Best Oregon Books of 2021

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2021 was as good a year as any to disappear into a book. As the rules changed and the goalposts shifted and we all adjusted to new versions of “stability” every five minutes, it was calming to slip into worlds that anchored us, however briefly. Many writers from Oregon stepped in, offering humor, pathos, sweeping historical fictions, intimate local stories, and even a perspective on the still-raging pandemic that has absorbed so much of our attention. Without further ado, these are our favorite Oregon books for 2021.

The beasts of a small country by Juhea Kim

It’s not common to open a book by a Portland writer and find yourself in the mountains of Korea in the early 20th century stalking a tiger. But Juhea Kim is an unusual writer, and her first novel, The beasts of a small country, is a vast and ambitious saga spanning generations and geographies that couldn’t feel further from the present-day Pacific Northwest that she calls home. It follows a series of interconnected characters in Japanese-occupied Korea – a Japanese soldier, a courtesan apprentice, a street urchin, a rickshaw driver – to the country’s ultimate independence and subsequent division. But although it takes place in this historical context, The beasts of a small country is as much a story of love – reciprocal, unrequited, imperfect, fleeting, tenacious, romantic, platonic, familial – and the blows of time on our bodies and minds as it is a moment for a struggling country against colonialism. In Kim’s skillful hands, it becomes an epic story of lifelong human connection and a lyrical portrayal of the land they all call home. —Fiona McCann

Born on water by Nikole Hannah-Jones and Renée Watson; illustrated by Nikkolas Smith

Portlander Renée Watson teamed up with acclaimed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones (herself a former Oregonian journalist) for this dive into the history of a black girl who cannot trace her family tree beyond three generations. Through a series of lyrical yet accessible poems, her grandmother takes her back to their West African origins, where her ancestors had a language and culture and skills with the land and with each other. The story goes from glowing pages of their joyful origins to dark, evocative illustrations as her ancestors are robbed and transported across the ocean with people from other villages. Born on water is ultimately a story of hope, resistance and the legacy of all who came before it, a “proud origin story” that comes to life with evocative and vivid illustrations by artist Nikkolas Smith. —FM

Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner

The Japanese breakfast singer raised by Eugene leaves all about the table — proverbial and other—in this breathtaking literary beginnings. From the fantastic first line you know where everything is heading: Zauner’s mother died of gastrointestinal cancer when Zauner was 28, and a significant part of H Mart recount the heartbreaking experience of caring for a parent as they diminish before your eyes. What makes the book like this special, however, is the path this makes the joy in the margins of that experience – the new connections to old memories, the shared meals, the suddenly accessible flow of compassion –not to mention his remarkably lucid portrait of Zauner late mother as a full and imperfect person. It’s a book about grief that gives way to laughter, a book about food that gives way to tears, and an unfair article that proves that sometimes great songwriters are great memorialists too. May this be an auspicious start to a long literary career. Conner reed

Easy crafts for crazy people by Kelly Williams Brown

Take a page from Nora Ephron Stomach pains, Kelly Williams Brown, the Salem-based writer who (ambivalently) coined the term “adult,” set out to turn the worst two years of her life into a cheeky instruction manual. Easy Crafts is a funny, sharp-tongued memoir about Brown going through a torrent of tragedy, ending up in inpatient psychiatric care and coming out the other side; it’s also a craft book, punctuated with instructions for making paper stars, origami lights, charm bracelets, and more. The craft echoes Brown’s personal uproar, and many coincide with the self-calming she did, say, after her marriage ended, or she broke her arm, or her father fell ill, or or or. What keeps everything together is his irreducible voice, decidedly light in the face of the immense darkness, which mimics the euphoria you feel when your chatty friend opens up to a few drinks and you catch a glimpse of their raw, l one of – a blood spattered heart. RC

I never promised you a rose garden by Mannie Murphy

editable shades of grey ink washes, genderqueer artist Mannie Murphy uncovers a hidden Portland history. Thoughts on the death of River Phoenix and My own private Idaho give way to tales from the gay underground of Portland in the 1990s, from street scammers to skinheads. Coloring all of these are the lasting legacies of white supremacy and patriarchal power in the history of the Pink City, but this graphic novel, presented almost like diary entries on water-stained lined paper, discusses how painfully personal celebrity culture and historical injustice can feel. —Karly Quadros

Friendliness by Emily Kendal Frey

The Oregon Book Award winning poet’s latest collection (after 2014 Arrow of sorrow, which won him this award), is a surprising and mercurial meditation on the way we kiss and kill each other. Images appear, transform, fade and return, prompting us to reconsider our fixed relationships with the world around us. Brutal honesty mixes with opaque whimsy, highlighting all the ways we hide and reveal ourselves at ourselves and to each other. The sprawling “I have become less acceptable to those in power” spells out the goal, if you can call it that, which is to break down the blockages as to whether we deserve – period. It might be trite, but in Kendal Frey’s hands, it’s the furthest thing: She keeps things disorienting, disarming, and, therefore, unshakably powerful. –RC

The night always comes by Willy Vlautin

Portland musician and writer Willy Vlautin’s sixth novel is ruthless in its depiction of the grim realities of financial struggle and loneliness. This is the story of Lynette, 30, who works multiple low-paying jobs while caring for her intellectually disabled brother and struggling to keep her head up in a CCP accounting class. She is saving up to buy the ruined house she lives in with her family, knowing that the alternative is to lose it and any chance of owning her own place in a city undergoing gentrification. Much like Lynette, there is bad credit and a mother who has given up on trying, their combined strengths pushing her out of the lawful path to a bevy of arrogant and desperate characters. It is a grim portrait of those our city constantly leaves behind, and a reminder of the worst situation that results. Ultimately, the loss of Portland just might be the gain of Lynette in a heart-wrenching, deeply human novel that allows her some sort of way out even as the traps close all around. —FM

Voices of Pandemic by Eli Saslow

“Until a few weeks ago, I was the anesthetist that people used to see when they had babies.” It’s Cory Deburghraeve, speaking as an intubator in a Chicago intensive care unit in April 2020, 14 hours a day, six days a week. “They keep telling me it’s not my fault, and I would give anything to believe it,” says Francine Bailey, after transmitting COVID-19 to her mother. “We are at the mercy of the virus. We sit here and wait, ”says Bruce McGillis, a resident of a nursing home in Ohio. These and many more testimonies bear witness to a year of grief, loneliness, loss and courage – 27 in all, from a coroner burying his own friends to a grandmother deported to a young woman 287 days long COVID — are collected in Portlander Eli Saslow Voices of the Pandemic: Americans Tell Their Stories of Crisis, Courage and Resilience. It is a rich and deeply human document on the extraordinary toll of the pandemic for all of us which in a way turns the page of hope. –FM

What a strange paradise by Omar El Akkad

A former journalist covering Afghanistan, Guantanamo and the Arab Spring for The Globe and Mail in Canada, and the author of a dystopian speculative epic american war, Omar El Akkad offers unyielding but still compassionate gazes on the larger and more destructive conflicts of our time: war, shortage, exploitation. What a strange paradise, his second novel, tells the odyssey of Amir, a 9-year-old Syrian refugee stranded on the shore on a greek island after a shipwreck, and 15 years old Vanna, a Nordic girl who shelters him. Sparkle between Amir’s life before and after the shipwreck, the novel follows eis tender and unlikely duo as they struggle with Language barrier, nationalism, and liberal indifference. —KQ


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