Welcome to NYWC’s Favorite Reads of 2021. As we know this past year has been a whirlwind, and many of us used our time indoors to ground ourselves with some reading. We asked our staff, board members and workshop leaders for their favorite things they’ve read this year. Many picked things that were released in 2021, some chose poetry and prose that was published before that, while others even chose classics. Some selected fiction, others selected nonfiction. We hope you’ll find something that will intrigue you so much that you’ll either read it right away or head to you nearest local bookstore and/or library to pick it up! You can also check out our Bookshop page by clicking here. So here it is, NYWC’s Favorite Reads of 2021:
I’ve seen productions of both of these plays (a live production of the first at Theatre for a New Audience in 2018 and a virtual production of the second via Round House Theatre in 2020) and both made me ponder and rethink and question and marvel in ways that only Adrienne Kennedy’s work can make one do all those things. I love the ways both of these pieces create intimacy with the characters without offering closeness; we learn so much yet come away with so little and it is enthralling. The callbacks to her other works within these pieces makes it all the more fun to dissect and digest all the surreal truth Kennedy lays in front of you. Though they are theatre pieces, they both have a musicality to them that defies the genre in ways I really appreciate.
This was a re-read for me (in preparation to see the production currently on Broadway), but each reading is just as striking as the first time for me. Childress lays bare the problem of Black artists in predominantly white spaces in ways that are blisteringly persistent now as they were in the 1950s when she wrote it. Yet, what is most memorable and remarkable about this play is the precise line of questioning (and overall journey leading up to it) Childress sends her main character down that cuts away at all the pretense that muddies the water in conversations about race. It is an incendiary moment that I’ve never forgotten and that I will endlessly appreciate. The bravery and craftsmanship Childress displays here is indomitable.
I’ve had this play on my bookshelf for a while, but never got around to reading it. I finally did this year and really loved the experience. Whether you briefly played soccer in middle school like I did or not, this play gives a fascinating lens into the conversations, negotiations, judgments, disagreements, consequences, ethics, and overall daily decision-making required of teenage girls (particularly in competitive sports). These young girls are as young girls are–astute, kind, brash, hilarious, impulsive–but defy the common stereotypes of how we see girls of this age. Everything about their time in and out of practice and games has weight, often weight you don’t quite understand until a lapse in conversation or a moment where the new girl is excluded. By the end, I found myself thankful that I’d gotten to journey along with a piece that felt both insightful and representational at the same time.
Though this is a book about writing short stories, several playwrights and musical theatre writers recommended the book to me for its examination of writing as a practice overall. Now that I’ve read the book, I completely understand. It is a beautiful and thorough unfolding of what makes a story compelling in the first place, what makes us care about a main character, and what makes the process of creating a world (though daunting) repeatedly worth it. It’s one of those rare books where I got to sit and read and enjoy and go back and take a bunch of helpful notes later. Not all the short stories are easy to read (I’m looking at you, “The Nose") but the overall journey is worth the investment.
This year, I enjoyed — and recommend — My Life in Full: Work, Family and Our Future by Indra Nooyi,former CEO of Pepsi. As the first woman to lead the iconic brand, she was also Indian- American and a working mom and lives a life that overlaps many important events from the 60s through 90s.
Inspirational, truthful, relatable and critical of why Big Global Business still falls short for societies, as they ignore the importance of family and access to opportunity to ensure the best workforce, consumers and citizens possible.
In a contemporary Polish village near the Czech border, an eccentric older woman is investigating a string of ongoing murders. The victims are members of a local hunting club, and the woman, an animal lover herself, suspects that the animals are the perpetrators, exacting revenge. Not your normal crime thriller, this is the most original narrative voice I’ve ever read.
I read this 2006 novel during the pandemic and it opened for me a window into an entire other culture and history – and another kind of disaster. Like many in the West, I have only a dim idea of the Nigerian Civil War of a half century ago but Adichie recreates that time and place through very vivid settings and characters, notably two dissimilar sisters and their lovers, husbands and friends.
I don’t want to give too much away since this is a book filled with short stories, but if you’re a horror/thriller/suspense fan, then this is a must-read. Dávila is a woman writer who writes about women, in a way that still feels timely even more than a half-century later. It’s been translated from Spanish, and I’m going to make it my goal for 2022 to find that version and read it.
