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12 books NPR staffers loved in 2021 that might surprise you

Catie Dull

In what has become an annual tradition, NPR's staff and regular book critics bring you a mighty year-end guide of Books We Love. In 2021, you can find more than 360 recommendations ranging from cookbooks to realistic fiction and from graphic novels to tell-all tales.

Here are a handful of some of the most interesting staff picks — you may even find some choices that surprise you! — like The Secret History of Home Economics and Fat Chance, Charlie Vega.

We hope you enjoy our full slate of selections — and take some time to browse through for awhile!

Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kupersmith

"Build Your House Around My Body begins with the disappearance of a young woman named Winnie, and works its way backwards through time, telling a story of unfinished business and long-delayed revenge. Some of its set pieces are familiar from Hollywood horror movies and Brothers Grimm fairy tales – there's an exorcism and a haunted forest. But because this book is set in Vietnam, the forest is an overgrown rubber tree plantation and the exorcism doesn't have crucifixes or holy water. It's a sprawling novel that tells a ghost story spanning generations, drawing the reader into its supernatural world." Ari Shapiro, host, All Things Considered

Colorization: One Hundred Years of Black Films in a White World by Wil Haygood

"Billed as 'One Hundred Years of Black Films in a White World,' this fascinating, exhaustively researched and gorgeously written tome delves deep into the background of everything from D.W. Griffith's monstrous silent Birth of a Nation, to teenager Darnella Frazier's video of the murder of George Floyd. If you've ever wondered why you can't see the Sidney Poitier/Dorothy Dandridge Porgy and Bess, or why Spike Lee had to borrow money to fly to Cannes to win Best Young Director for She's Gotta Have It, or why ... nah, I should stop. So many treasures to unearth, you'll want to do it yourself." Bob Mondello, movie critic, Culture Desk

Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner

"Michelle Zauner's debut memoir eloquently lays out the complexity and the ongoing grief of losing a parent in your 20s, just as your own life is about to start. Zauner, who heads the indie band Japanese Breakfast, writes about how she turned to Korean food as a way to process her grief when her mother, her only tie to Korean culture, died of cancer. The book, which was first excerpted as viral New Yorker essay in 2018, reflects on how cooking and eating the food that her mom once prepared gives her a way to connect to her identity. As someone who also lost a parent in my 20s, it's hard to convey the loss of identity and confusion that I faced, so I'm so thankful this book exists." Alyssa Jeong Perry, producer, Code Switch

Fat Chance, Charlie Vega by Crystal Maldonado

"I'm glad there's a wave of YA books with fat protagonists, but the characters often possess a level of self-confidence that's too good to be true. Crystal Maldonado has created a much-needed believable protagonist with teenage and adult readers. Charlie Vega is a fat, glasses-wearing, biracial Puerto Rican with a diet-pushing mother and a beautiful, athletic best friend. When her classmate Brian pursues a romantic relationship, Charlie is plagued with-self doubt. The book is propelled by conflicts both internal and external. I'm glad this book isn't body-positive escapism, but rather a well-observed story of fat teenage life." Jessica Reedy, producer/editor, Pop Culture Happy Hour

Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness by Kristen Radtke

"Kristen Radtke looks at the science of loneliness and its presence in American society – and interweaves it with poignant stories from her own life. She dives into its evolutionary purpose while retracing the surprising places where loneliness comes up: in TV laugh tracks, in the much-venerated lone cowboys in American pop culture. All the while, she shares her own brushes with isolation – mourning the end of a TV series, scrolling through her phone in bed, witnessing the death of her grandmother. It's a deeply engaging, masterful work of science and heart, and incredibly timely as the pandemic continues on." Malaka Gharib, deputy editor, Goats and Soda, author of I Was Their American Dream

Sellout: The Major-Label Feeding Frenzy That Swept Punk, Emo, and Hardcore (1994-2007) by Dan Ozzi

"Let breathe new dawn - this art is dead / No sense of original thought in the mainstream" goes a lyric in the opening track of Against Me!'s first major-label album – one I (wrongly) thought sucked before ever having heard it, simply because it was on a major label. In Sellout, Dan Ozzi examines this intersection among bands trying to make a mark in the world, music labels hoping to make a buck off them and fans feeling betrayed by their idols. Even if you never spent time on punknews.org arguing about the taxonomy of "folk punk," it's a question that exists in every art form: How much is it worth to get paid? Andrew Limbong, reporter, Culture Desk

