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The best books of 2021

Our favorites in fiction, non-fiction and children’s lit

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There’s still a lot of winter left.

That’s the fact staring you in the face. Once the holiday decorations are down, the toys are all put away, and you’ve rediscovered your gift certificates, what do you do with them?

You buy books, of course. And to get you started, here are a few sure-fire picks for the Best of 2021:

FICTION

What would you do if life throws you a curve-ball? In “The Guncle” by Steven Rowley (Putnam, $27.00), gay man, former TV star, Palm Springs fixture, no-responsibilities Patrick is asked to take care of his niece and nephew for the long-term. He never wanted kids at all. He never wanted to fall in love with them, either. Cute, sweet, funny, heartfelt – what more could you want?

You don’t have to have read any of the other Cork O’Conner novels to want “Lightning Strike” by William Kent Krueger (Atria, $27.00), which takes readers back to 1963, and a murder in small-town Minnesota. Cork O’Conner is a young teen then, the son of the local sheriff, and he knows that Big John Manydeeds couldn’t have possibly hung himself. But how does a boy go about proving something like that? For fans, that’s a can’t-miss question. For new fans, it’ll send you racing toward the rest of the Cork O’Conner series.

Watchers of “The Handmaiden’s Tale” will absolutely devour “Outlawed” by Anna North (Bloomsbury, $26.00). In a small corner of Texas, at an unstated time, 17-year-old Ada is struggling to give her husband children, which embarrasses him, and that’s something only witches do. And so Ada is cast out of the community and heads north, to safety, where barren women are outlaws. This dystopian, feminist Western is dangerous and delicious.

“Raft of Stars” by Andrew J. Graff (Ecco, $26.99) is a coming-of-age story of two boys who are best friends, and one of them is abused by his father. Tired of seeing his friend hurt, the other boy shoots the man and both boys run away to escape what surely will be legal trouble and maybe even jail time. They’re running toward a lie, though, and they’re heading for a waterfall they don’t know is there. This is one of those books with heartbreakingly beautiful prose in a story that’ll leave you with sweaty palms.

And finally, have you ever wondered what your life would be like if you’d taken a different path? In “The Nine Lives of Rose Napolitano” by Donna Freitas (Pamela Dorman Books, $26.00), one woman has many options in her life, each one ending in a way she never thought possible. It’s like “Groundhog Day” with a twist that’ll roll around in your mind for days…

NON-FICTION

For every kid who grew up with a pile of comic books next to the bed, in a drawer, or in the closet, “American Comics: A History” by Jeremy Dauber (W.W. Norton, $35) is a must-have. Here, Dauber follows comics from their political roots to today’s activist cartoons, and how we went from Katzenjammer Kids to MAD Magazine to comix as we know them. The bonus is that Dauber puts comics into fascinating historical perspective.

Did you buy your lottery ticket this week? If you did, it’ll make a fine bookmark for “Jackpot: How the Super-Rich Really Live – and How Their Wealth Harms Us All” by Michael Mechanic (Simon & Schuster, $28.00). You might think twice about the burdens of wealth after reading this book – and you might re-examine your thoughts on what one person’s wealth does to everyone else.

Readers who love memoirs will enjoy “Punch Me Up to the Gods” by Brian Broome (HMH, $26), who writes about growing up, being in love with the boy who abused him, and the father who did, too. It’s a coming-out tale that’s sometimes funny and always graceful, one that will sometimes make you gasp, and that you’ll be glad you read.

You know that feeling you get when you come across a stack of old magazines in the attic? That gentle, hometown, old-time feeling is extra-rich inside “The Ride of Her Life” by Elizabeth Letts (Ballantine, $28). This is the story of Annie Wilkins, aging, ailing, and alone, and the audacious cross-country ride she decides to take on a horse she’d just purchased. This feel-good story is set in the 1950s, and its neighborliness might make it be the perfect antidote for today’s world.

Lastly, “The Redemption of Bobby Love” by Bobby and Cheryl Love with Lori L. Tharps (Mariner Books / HMH Books, $28) might be the most unusual memoir you read this winter. As a young man, Walter Miller ran away from a prison bus and to New York, where he renamed himself Bobby Love and went into hiding in plain sight. Love kept to the straight-and-narrow, fell in love, got married, and raised a family but 40-some years later, the law caught up with him. This astounding, impossible story, told alternately between both Loves, is one you’ll, um, love.

