Here are the books I read in 2021 that have stuck with me the most. They didn’t have to come out in 2021, just be read by me in 2021.
Apollo’s Angels by Jennifer Homans
Apollo’s Angels, by former dancer Jennifer Homans, is a dazzling achievement. It’s fascinating, comprehensive, and pretty much the only book of its kind. If you are looking for an in-depth history and exploration of ballet, you will mostly find memoirs, guides, and glossaries aside from this beautiful and heavy book. I bought it to use as a resource for an essay I was writing on my regret over quitting dance as a teenager, but I’m so glad I own it and can pour over it for years to come. Homans traces ballet’s history from the Renaissance, through the court of Louis XIV, its associations with sex work in later centuries, and much more. It will keep anyone with an academic, aesthetic, or historical interest in ballet busy for a long, long time. Homans also poses difficult questions about the role ballet and its classical aspirations towards the heavenly can play in contemporary society. She writes, “Today we no longer believe in ballet’s ideals. We are skeptical of elitism and skill, which seem to us exclusionary and divisive… We want to expand and include: we are all dancers now.” It’s something I think about a lot. It seems taboo to point out that ballet hinges on so many things that are at odds with each other: ephemerality, pain, fragility, strength – a combination of traits and talent that very few people possess. Can there be an inclusive ballet? Maybe the better question is can we live with its exclusionary nature.
Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney
It’s a little embarrassing to be putting a Sally Rooney book on this list, as a person who is the exact target demographic for a Sally Rooney book. I do not think Beautiful World, Where Are You is as great as Normal People, but there are things about it that won’t leave my head months later. And the sex scenes are very, very good. The story is simple. Four characters (two couples) confront the idea that in the face of the many defeats of modern life, living small and caring about each other might be the only important thing. Half of the book is told in third person and half is told through e-mails between the two female protagonists, Alice and Eileen. It’s the e-mails that stuck with me (well, other than the sex scenes). In one exchance, Eileen articulates the slog of online discourse, in a moment when I was collapsing under it in my own life:
I looked at the internet for too long today and started feeling depressed. The worst thing is that I actually think people on there are generally well meaning and the impulses are right, but our political vocabulary has decayed so deeply and rapidly since the twentieth century that most attempts to make sense of our present historical moment turn out to be essentially gibberish. Everyone is understandably attached to particular identity categories, but at the same time largely unwilling to articulate what those categories consist of, how they came about, and what purposes they serve. The only apparent schema is that for every victim group (people born into poor families, women, people of colour) there is an oppressor group (people born into rich families, men, white people). But in this framework, relations between victim and oppressor are not historical so much as theological, in that the victims are transcendently good and the oppressors are personally evil. For this reason, an individual’s membership of a particular identity group is a question of unsurpassed ethical significance, and a great amount of our discourse is devoted to sorting individuals into their proper groups, which is to say, giving them their proper moral reckoning.
Some readers find this kind of thing tiring with Rooney, and with millennial writers in general. And I sort of see the criticism. Beautiful World in particular does not transport me. It grounds me in the world I already live in and reflects my own anxieties back. Reading only things that accomplished that would be impoverished, but sometimes, it’s nice to see something you’ve been feeling put down in a concise and eloquent way.
Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann
Do you ever hear about something in the background so much that your brain sort of refuses to actually learn about it? The first time I heard the phrase Valley of the Dolls was as a kid, and just that it was a sordid book. Over the years I would hear it get brought up as scandalous, infamous, etc etc. but I never picked it up or bothered to learn what it was actually about. And Valley of the Dolls, the story of three young women rising and falling in midcentury showbusiness, is seedy and schlocky. But it’s more. For one, Susann famously stuck a bunch of – usually unflattering – references to real people in here, like Frank Sinatra, Ethel Merman, and Judy Garland. My favorite part of the book is the character of Jennifer, a gorgeous actress whose stunning face and figure keep most people from getting to know her. Jennifer is shrewd, sensitive, and intelligent, though. Her backstory of a passionate adolescent relationship with a fellow schoolgirl gives her approach to beauty and sexuality a different edge than her friends. All her worldliness and belief in a better life for herself can’t save her from becoming a victim, like so many of us to, to our own battles with our bodies and minds. Valley of the Dolls is propulsive and compelling and you might find yourself more attached to it than you expected.
