The MAYDAY editorial staff shares the books they read and revisited in 2021.
After reading THE BILINGUAL BRAIN early on the year, which was a fascinating look into how we construct language, I went down a rabbit hole of incredible nonfiction titles on medicine: POLIO: AN AMERICAN STORY follows the race to find a vaccine, which feels terribly relevant, while BLOOD: AN EPIC HISTORY OF MEDICINE AND COMMERCE reveals not only humanity’s incredible discoveries but also our darkest side, tainting science with the drive for more money. And speaking of money, I would be remiss if I didn’t recommend THE CULT OF WE. It was thrilling schadenfreude to watch an empire built on deceit and excess come crumbling down to reality.
Brianna Di Monda
For the first time in a while, most of my favorite books this year were nonfiction titles. After reading a bunch of art criticism online, I found Rosanna Mclaughlin’s DOUBLE-TRACKING: STUDIES IN DUPLICITY, which cleverly argues that to double-track (to be both counter-cultural and establishment) has become the cornerstone of the middle class. She presented this argument by writing in a range of genres: the book weaves between essays, fiction, and art criticism. I also loved Eileen Myles’ THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING ICELAND, which compiles twenty-five years of her writing on art, film, people, poetry, and travel. The topics she covers range from flossing to a Björk concert review to a discussion of Nicole Eisenman, and you see her hone her craft throughout the collection. My final highlight is Jenny Hval’s PARADISE ROT, a novel that blurs the line between horror and wonder.
The international success of figures such as Cixin Liu and Bong Joon-ho got me thinking about genre fiction’s potential as a medium for translating ideas and experiences across cultures. With that in mind, I built a new reading list for my “Fantastical Literature” course made up of SFF/horror books published within the last ten years that are either works-in-translation or written in English by writers from historically marginalized communities. Four books from this project stood out from this exercise. At the top of the list is Ahmed Saadawi’s FRANKENSTEIN IN BAGHDAD, set during the American occupation of Iraq. Saadawi’s novel blends black comedy with campy horror. He creates an unsettling portrait of the sectarian violence tearing his city apart and the American cultural imperialism that distorts the causes of that violence. Another title worth mentioning is Victor LaValle’s novella, THE BALLAD OF BLACK TOM. In the past decade, a wave of reclamation projects has appropriated Lovecraft’s cosmic horror aesthetic while repudiating his racism and xenophobia. LaValle’s work reimagines the thesis of cosmic horror from the perspective of the marginalized and oppressed. Finally, I want to mention Izumi Suzuki’s short story collection TERMINAL BOREDOM. Suzuki was an actress and model at the center of Japanese youth culture in the 1970s. After falling in with Japan’s active left-wing intelligentsia, she turned to a life of writing and activism. She’s a cult figure in Japanese SFF, but this collection of stories is her only book available in English. Izumi’s stories remind me of the popular TV anthology BLACK MIRROR in how they employ far-fetched technological concepts to frame biting critiques of contemporary social reality. But Izumi’s stories are far more sensitive and humane towards their characters, possessing none of BM’s finger-wagging brutality, realizing instead that sometimes the best way to punish a character is to give them what they want.
Benjamin Drevlow, a finalist for this year’s MAYDAY Fiction Prize for his story “The Book of Rusty,” recently released a collection of short stories, A GOOD RAM IS HARD TO FIND, through Cowboy Jamboree Press, who pride themselves on “good grit lit.” This collection certainly fits the bill without alienating those who aren’t grit lit acolytes. The variability in length and tone creates a mellifluous pace, as the order of the stories is sage and intentional. The content of each piece varies from familicide (“So Much Love”) to best-in-show livestock (“A Good Ram is Hard to Find”) to unsentimental first-person considerations of suicide attempts (“Notes on Jumping”) and detailed, never-overwrought explorations of Philip Larkin’s knife-thrusting “They fuck you up, your mum and dad” (many stories, but most obviously “Mama’s Little Helper”). Believably colloquial yet unceasingly literary, Drevlow displays an ability to explore the effects of [toxic] masculinity and a variety of family violences, all the while avoiding the trap of pedantry. I would say it’s an easy read, but that would be based only on craft; the subject matter is not for the faint at heart. For me, that’s all the more reason to read it.