CHILDREN’S BOOKS

Based on a real event (the Mexican Revolution), “The Barefoot Dreams of Petra Luna” by Alda P. Dobbs (Sourcebooks, $17.99) is the story of a young girl who becomes responsible for her Abuelita and her little sister when the Federales destroy their village and their home. This causes the trio to run north, one step ahead of those who wish to kill them, on a race to reach the border and make it to America. It’s an exciting read for 8-to-14-year-olds.

Kids who love silly stories will enjoy “Egg Marks the Spot: A Skunk and Badger Story” by Amy Timberlake, the second in what appears to be a series. A whirlwind named Skunk and his very staid, very reticent friend, Badger are at odds again – this time, over a missing rock from Badger’s collection. There are chickens involved, a bit of a mystery, dinosaurs, and a lot of fun for your 7-to-10-year-old. Hint: find the first Skunk and Badger book; your child will want that one, too.

For teens who enjoy unique memoirs, “Violet and Daisy: The Story of Vaudeville’s Famous Conjoined Twins” by Sarah Miller (Schwartz & Wade, $17.99) is the story of the Hilton sisters and their careers and lives. Born conjoined at the bottom of the spine, Violet & Daisy were “adopted” by a woman who ruled their lives. When she died, the girls were passed on to that woman’s heirs, who mishandled their careers and left them nearly penniless. This is a thrilling tale of legalities, Vaudeville, and two women determined to make their own ways, despite that they were conjoined forever. It’s the perfect read for any 14-and-older reader, including adults who love memoirs.

So now, get to the bookstore. Hunt at the library. Don’t miss these excellent books for adults and kids – and Season’s Readings!

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‘Before We Were Trans’ explores a complicated history

Scholars ‘need to tread carefully and responsibly’

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(Book cover image courtesy of Seal Press)

‘Before We Were Trans’
By Kit Heyam
c.2022, Seal Press
$30/352 pages

Yes or no: before there were rockets, there were no astronauts.

No, there wasn’t a need for them without a vehicle to go where people only dreamed of going. But yes – the word “astronaut” is more than a century old. Words and labels matter, as you’ll see in “Before We Were Trans” by Kit Heyam, and time is no excuse.

On the evening of June 8, 1847, John Sullivan was apprehended by gendarmes while weaving down a sidewalk in London. Sullivan was wearing a few women’s garments, and was carrying more, all of it stolen. Because it wasn’t the first time he was arrested, he spent 10 years in an Australian penal colony for his crime.

“Is this story a part of trans history?” asks Heyam.

There aren’t enough clues to determine Sullivan’s truth, not enough “evidence that their motivation for gender nonconformity was not external, but internal.” The answer’s complicated by the fact that “transgender” wasn’t even a word during Sullivan’s time. Presumably, Sullivan was white but even so, we must also consider “that the way we experience and understand gender is inextricable from race.”

Surely, then, Njinga Mbande, the king of Ndongo, can be considered trans; they were assigned female at birth but presented themselves as king, as did Hatshepsut of Egypt. In precolonial Nigeria, the Ekwe people were gender-fluid, to ensure that there was a male in the household. Do political and social reasons fit the definition of trans?

In England, it was once believed that to dress like the opposite sex was to become that gender. In prison camps during World War I, men participated in plays to ease the boredom, and some ultimately lived permanently as women. Early history shows many examples of people living as “both.” Were they trans or not?

Says Heyam, “historians need to tread carefully and responsibly when we talk about the histories of people who blur the boundaries between intersex and trans.”

Moreover, can we allow that there’s probably some “overlap”?

The answer to that could depend on your current situation and mindset. Absolutely, author Kit Heyam dangles their own opinion throughout this book but “Before We Were Trans” doesn’t seem to solve the riddle.

Judging by the narrative here, though, it’s possible that it may be forever unsolvable. There’s a lot to untangle, often in the form of partially recorded tales that hark back to antiquity and that are shaky with a lack of knowable details. Even Heyam seems to admit sometimes that their thoughts are best guesses.

And yet, that tangle can leave readers with so much to think about, when it comes to gender. Ancient attitudes toward trans people – whether they were, indeed, trans or acted as such for reasons other than gender – absolutely serve as brain fodder.