Netoraserare volumes 1-3 by Konomi Shikishiro
Yeah it’s hentai. I have a Godwin’s Law of my own life and that is if I talk enough on one platform or to one person I will end up trying to define NTR. So here goes: NTR, a genre of Japanese porn (it’s mostly used for hentai but correct me if I’m wrong, JAV afficionados), is short for netorare. Netorare is the passive form of the verb netoru, which is made up of the characters for “sleep” and to “take” or “steal.” In the active form, it’s something like “to steal by sleeping with.” Made passive, that’s “to have [your lover] stolen by sleeping with.” The stem of the active verb, netori, is used in porn to refer to the person doing the stealing. The causative form of netoru, netorase, denotes a person who wants or actively lets their partner sleep with another lover. It’s this last term that actually seems to have the most in common with Western cuckold porn. So the title of Konomi Shikishiro’s series, Netoraserare, is like…to make someone be taken from you. A young married couple is, as so many of these stories begin, struggling in their sex life. They are in love and hope to start a family soon but the husband just can’t get into it. He finally works up the nerve to tell his wife about his cuckoldry fetish and humbly begs her to sleep with another man. She does and she doesn’t hate it, but she has moments of deep sadness that she can’t have a normal relationship. This saves them for a while, but the ante keeps getting upped. It gets really, really fucked up. As a commenter on FAKKU put it, “Usually I’m fine with NTR and net stories like these, but this one made me sad. this man is the ultimate form of pathetic, so much so that i actually feel really bad for this fictional lady… if this is what the writer was going for, they nailed it.” He did indeed nail it, though I have to admit I’m almost never too sad to find a hot situation hot. Netoraserare has all one could want in a good NTR story – and the art is beautiful. Being hentai, of course the story beats are all in service of creating sex scenes, but the writing still shines. I find NTR in particular to be a genre that doesn’t really fly without good writing. Netoraserare sort of reminds of one of my favorite movies, Catherine Breillat’s The Last Mistress. Sometimes, even when people drag each other through hell and there’s at least as much hate as love, there’s nobody else in the world who really sees you in all your depravity. I think some people create a twisted world for two and just kind of have to be together.
Oh, and the bonus comics about the author and his wife are weird and adorable. I’m touched but not at all surprised that someone who wrote this series is a devoted husband.
Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan
In one of many interludes where the narrator of Acts of Desperation addresses the reader, she preempts accusations of disempowerment and obsession with how men see her: “Couldn’t I have made myself immune to them with will and education and pride, in this late century, couldn’t I have had some other great love in my life than for them? Of course I could, but I did not, and this, my story, is the story of that failure.” Megan Nolan’s novel is like a Lana del Rey song, which is obviously a high compliment from me. A fellow Irishwoman, Nolan’s voice here is the opposite of Sally Rooney, her contemporary I’m sure she’s sick of being compared to. Where Rooney is famously ascetic and spare, Nolan’s narrator knows she’s bleeding her damage all over everything but can’t stop doing it anyway. It’s a story about an abusive relationship and obsessive love, but it’s not a redemption story or an uplifting survivor’s story. I’m not even sure it’s a cautionary tale. It just is. And feels very real to me. At one point the narrator observes that her boyfriend is not abusive in a hot way. He hurts her in shitty, unsexy ways that can’t be spun into some fucked up fetishistic reclamation and boy oh boy do I really know what that’s like.
The End of Everything and The Turnout by Megan Abbott
This should maybe be “all Megan Abbott” but I tried to pick favorites. Dare Me is a modern classic of teenage girls and You Will Know Me is a fascinating look at the burden of raising an exceptional child. Ultimately I liked The End of Everything and The Turnout best, though. The former is Abbott’s first departure from her noir career into dark thrillers. A preteen is enamored with the family of her best friend: charistmatic father, popular older sister, and a buzz of warmth and yet-to-be-articulated sexual tension in the house. Then her friend is kidnapped. It’s a mystery but it’s more about hor thorny and messy a young girl’s sexual awakening can be, from the narrator’s encounters with high school boys to her infatuation with her friend’s glittering father. The resolution of the kidnapping only drills these themes darker and deeper. The title is apt, as the entire mood of the novel captures that threshold crossing of adolescence that you can’t define until it’s happening, or already over. It’s the moment when corruptible becomes corrupted, and when the deliciousness of taboo and secrets turns rotten once you have to speak their danger out loud. It’s a beautiful book for anyone who has ever read Humbert Humbert’s definition of a nymphet and thought it sounds kind of intoxciating to be seen that way, even as you know it’s a curse.
