WITS Picks: WITS Staff Members Share Their Favorite Books of 2021

Erin ToaleBooks, Inside WITS

It seems like only yesterday we were reflecting on our favorite books of 2020, and now another year has passed! We are excited to share this list of some books we read and loved last year. Several of the titles below were discussed at our virtual book club, WITS Study Hall, in 2021. WITS Study Hall is a collaborative learning space for adult learners to actively participate in antiracist conversation and enjoy the works of writers of color. We focus on antiracist discourse, and celebrate the range of genres and stories by BIPOC authors. You can sign up to join our virtual meetings, or use the provided frameworks to start your own book club. We hope to see you at our next meeting! Enjoy this edition of #WITSpicks!

Ashley Bloom, Chief Development Officer

I enjoyed reading Mexican Gothic by Siliva Moreno-Garcia. It was a page turner, and kept me entertained the whole way through. I normally don’t gravitate to spooky (or even, rather, horror) books, but this one was definitely worth the read!

Shawn Bush, Program Manager, Mid-Day Mentoring

For a while in 2021, largely due to the continuous pandemic, I experienced some fatigue with reading full novels, and leaned into reading short story collections. While not a new book (it was published in 2013), one of my favorites was George Saunders’ Tenth of December. I found Saunders’ dark yet sometimes humorous stories to be really engaging, especially the characters’ reflections on their own lives and social identities in the face of mass-consumerism and class struggle.

Delaney Earley, Program Coordinator

I didn’t read as much nonfiction this year as I would have liked, but one title that really stood out to me is The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together by Heather McGhee. This is a lengthy read, but very worthwhile for anyone interested in policy and the challenges facing our country. Heather McGhee explores the detrimental influence of the “zero-sum paradigm” in various arenas and explains our political system in a way that is both thorough and clear. Highly recommend!

Honorable Mentions: The Night Watchman, Circe, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, and Little Women

Jessica Gilliam, Program Coordinator

I read several wonderful books in 2020, but one that really stands out is The Bear by Andrew Krivak. It’s a delicately written fable about love, loss, and survival; while the prose is spare and simple, the message is not. The story follows the last two people on earth, a girl and her father, as they navigate the wilderness and put their survival skills into practice. There are lessons about acceptance, perseverance, and the courageous act of listening, both to each other and the natural world, throughout this lovely little book.

Precious Hutton, Program Coordinator

bell hooks is undeniably one of my favorite authors of all times. All About Love is one of my favorite pieces written by her. It explores the polarized divisions within our society while also explaining how love can be used as a tool to heal the suffering caused by these divisions. It forces readers to truly reevaluate their definitions of love and the way in which they understand it. My favorite part about the book is how she describes love as an action rather than a fleeting feeling or emotion, which allows space for love to be used as a tool to combat many of the systemic issues embedded within modern society.

Annie Kennedy, Program Manager, Workplace Mentoring

I would say “run, don’t walk” to your nearest bookstore to pick up Bryan Washington’s Memorial, but it’s winter in Chicago, so please move quickly but cautiously. This book is a page turner. Benson and Mike have been a couple for several years, but now, they’re not sure why they’re still together. The story becomes more complicated when Mike suddenly leaves their home in Houston to be with his dying father in Japan, almost at the exact same time that his mom flies in for a visit and ends up having to spend her days with Benson.

I loved seeing how Mike and Benson’s lives shifted significantly while they were apart – Mike connecting with his estranged dad and Benson building an unconventional friendship with his boyfriend’s mom – and I was so interested to see how this separation would affect them long-term. Would they find what they were each looking for? Would their relationship be one of longevity, or would everything simply crash and burn? Memorial is one of those books that I needed to finish to see how the story ends, yet I was so sad when I realized I was on the last page.

Honorable Mention: Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America by Ijeoma Oluo

Elizabeth Kristoff, Development & Communications Manager

The most impactful book I have ever read – not just in 2021 – is The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. It opened my eyes to the origins and evolutions of institutionalized racism. Once I started learning, I couldn’t stop noticing and thinking critically about how this insidiousness manifests itself near and far. I read So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo for WITS Study Hall right after – and I really recommend this pairing. One book provides holistic details about systemic racism, while the other offers specific ways individuals can have meaningful conversations, ask questions, and self-interrogate. Such important reads.