This is not a quick-breezy read; in fact, there are times when you may feel as though you need a cheat-sheet to follow similar-sounding names. Even so, if you take your time with it, “Before We Were Trans” may put you over the moon.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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‘Knocking Myself Up’ a hilarious, hopeful read

Queer writer Michelle Tea reveals struggle to get pregnant in memoir

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(Book cover image courtesy of Dey Street)

 ‘Knocking Myself Up: A Memoir of My (In)Fertility’
By Michelle Tea
c.2022, Dey Street
$28.99/304 pages

Most books, no matter how fab, can be put down. For meals, naps, dancing, binge-watching – sex.

This isn’t how it goes with queer writer Michelle Tea’s new book “Knocking Myself Up: A Memoir of My (In)Fertility.” Once you start it, everything else will stop until you finish it. Then, you’ll still be inhaling Tea’s captivating memoir.

Recently on YouTube, I came across the mid-century TV sitcom “Leave It to Beaver.” The show featured an archetypal 1950s family – the Cleavers: white, middle-class, straight – with a Dad (Ward) who worked at “the office,” Mom (June), a homemaker, and two sons – Wally and Theodore (a.k.a. Beaver). They lived in a house with an immaculate lawn and a white picket fence.

This isn’t to dis the Cleavers, who were beloved by many Boomers (queer and non-queer). R.I.P., Tony Dow! (Dow, who played Wally, died last month.)

But June Cleaver, the epitome of white, hetero, middle-class motherhood, would be thunderstruck by  “Knocking Myself Up.”

After being childless, Tea, 40, and living in San Francisco, single, with no health insurance, after much soul-searching, decided to have a child.

From the first word – Tea sucks us into her story.

“Hello,” Tea writes, “This is your narrator, Michelle Tea.”

 “I’m about to bring you into my inner world,” Tea continues, “during a period of time when that space was as wild, messy, hopeful, dizzy, tragic, terrifying and open-hearted as any era I’ve ever lived.”

Tea has become iconic for her queer wit, intelligence and searing interrogation of herself, the people in her life and the culture.

Tea, born in 1971 in Chelsea, Mass., grew up in a working-class background. She struggled with alcoholism, drug addiction, and mental illness (which ran in her family).

Her family members aren’t monsters. Tea’s mother and sister love her. But growing up for her wasn’t a sitcom odyssey.

Her stepfather copped to spying on her (in her bedroom – in the bathroom) through a hole in the wall.

Tea became a scribe when she was in second grade and, since then, has never stopped writing.

She’s the author of more than 12 books, including the cult classic “Valencia,” the brilliant essay collection “Against Memoir” and the speculative memoir “Black Wave.”

Tea has received awards from the Guggenheim, Lambda Literary and Rona Jaffe foundations; Pen/America; and other distinguished institutions. Along with being a prolific writer, Tea has been an intrepid cultural interventionist.

She started Drag Queen Story Hour, co-created the Sister Spit queer literary performance tours, and was the founding director of RADAR Productions, a Bay Area literary organization for more than a decade.

This is just the tip of the iceberg of, what Tea’s bio calls, her “cultural interventions.”

Tea has helmed the imprints Sister Spit Books at City Lights Publishers and Amethyst Editions at the Feminist Press. Tea produces and hosts the Your Magic podcast where she reads tarot cards for Roxanne Gay and other artists.

But Tea’s dazzling  literary status doesn’t prevent her from running into obstacles when she tries to become pregnant and give birth. Professional cred is no match against heteronormality.

Opting to have a baby is a rollicking ride no matter who you are, Tea writes. “You’re setting out to conjure a life,” she adds, “and in the process, deeply unsettle your own.”

But having a child is a hell of a lot more unsettling, Tea discovers, if you’re queer, single and have no health insurance — even if you live in San Francisco (the epicenter of queerness).

Tea finds that fertility clinics are set up for straight people.

During her quest to become pregnant, she finds love and marries Orson, who’s nonbinary. Yet clinic forms and personnel refer to Orson as her “husband.” Because they’re queer, Tea and Orson (unlike straight couples) are required to talk to a mental health professional.

Tea worries that even though she’s married, she’ll have to legally adopt her baby.

Despite Tea’s no-holds-barred stories of these difficulties, “Knocking Myself UP” is far from a downer.