The Turnout was my most anticipated book of 2021 because after gymnastics and cheerleading, finally, Abbott writes a ballet story. In her oeuvre, it’s a good companion to The End of Everything. Two sisters, Dara and Marie, run the ballet school started by their late mother. They still live in the house they grew up in, and Dara has married their mother’s former star student and protege, Charlie. Like the stairs of the ballet school and the furniture in their house, their way of life and relationships are precarious and threadbare. When the school is damaged, the arrival of a brash, menacing contractor destroys the family’s play at harmony. The main characters in The Turnout are adults, but they still concern themselves with the world of adolescence. Marie, especially, seems trapped in a cycle of not growing up. The scarrs and secrets of their teenage years (and because this is Megan Abbott, that includes some pRobLEmat1c sEX stuff) haunt them. As a thriller, it’s less twisty than some of Abbott’s earlier books, but the threatening machismo of the contractor makes him one of the scariest characters I’ve encountered in fiction recently. The Turnout may be Abbott’s creepiest, rottiest book. It’s still gorgeous. Everything I love about ballet is captured even as its dark underbelly is exposed. I especially love descriptions, through Dara’s eyes, of the fragility and power of boy dancers. The book also makes a beautiful case for The Nutcracker as a sexy coming of age tale.
The Queen of Fashion by Caroline Weber
Maybe some people out there are still thinking of Marie Antoinette as a stupid, frivolous person who didn’t concern herself with real things. If anything, her in/famous fashion sense has contributed to that image. Caroline Weber’s biography, told through Antoinette’s deliberate fashion choices, shows how the queen’s aesthetic innovations and rebellions were deeply personal, emotional, and importantly, political. Fashion moments like the pouf hairstyle or the boyish redingote are connected to Antoinette’s growth as a dauphine, queen, and woman. Queen of Fashion is a fascinating account of costume history but it’s also an incredibly moving biography of Marie Antoinette. From an early age, she was under unimaginable pressure that was tied up in her aesthetic performance. Every tiny choice she made in her personal life and appearance was scrutinized and interpreted politically, often unfavorably. Through it all, a portrait of a woman of staggering dignity and grace emerges. I don’t think Marie Antoinette was a perfect, blameless person, but I think she was a scapegoat of burdens mostly outside of her control. It’s still amazing to me to think about how, even in some of the French Revolution’s most violent moments, she was able to silence a mob with a bow or an angry tribunal with her appeal to motherhood.
The Complete Ballet by John Haskell
John Haskell’s The Complete Ballet is a novel, sort of. It calls itself “a fictional essay in five acts” but that barely explains anything. It is the story of: five ballets, major figures and episodes from the history of 19th and 20th century ballet, and the life (or portion of the life) of a man some decades ago in Los Angeles. This man is not a dancer and he is not professionally involved in the ballet world, but he has an intense attachment to ballet as an ideal and as a tool for understanding his own life. The experience of reading the book is really more like reading six novellas. There is the narrator’s story and five ballets, which when summarized feel like reading fairy tales (dark fairy tales, at least). Haskell accomplishes a further genre in these ballet sections, too, since we are experiencing dance through prose. They are ekphrases: descriptive criticism that becomes an art in and of itself.
At first, the threads of the narrator’s life and ballet seem to run on completely different tracks. Ballets like Giselle and Swan Lake tell timeless, tragic stories of love and human’s attempts to do the impossible. The narrator is a man who descends slowly into a life of petty crime working near a completely different kind of dance: a strip club. As his story weaves in and out of ballet, though, a sort of picture is created. It’s not a parallel, really, but an action of the narrator’s fervor for ballet elevating his life to the same realm of myth and classic story. “In Romantic ballet the tragedy is less about the people than the emotions inside those people,” the narrator says of Giselle, in this case. By the end of the book, we understand that these emotions are also inside the narrator even if his circumstances don’t have the outward trappings of a grand romantic tragedy.
You could cut up the book, take out the ballet, and have a short, melancholy noir tale about crime, lust, and murder in LA. This isn’t the narrator’s entire life. Like his digressions into ballet, we see glimpses of what presumably happened before or after his time in Los Angeles. There is a failed marriage. A tragic and unexplained loss of a child. The Narrator looks to ballet to try and make meaning of his life or at least fit an unsatisfying story into the parameters of bigger themes and classic conflicts. He comforts himself, and us, by the reminder that ballets are also not the total story of their characters. The ekphrasis – the way the narrator imparts the stories of ballet to us – is essential for weaving the narrator’s life with these stories.
