2021 Staff Favorites

As we approach the end of the year, I asked our editorial team to talk about the best books they read (or plays/movies/TV shows they watched) in 2021. Whether they were released this year or pulled from our towering TBR piles, here are our favorites!

Mara Davis Price

A book that I got to cross off my TBR list this year was Swamplandia! by Karen Russell. I felt like it was tailored for me with its gators, ghosts, and prose so delicious you could chew on it forever.

By Karen Russell

As for what I’m planning to read or watch next, I can provide two answers from the same source. I’m so excited for Ocean Vuong’s new collection of poetry to come out in the spring, Time Is a Mother. I’m also excited for the A24 film based on his novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, though I’m not sure when that’ll be out. His first poetry collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, is one of my favorites and I’m currently in the middle of his novel. I got to meet him once and he is so composed, wise, and really opened my eyes to what writing can be and what it can accomplish.

Time Is a Mother
By Ocean Vuong
Penguin Press

 Amber Wheeler Bacon

I loved Betsy Bonner’s The Book of Atlantis Black: The Search for a Sister Gone Missing, a strange and riveting memoir that reads like part true-crime account, part memoir. The prose is gorgeous, too. I gulped it down in one day. 

The Book of Atlantis Black
By Betsy Bonner
Tin House Books

A poetry collection I recently read and loved — one I’d been waiting for as Gary Jackson’s first collection, Missing You Metropolis, is one of my favorites — was Origin Story. In these poems, Jackson combines superhero mythology and pop culture with pieces that work as erasures of interviews with his mother about their past and her family history. It’s at times heartbreaking and visceral, funny and raw.

Origin Story
By Gary Jackson
University of New Mexico Press

Jessica Bedford

I had a chance to see Antoinette Nwandu’s masterful play, Pass Over, as it was on its way to Broadway, where it was the first production to re-open the theatres since the pandemic lockdown. Critics have compared it to Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and while I understand the grounds for this flattering parallel, I found Nwandu’s work much deeper, more palpable, and shatteringly relevant. It went in through my eyes and ears and shook my very bones. Nwandu’s use of theatricality is also breathtaking. I would bet money this will be a Pulitzer finalist. 

Necessity is the mother of invention. James Ijames’ new play, Fat Ham, was filmed on location in Virginia since audiences couldn’t yet return to the theatre. The resulting product was then streamed online and this brilliant new piece by James Ijames reached a broader audience than its regional premiere would have otherwise allowed, catching even The New York Times’ attention. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is re-envisioned and re-imagined through a Black, queer lens and it’s damn brilliant. 

Chelsea Risley

Megan Denton Ray’s debut collection, Mustard, Milk, and Gin, blew me away. The imagery is lush, dark, and sharp — “I was wild and negligible, like the honeysuckle,” “in a flair of lemons and tar, / I died and was born again.” These poems are a sensory experience, describing family, addiction, love, loss, and joy so beautifully. Also, the cover is perfection!

Mustard, Milk, and Gin
By Megan Denton Ray
Hub City Press

I Am Not Trying to Hide My Hungers from the World by Kendra DeColo is honest and raw, full of rage and sweetness. It’s intimate in so many ways. The poems are also witty and surprising, referencing everything from raccoons and menstrual cups to Nic Cage and Courtney Love. DeColo writes unflinchingly about the body and motherhood in ways that have definitely expanded my world.

I Am Not Trying to Hide My Hungers from the World
By Kendra DeColo
BOA Editions

Erica Dixon

Khalisa Rae’s collection of poetry, Ghost in a Black Girl’s Throat, felt fresh, full of voice, and was a great approach to the many ghosts faced within a Black woman’s life. Rae’s style is entrancing and the collection beautifully written.

Ghost in a Black Girl’s Throat
By Khalisa Rae
Red Hen Press

Netflix’s Squid Game is a show full of unexpected occurrences and social commentary – I binged it all at once! In addition to its many visceral elements, the show intrigues while serving up a depth of story and character development that kept me on the edge of my seat.

Mandy Kline

My favorite read from this year was a short story collection by Ashleigh Bryant Phillips called Sleepovers. Published in 2020, this collection shares unflinching glimpses into life in the rural South. Not one to shy away from the grotesque or awkward, Phillips has a way of bringing the beauty out of painful or even traumatizing memories. 

By Ashleigh Bryant Phillips
Hub City Press