It features a glam drag queen sperm donor, a witch, Tea’s loving sister and tons of info on everything from ovulation to implantation.

“Knocking Myself Up” is a hilarious, compelling, hopeful read at a time when hope is scarce as gold and fleeting as the wind.

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New book puts kibosh on sentimentality of WWII films

‘Mercury Pictures Presents’ a fab read by acclaimed writer Anthony Marra

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(Book cover image courtesy of Hogarth)

‘Mercury Pictures Presents’
By Anthony Marra
c.2022, Hogarth
$28.99/408 pages

“Mercury Pictures Presents,” a new novel by acclaimed writer Anthony Marra, brings the grit and pain embedded in the fabled days of yesteryear, close to home.

I’ll bet that when the news brings you down, you, like me, watch Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in “Casablanca.” Or, maybe, Bette Davis in “Watch on the Rhine,” where Sara (Davis) supports her anti-fascist husband Kurt (Paul Lukas).

Old Hollywood movies set in World War II are our comfort food. It was good back then, we think, watching Victor Laszlo and Ilsa. The U.S. fought to rescue the world from fascism, and its citizens basked in freedom.

If only.

“Mercury Pictures Presents” puts the kibosh on our sentimental illusions.

The novel is set in Los Angeles just before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Much of it takes place at Mercury Pictures, a B-picture Hollywood studio.

Maria Lagana, a young Italian woman, works for Artie Feldman, head of the studio.

In many ways, Feldman would fit in well in a Marx Brothers movie or a funny TV sit-com. He’s a gruff, bald, sometimes crude, Jewish guy who names and displays his toupees. But a heart of gold and moral scruples are intertwined with this slapstick.

Artie and his brother Ned (with whom he doesn’t get along) came to America in the 1910s. They owned a movie theater named the “Titanic.” As you’ve likely guessed it didn’t do well. Still, they landed in Hollywood.Maria, Artie’s right hand, emigrated with her mother in the 1930s from Italy to the U.S. to escape Mussolini.

When she was young in Italy her father, a defense lawyer, took her on Sundays to see American movies. (They preferred Hollywood flicks over church.)

But these care-free excursions ended when her dad was arrested for defending anti-fascists.

Maria lives with her mom in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood of LA where her elderly, commanding, but loving, always wearing black, Italian great-aunts live. 

Maria’s boyfriend is Eddie Lu, a Chinese American actor, who would love to have roles in films of Shakespeare’s plays.

Maria is overwrought with worry and guilt about her father. He’s imprisoned in “exile” in Italy. Her dad’s letters to her don’t make sense. Because, like her correspondence to him, they’re bowdlerized by government censors.

“Mercury Pictures Presents” is operatic in scope.

Though much of the action occurs at the Mercury Pictures studio (which could go bankrupt at any moment), the story morphs from LA to Sicily to Utah (where a model of a German village is created).

As in real life, tragedy and comedy intermingle in the novel.

A Sicilian photographer escapes Italy (using someone else’s name). Prisoners in Italy live under deplorable conditions. The U.S. may be “the land of the free.” But because she’s emigrated from Italy, a country with which America is at war, Maria and her family must register as aliens. They’re not allowed to travel more than five miles from their homes.

Just as you begin to wonder how much pain you can take, the mood shifts.

Eddie talks with Bela Lugosi about the miseries of Tinsel Town. Hollywood only wants to cast Eddie in demeaning “Asian” parts. Lugosi complains that only one postage stamp has been made with his image. His rival Boris Karloff “has two stamps,”  he says.

Mercury Pictures studio gets a momentary boost, when it, like other Hollywood studios, is called upon to make propaganda films for the War effort.

But there’s a problem when the Army brass expects Mercury’s filmmakers to film the propaganda in actual combat. “A filmmaker needs multiple takes to get the right shot” on a studio sound stage, Artie says, “The idea that you’re going to send a couple guys into a foxhole with a camera and expect to compete with Hollywood just isn’t feasible.”

“If you want the war to look real on screen, you’ll have to fake it,” he adds.

Marra, 38, isn’t faking it. “Mercury Pictures Presents” more than lives up to the promise of “The Tsar of Love and Techno” and “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena,” his earlier award-winning work. It’s a fab read. 

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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