds us. Her latest book joins a growing body of work challenging the master narrative of the U.S. as a place that has always welcomed all.
Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson
Call me a snob: I try to avoid novels that have romance as their main plot. Coupled with the initial excitement surrounding the release of this book, I was well on my way to passing on it. Thank goodness I didn't. This story is about knowing yourself in a society that sees you otherwise as much as it is a story about falling in love. I also appreciated the myriad references to popular culture in this novel set in present-day London.
Reconstruction by Alaya Dawn Johnson
Each of the ten stories in this collection engages the reader's imagination in ways both fantastical and familiar. The titular story, for instance, uses magic to protect a Union regiment of formerly enslaved African Americans. In another, a man must convince his daughter to leave a post-apocalyptic Mexico. I never thought that I'd get so invested in such stories, and Johnson's work encourages me to seek out more.
So Many Beginnings: A Little Women Remix by Bethany C. Morrow
My favorite retelling of this girlhood classic centers four young Black women coming of age during the Civil War. While Jo ("Joanna") remains the main protagonist, Morrow gives space for the other female characters to be multidimensional. Readers may be struck by how contemporary this story feels, although if you're even a tiny bit knowledgeable about U.S. history you won't be surprised.