“Swan Lake is about someone getting older,” the narrator writes to begin the fourth section. It’s quite an unexpected window into what might be the most famous ballet (aside from maybe The Nutcracker) of all. In the narrator’s own story, he is reaching the point in his sordid dealings where he has to either escape or commit a much more heinous crime. The sadness and humanity of this section is extremely affecting. Swan Lake, more than other romantic ballets, is on its surface hard to relate to – too magical, too fantastical. What Haskell accomplishes through this narrator’s mundanely seedy life and his relation to ballet is to render the untouchable Swan Lake an almost universal tale of escaping stagnation and regret. Siegfried’s love of the swan princess Odette and ultimate following of her into death is not really about the love story, to the narrator. It’s the fantasy of being able to cast off a life of quiet desperation for something noble.
The Complete Ballet is not, by most definitions of the word, an accessible book. It’s too structurally experimental. It’s too hard to explain what it’s “about” for it to be an easy book to recommend. But what it ultimately makes a thrilling argument for is how accessible ballet can be. The narrator’s life is not beautiful and it doesn’t reach a romantic crescendo – we’re left with an unfinished portrait of this unnamed man’s life. Yet his dreams, losses, and defeats are reflected in the most sweeping and epic ballet stories. Anyone could do the same with these romantic tragedies. “It’s the emotions inside the stories,” says the narrator, “the loss and betrayal and obsession, they’re the same ones I’ve known except now they’re happening in a castle ballroom.”
Darryl by Jackie Ess
Normally, I forget the highlighting function exists on the Kindle app. Not so with Darryl, which is chock full o’ highlights. Darryl, a little like The Complete Ballet, is hard to categorize or assign to a specific type of reader. So that means everyone on earth should read it! Sometimes I see the sentiment that the world would be better off if cis people interrogated their gender and their relationship to it. When I see this, I’m always like…we don’t? I think about my gender constantly. But so does the eponymous narrator of Jackie Ess’s novel. Darryl is not like me or probably you. He is a solidly Gen-X man living a financially comfortable life in Eugene, Oregon, utterly unremarkable on the outside. But Darryl’s interior world is the furtherst thing from unremarkable.
He is a self-described cuck, detailing the “lifestyle” of letting various men fuck his wife. It’s a little like DFW’s essay about TV and writers being eternal observers. Darryl knows his place in the scenario is detached and the sexual thrill he gets from it all is cerebral where his wife’s is physical. He’s a cuckold-poet, turning every facet of his life inside out. Sometimes his extremely thought-based existence is lonely: “But she didn’t want to play with jealousy or pain, She just thought it was fun to break the rules. She wants what she wants. I want what I don’t want, or something. Is everybody else simpler than me or is that just the view from the inside?” If this book were only about cucking and fucking it would be a gem, but it becomes something more. Through his lifestyle, Darryl examines his sexuality and gender, plumbing the depths of both. It’s a story about his journey towards what his own queerness looks like, but it’s also one of the best meditations I’ve ever seen put to print about what it “means” to be a man. The issue of the limited avenues men have for emotional connection and carthasis are stunningly articulated:
“But she didn’t get to the part that hurts. What happens to guys like me, who are stuck with the old model of masculinity even as we’re totally burned by it? We lose a frame, even for our pain. I’ll never be able to think of myself as anything but a loser, but nobody younger than me will really see why I feel that way, even if they agree for their own reasons.”
Another thing that makes Darryl such a delightful and unique narrator is that he is extremely not online. Some of the funniest parts of the book come out of his friendship with a trans woman and his befuddlement over her twitter persona vs. his intimate friendship with her. Darryl is a book that asks what so many omnipresent issues – sexuality, gender, open relationships (“Those people are so magical, like I think they’re really deluded, open relationships hurt more than they know how to admit.”), what leftism means and who should spearhead it – would look like through the eyes of a basically good, self-reflective, and open-minded person who is nevertheless incapable of understading the mercurial world of online discourse. Frequently his inner workings are hilarious: “But unlike these borderlines, I feel like I have an ok way of dealing with my problems. I bet a lot of people who get this diagnosis are really repressed cucks or something. That’s a pretty big ‘or something,’ though.” And other times they’re sad, rambling, erudite, and everything all at once. Darryl is the rare book that truly feels like the movement of a mind. It’s touching and funny and twisted, and it does all this and still manages to give its narrator a happy ending. Jackie Ess has done something singular and I will probably read basically anything she writes in the future.