One of the best books I read this year was BROOD by Jackie Polzin, a Twin Cities writer. Her writing is clean and poetic—my favorite style. The story is about the chickens the narrator keeps in her urban house with her husband and weaves around her deep interpersonal issues. It’s one of those books you read to get inspired to write. Also, read the thriller BLOOD UP NORTH by Fredrick Soukup, another TC writer. A perfect winter read: creepy, dark, set in northern Minnesota about a corrupt family in the heart of winter. On my Minnesota tip, one more favorite was SIX MONTHS IN THE MIDWEST by Darci Schummer, who I interviewed for MAYDAY and whose story we recently published. This short story collection came out in 2016, but I just discovered it. Also about Minneapolis with beautiful and dark characters. Highly recommend all of these!
Postgrad studies mean that the most exciting work I’m reading is stuff like Helen Wheatley’s (assuredly marvelous) work SPECTACULAR TELEVISION, early criticism from Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, or various Marxist theory texts. But the real joy during my studies in Scotland has been Jane Austen’s EMMA, devoured on a train ride north across the country and over many pints at the local pub on Orkney Island. Also, shoutout to Elizabeth Kolbert’s THE SIXTH EXTINCTION and Naomi Klein’s THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING, which I read earlier, during lockdown, and which both scared the hell out of me.
Between my editorial internship with Penguin Random House this summer and my current full-time position as an editorial assistant for Kirkus Reviews, I consider myself very lucky that I’ve been surrounded by books even more than usual this year. I loved the quiet, seething dramas that played out in each installment in Emma Cline’s collection of stories, DADDY. While I read a lot of new fiction this year, I also visited some older but acclaimed titles for the first time, including FIGHT CLUB by Chuck Palahniuk and Bill Clegg’s PORTRAIT OF AN ADDICT AS A YOUNG MAN, through both of which I found myself thrust into words that are equally violent and enthralling. Likewise, EMPTY by Susan Burton also offers a riveting portrait and necessary portrait of living with an eating disorder and the complex obstacles that it entails. If you need a laugh after all of the heaviness on this list, I strongly recommend Kristen Arnett’s WITH TEETH—it will be a dry laugh, but her portrayal of one spectacularly imperfect queer family and all who are touched (for better or, more often, worse) by their antics is endearing and compulsively readable.
This was the year I finished the first DUNE book, read the second (DUNE: MESSIAH), and bought the third (CHILDREN OF DUNE). I also watched Denis Villeneuve’s film, which was predictably beautiful, austere, laconic, and humorless. Without a doubt, I preferred the books (IMO, Lynch’s version is superior too). While solo camping, I read a thriller gifted to me by my father, Joseph Kanon’s ISTANBUL PASSAGE; not my typical fare, but I really enjoyed the espionage, intrigue, and setting, an alternately foggy and radiant vision of 1940’s Turkey. Most recently, I’m reading a verbose and unsettling fantasy novel, Gene Wolfe’s THE SHADOW OF THE TORTURER, about Severin, a former apprentice torturer, now exiled. I guess this was the year I needed to escape into books for a little fantasy and adventure! I recommend all of the above.
This year I decided not to undertake my annual autumn reread of FRANKENSTEIN and instead decided to reread THE SECRET HISTORY, a book which I’ll probably never get over. But in terms of new reads, the ones that hit me hardest were Sally Rooney’s BEAUTIFUL WORLD, WHERE ARE YOU, perhaps unsurprisingly–I’ll read anything this woman has written. I was surprised, however, by just how much I enjoyed Susan Choi’s TRUST EXERCISE, a book that upends itself more than once, making the reading experience both disorienting and engrossing. Though I know some people had mixed feelings on this one, I personally thought it achieved something really extraordinary. And for a bit of a comfort read, I borrowed Diana Wynne Jones’s HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE from my local library. It’s one of the many kids’ books I never actually read as a kid, but reading it as an adult isn’t too bad of an option either, I’m happy to say.