Honorable mentions: Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia; The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead; Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America by Beth Macy

Tena Latona, Chief Executive Officer

Girl Woman Other – There are so many characters in this book and the way Bernardine Evaristo manages to weave them together is fantastic.  The women are real. Like, really real. Their lives are complex and span long periods of time.  The narrative is defined by woman-aligned and female-in-nature relationships, that are not told in comparison to cis-male identities. 

They make mistakes, they cuss, they have many selves.

The book has almost no punctuation other than the periods that end each essay like story. The lack of capitalization took some getting used to. But, in the end it feels like you’re reading someone’s thoughts.  See also: Department of Speculation by Jenny Offill.

Elena Medeiros, Program Coordinator

Mariah Carey’s memoir, The Meaning of Mariah Carey was the best book I read last year. Mariah dove deep into growing up too fast, mental illness, relationship struggles, and the physical toll that fame took on her. It was also a surprisingly fun look behind the curtain of young stardom, fashion, music, and culture in the nineties. I learned so much about Mariah Carey as an artist and gained a much deeper appreciation for her music.

Alex Michel, Development Director

Widow Basquiat by Jennifer Clement is a beautifully written work about Suzanne Mallouk, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s longtime partner. It gives a haunting look into their relationship as well as the artist’s persona. Highly recommend for anyone interested in the 1980s art world in New York City.

Kellie Romany, Marketing Director

The book So You Want to Talk about Race is the best book I read in 2021 and one of the best books I have ever read in my life. This book made me feel seen and opened my eyes to ideas I was not seeing. From tone-policing to inherent racist policies we continue to live with because they are the status quo, this book challenges the reader to understand the myriad ways in which oppression surrounds us. It asks us to be honest with ourselves, to recognize there is no way to exist in a white supremacist society and not imbibe its values even if just slightly. If you have not read this book yet, you need to.

“If you live in this system of white supremacy, you are either fighting the system or you are complicit. There is no neutrality to be had towards systems of injustice, it is not something you can just opt out of.”

Ijeoma Oluo, So You Want to Talk About Race
Daphne Robinson, Program Manager, RLTA

The best book I read in 2021 was Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour. This book is great. It’s a quick read that offers a lot of think about regardless of your race, class or culture. It’s billed as satire though I think if you asked some people there are just some cringe-worthy jokes.

Kristen Strobbe, Chief Program Officer

My favorite book I read in 2021 was The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix. I love horror films but couldn’t really get into horror books (sorry, Stephen King), but then I found Grady Hendrix and now I’m hooked. The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires is dark, funny, twisty “Steel Magnolias meets Dracula.” It’s a fun read that is also quite terrifying – some of the scenes may stick with you for days. I’d advise not reading before bed.

Honorable Mention: In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

Erin Toale, Marketing Coordinator

My favorite book of 2021 was This Will All Be Over Soon: A Memoir by Cecily Strong. Comedians’ memoirs fascinate me, because they are often very sad! This was no exception. I am a huge fan of Strong’s comedy, especially her remarks at the 2015 White House Correspondents Dinner. The book is written from a place of privilege I wish Strong was slightly more aware of (we didn’t all have the option to ride out early pandemic in woodsy upstate NY) and could’ve benefitted from a slightly firmer editing hand – it wandered into stream of consciousness and had some bizarre/repetitive timeline leaps – but hey, kudos to Strong for writing her first book during year one of this pandemic, when I was struggling to write text messages!

Even if you don’t read this book, I urge you to watch the talk: Cecily Strong, This Will All Be Over Soon with Chanel Miller. It’s both heartbreaking and inspiring, and made me realize that grief and rage can be powerful motivators for personal and societal progress.

Honorable Mention: Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown

Ellen Werner, Program Director

The book I keep returning to this year is Maggie Smith’s Goldenrod. Like many people, I first came across Smith’s poetry when her poem “Good Bones” went viral on social media a few years ago and now I’m a big fan of hers. She writes about everyday life and nature in language that feels simple but packs a punch!

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.

excerpt from “Good Bones” BY MAGGIE SMITH
Nick Wilson, Operations Manager

To say that I enjoyed The Wicker King by K. Ancrum feels odd since it’s such an emotionally devastating story. August (a drug runner with pyro tendencies) and Jack (a rugby playing golden boy) seem mismatched as best friends. As Jack’s visions of a fantasy world layered on our own take over, August is determined to help him through it. I think this book really highlights the difficult and terrible decisions that young people feel forced to make when they don’t live in nurturing, supportive environments. But also, the ways in which they still try to look out for each other the best that they can.

Honorable Mention: Our Dreams at Dusk by Yuhki Kamatani