Best Arts Books of 2021

Music across decades, women observed, and the legacy of Lolita. The best arts books of 2021.

Abdurraqib, Hanif. A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance. Random. ISBN 9781984801197.

Exploring a wide array of artists, from Whitney Houston to Sun Ra to Don Shirley, these bracingly intimate pieces resound with deep truths about the impact of racism and the power of Black performance. The titular “little devil” refers to Josephine Baker, a fitting choice—writer-poet Abdurraqib’s prose is as graceful, lithe, and dynamic as Baker’s famed performances.

De Visé, Daniel. King of the Blues: The Rise and Reign of B.B. King. Grove. ISBN 9780802158055.

Though B.B. King is indisputably a blues legend, younger generations may know only the broadstrokes of his life. With this impeccably researched biography, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist de Visé offers a fuller portrait, detailing both the artist’s musical prowess and his vulnerabilities and flaws; superbly evoking many scenes, from the Mississippi plantation where King was born to the Memphis blues scene where he flourished; and, above all, humanizing this larger-than-life figure.

Frankel, Glenn. Shooting Midnight Cowboy: Art, Sex, Loneliness, Liberation, and the Making of a Dark Classic. Farrar. ISBN 9780374209018.

Depicting same-sex sexual encounters, prostitution, drug use, and rape, the X-rated Midnight Cowboy arrived on the scene in 1969, just after Hollywood had shrugged off the hopelessly dated Hays Code. Through rich accounts of the movie’s creators and analysis of its cultural context, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Frankel makes clear why the film mattered, and still does. Electrifying reading—and the gold standard for what film writing should be.

Hope, Clover (text) & Rachelle Baker (illus.). The Motherlode: 100+ Women Who Made Hip-Hop. Abrams. ISBN 9781419742965.

While hip-hop is often considered a male-dominated genre, writer-editor Hope notes that women have been integral to the music. Interspersed with Baker’s vibrant illustrations, as well as sidebars and quotes, these expertly written profiles spotlight the contributions of MC Lyte, Lil’ Kim, and Lauryn Hill, among others. Taken individually, the pieces are a browser’s delight; collectively they offer invaluable insight into hip-hop history.

Lolita in the Afterlife: On Beauty, Risk, and Reckoning with the Most Indelible and Shocking Novel of the Twentieth Century. ed. by Jenny Minton Quigley. Vintage. ISBN 9781984898838.

Should we still make room on the shelf for a novel about child sexual abuse told from the perspective of the abuser? Contributors to this anthology from writer-editor Quigley, the daughter of the American publisher of Lolita, are by turns celebratory, anguished, and conf licted as they reconsider the book. The results are as disturbing, thought-provoking, and mesmerizing as Nabokov’s work.

McCormack, Catherine. Women in the Picture: What Culture Does with Female Bodies. Norton. ISBN 9780393542080.

Misogyny is so embedded in the art world that many barely notice it, but art historian McCormack is deeply attuned to it. Simultaneously down-to-earth and scholarly, her analyses of artistic depictions of women will prime readers to recognize sexism and racism in classical works and in the images all around them, from ads to magazine covers. A clear-eyed critique and an urgent call to arms.

Salesses, Matthew. Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing anWorkshopping. Catapult. ISBN 9781948226806.

All too aware that writers workshops are often hampered by racial bias, novelist and writing instructor Salesses explains that what many think of as objectively good prose is in fact rooted in whiteness. A thoughtful and bold writer, he discusses how workshops can embrace marginalized identities and perspectives. Necessary reading for aspiring writers—and for anyone seeking to address systemic bias.

Sanneh, Kelefa. Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres. Penguin Pr. ISBN 9780525559597.

Chronicling the last five decades of popular music is a tall order, but New Yorker music critic Sanneh superbly pulls it off. His histories of rock, R&B, country, punk, hip-hop, dance music, and pop will delight and inform; most provocative are Sanneh’s probing observations about listeners’ complex relationships with the genres they love.

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