Somebody's Daughter by Ashley C. Ford

"Ashley Ford's riveting memoir is an honest, heartbreaking story about her father's incarceration and the resulting family trauma. Her story is about race and family and about how the choices we make, plus those forced upon us, can complicate the trajectory of our lives. Ford writes with a refreshing and riveting candor. As a fellow Hoosier, I found the book particularly compelling because it is not only a coming-of-age Midwestern tale with all the typical concerns about body image and mother-daughter tension, but also a sharp commentary on the harsh realities of growing up as a Black person in Indiana. Ford also gives us an important glimpse of how prison shapes the daughters left behind." Asma Khalid, White House correspondent, Washington Desk

The Heart Principle by Helen Hoang

"Anna Sun is a talented violinist in the Bay Area whose disappointing boyfriend springs a proposal on her: an open relationship. While processing her boyfriend's request and battling a creative block, Anna meets Quan and wonders if he might be the real deal. I love this book because it deals with issues that feel really relevant to today, such as creative burnout, bad boyfriends and neurodivergence, which Helen Hoang explores through these deeply rich and heartfelt characters." Candice Lim, production assistant, Pop Culture Happy Hour

The Most Fun Thing: Dispatches from a Skateboard Life by Kyle Beachy

"The year 2021 is the year of skateboarding. The "rebel" pursuit was transformed into an Olympic sport. Thrasher magazine, skateboarding's bible, turned 40. And many have picked up skateboards for the first time. So The Most Fun Thing couldn't have come at a better time. Kyle Beachy is a longtime skater and writing professor. His memoir, compiled from essays that span a decade, ponder the meaning of skateboarding. "What percentage of skateboarding, I wonder, is talking about skateboarding?" he writes. "Half, probably. There is such rich joy to be found in these debates without stakes." Even as they "go nowhere, slowly." Milton Guevara, production assistant, Morning Edition

The Secret History of Home Economics: How Trailblazing Women Harnessed the Power of Home and Changed the Way We Live by Danielle Dreilinger

"The secret's out! Before I read this book, home economics was just a class that I took in junior high with the aptly named Mrs. Housekeeper. But in reading this book, I discovered that in the early 20th century, the field provided jobs for women in the sciences, corporations and government. And despite a flirtation with the eugenics movement, it was an area in which Black women could, and did, make significant contributions. Danielle Dreilinger also makes the case that cooking and managing a budget are invaluable lessons for all children and should still be part of the school curriculum. Emiko Tamagawa, senior producer, Here & Now

The Secret to Superhuman Strength by Alison Bechdel

"I'm among the weirdos who responded to the pandemic by upping my workouts, which made Alison Bechdel's latest graphic novel feel unexpectedly timely. A lifelong fitness freak, who's embraced everything from martial arts to mountaineering, Bechdel applies the same rigor to her analysis of her quest for a mind/body connection, which contains the sort of psychoanalytic layers, self-deprecating charm and ambitious complexities her fans have come to expect." Neda Ulaby, correspondent, Culture Desk

Want Me: A Sex Writer's Journey Into the Heart of Desire by Tracy Clark-Flory

"As a woman, dating men is kind of exhausting – especially when you consider all of the ways women's understanding of our own sexuality is shaped by the male gaze. In her new memoir, Want Me: A Sex Writer's Journey Into the Heart of Desire, Jezebel writer Tracy Clark-Flory unpacks the different ways women are taught to be passive objects of lust, rather than active participants in sex. Through a combination of personal stories, previous reporting and feminist theory, Clark-Flory decodes the messy yet massively rewarding journey of taking agency over one's pleasure, with or without a partner." Isabella Gomez Sarmiento, assistant producer, Weekend Edition

To read more recommendations from staff members, you can explore the "Staff Picks" section on the 2021 Books We Love website.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mia Estrada
Mia Estrada is a 2021-2022 Kroc Fellow. She will spend the year rotating through different parts of NPR, including the Culture Desk, National Desk and Weekend Edition.