I found myself cringing so much while trying to hold in my laughter all at the same time, it’s filled with so much dark humor that it overflows with it. Leilani’s writing is so captivating. She tackles racism, classism, and misogyny in such a thought-provoking way. Definitely not a light read or feel-good but it will stay with you long after you’ve finished.
Usually, in my opinion, novels by musicians aren’t very good but this is an exception. As a second generation immigrant. and who lost a parent in a similar way, there was so much I found in common with Zauner’s writing even though it feels incredibly personal, like I’m peeking through someone’s very exceptionally well-written diary. It’s a novel about loss, feeling lost and perseverance. Also, the way Zauner writers about food…the food!
The story of a life told in vignettes from the POV of different characters — some peripheral to that life, some integral. The episodic nature of the narrative at first put me off, but the beautiful writing and superbly crafted story drew me in and broke my heart. Mostly set in the BC interior and in Vancouver, I recommend this strongly as a tale of connection, and as a master class in narrative structure (even though this is the author’s first novel!).
Although it came out in 2017, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney was a book that stood out to me this year. The story takes place on New Years Eve in 1984, and an eighty-five-year-old woman walks through the streets of Manhattan, recalling the city at various in history. It’s a charming novel and is a must-read for anyone who loves the city.
These are very different works of fiction whose characters all live simultaneously in worlds both material and immaterial, ordinary and strange, all haunting and surprising, all as gorgeous as poetry.
I spent 2021 immersed in older fantasy series, whodunnit mysteries, and a few romance novels—I wanted to keep my mind firmly planted in other realms and lives. I’m a big lover of “genre" fiction and believe it has just as much power (and sometimes even more, IMO) to ensnare readers and create unforgettable characters. With that said, I’m grading my favorite reads based on the books that stuck with me the most and/or excited me:
A short, surreal, haunting read that reminded me what a great writer can do to push the conventions of fiction and storytelling.
Honorable mentions go to these authors whose series I devoured: Holly Black is almost offensively talented and a queen of characterization and world-building; Leigh Bardugo has a million ideas inside of her and I want to read every single one; Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation series is so much fun and so inventive. (Alternative antebellum/post-Civil War reality + historical fiction + zombies + Westerns + determined queer Black protagonists melded in a way that is deceptively seamless—and must have taken extraordinary research and care.)
A debut, semi-autobiographical novel by a Vietnamese-American poet. Powerful, provocative, heartbreaking coming of age story that explores the generational trauma of war
and the distorted love between a young gay man and his immigrant mother. Takes place on the gritty streets of Hartford, Connecticut—my hometown. Published in 2019 but I read it during this year. Unforgettable!
What is “home”? How does it live inside you? Who or what gives it value? Sarah Broom explores these questions inside a loving history of her family and the East New Orleans house where she grew up. While the book describes the writer’s journey in understanding her complicated relationship to her past, it also explores the institutionalized racism and civic neglect experienced by a vulnerable community before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina. Broom’s language is both direct and poetic, and I found the book deeply moving.
This book is ostensibly a memoir, but is so much more; at times it’s a song, a poem, a prayer, a love letter, and a vision for a new way of being. I love the mixture of deep personal truths and well-researched facts. Ziyad not only exposes injustices, especially those done to Black children, while they also present a vision for a new, more just and loving way of being.
An poignant and often hilarious novel told in short interwoven stories about life on the economic margins in the 1980’s. We follow the main character Danny as he tries to get his bearings in life in between cans of cheap beer. Danny encounters unforgettable characters like Mister Patio and Cashtown Annie, in vivid yet dingy settings like the Trailways Bus Depot and Charlie’s Texas Lunch. Haberle’s writing is lively, funny, moving, and feels so relevant in today’s world.
Simply put, Kiese Laymon is one of the best writers alive. He bought back the rights of Long Division, his debut novel, so he could revise and make it into the book that originally wanted it to be. From the first page, the voice and humor and sharp observations leap off the page. It exposes the weight of racism on young Black Americans brilliantly. I loved the structure of two books in one, and couldn’t put this book down.
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