The 20 Best Books of 2021
The novels, nonfiction, and memoirs that stood out most
Much of 2021 has been filled with a dull sense of déjà vu as the coronavirus pandemic has continued to shrink social worlds and batter morale. Many of the books our writers and editors were drawn to investigated failure, grief, apocalypse—resonant themes at a time of constant rupture and regression. Others helped jolt readers out of routines, and stretched the imagination. The works below span fiction, poetry, memoir, and reportage, but they share a keen sense of the world as it is and as it could be.
Assembly, by Natasha Brown
“Dissolve yourself into the melting-pot,” says the narrator of Assembly. “And then flow out, pour into the mould. Bend your bones until they splinter and crack and you fit. Force yourself into their form.” Natasha Brown’s debut novel is propelled by elegant, elliptical, violent lines like that. Its story, on the surface, is sparse. The narrator, a Black woman living in London whose name is never revealed, goes to work (the job is a financially lucrative and spiritually vampiric role in banking). She goes to a party (thrown by the parents of her wealthy, white boyfriend, on their ancient estate). She goes to the doctor. There is a pointed plot twist I won’t spoil, but what makes Assembly singular, in the end, is less its story than the manner of its storytelling. The narrator’s assessments of her life, rendered primarily in the first person, are studies of evocative contrasts. She reveals, and she withholds. She observes, and she watches herself being observed. She documents the casual cruelties that shape her daily life—and she defies them. — Megan Garber
Always Crashing in the Same Car: On Art, Crisis, and Los Angeles, California, by Matthew Specktor
Matthew Specktor’s sad and entrancing book takes as its topic failure, “a pattern of mind,” he writes, that is also, “when we are close to it, delicious.” A child of Hollywood—his mother was an unhappy screenwriter, his father a high-powered agent—he focuses his attention on its denizens, exploring artists meaningful to him “whose careers carry an aura of what might … have been.” Specktor is a sharp cultural critic, but he also writes with the sweet conviction of someone who still has heroes, and he opts to consider foundering a virtue. With that lens, he examines the lives of folks such as the coolly talented writer Eleanor Perry, who never got sufficient credit for work that she’d done with her husband, Frank, but then wrote a gimlet-eyed novel about her marriage; or the vibrant yet aloof actor Tuesday Weld, constantly on the verge of becoming a starlet but perhaps also saved by her ambivalence about fame. Specktor threads into these essaylike chapters a portrait of his own tempestuous allegiance to this city of dashed fantasies. Dreams, he suggests, don’t protect you. But he begins to wonder, as I did, whether failure, brutal though it is, “mightn’t have been the real pursuit all along.” — Jane Yong Kim
Intimacies, by Katie Kitamura
Katie Kitamura’s fourth novel spins a taut web of dread from the start. After the death of her father, the unnamed narrator leaves New York to work as an interpreter at a criminal court in The Hague. There, her job is, as she puts it, “to repeat the unspeakable”—a task at which she, an observant outsider, is immediately adept. When a former West African president accused of ethnic cleansing requests her as his personal interpreter, she begins to wonder, queasily, if her professional neutrality is a form of complicity: “I was pure instrument,” she notes, “a consciousness-free zone into which he could escape.” (At the same time, she’s acutely aware that the court’s defendants come disproportionately from African nations, while other wealthy European nations are left largely alone.) Outside the courtroom, she tries to navigate a fledgling friendship and decipher a days-long silence from the married Dutch man she’s dating. In cool, spare prose, Kitamura asks the book’s animating query: How should you go about your little life in a world where horrible things are happening? — Stephanie Hayes
The Right to Sex, by Amia Srinivasan
In 2018, the philosopher Amia Srinivasan published a viral essay for the London Review of Books that interrogated the formation of our sexual desires. Modern feminism’s impulse to think about sex in individualistic terms, she wrote, fails to acknowledge how broader political forces shape what we want. Her incisive book expands on the original essay, covering sexual assault, false rape accusations, porn, #MeToo, and sex work. Srinivasan excels at closely analyzing, then questioning, the facts of our sexual lives that we might take for granted. In the essay “Talking to My Students About Porn,” she is surprised by both her students’ and her own conservatism, expressing wariness of porn’s power to define sex for kids raised in the internet age. She doesn’t accomplish her lofty aim of completely reimagining sex, but that very ambition is what makes the book so successful. The Right to Sex clears the slate for others to imagine a future in which physical intimacy is, in her words, equal, joyful, and free. — Kate Cray
Harrow, by Joy Williams
Harrow is an absurdist novel about our imperiled planet. Joy Williams stares at it, steadily, through her black sunglasses. What she sees is damning, darkly humorous, and often inscrutable. To describe the plot would be to miss the point entirely; narrative arcs, morality, and human connection don’t make sense in this warped world. The narrator Khristen’s mother believes her daughter briefly died and returned from a “dead world.” (Deepening the religious overtones, Khristen introduces herself as “Lamb” before dropping the nickname altogether.) But of course the actual world is far more ghoulish than any purgatory, and the book’s central pleasure comes from following Khristen and an accompanying motley chorus of voices as they confront this bleak and pointless landscape. What happens, Williams seems to ask, when humanity has destroyed nature—knowingly, willingly, and irrevocably—yet still has to wander through its terminal gardens? — Oliver Munday
Being a Human, by Charles Foster
Where to start with Charles Foster? How about with a big fat quote from Being a Human? “What keeps brains effective and their owners alive in times of trouble is promiscuous intellectual cross-fertilisation between different domains of one’s own brain, and between the brains of oneself and others. The Neanderthals had neither, and so they died out, victims not, probably, of homicidal Homo sapiens but of cognitive sclerosis.” And then how about following it with another one? “The wood is mourning-band black, with a thorny back. As I push open the iron gate that leads in, the wood stops breathing and starts watching. It has frozen, with one forepaw held in the air.” Being a Human, like Being a Beast, the (also extraordinary) book that preceded it, is both a learned treatise and a kind of visionary journalism; it reports back from the edges of our cramped consciousness, where so much of what keeps us alive (poetry, music, myth, God) is currently making its home. In search of who we are, pursuing his own brand of gonzo neurobiology, Foster flings himself physically into various inhospitable corners of the English countryside—caves, bushes, piles of wet leaves—depriving himself of everyday comforts that his perceptions may be cleansed. And so they are. — James Parker
Afterparties, by Anthony Veasna So
Afterparties often moves like a boomerang––zippily flitting back and forth among its characters to create a ricochet effect. The nine short stories in Anthony Veasna So’s debut collection feature an ensemble of young Cambodian Americans whose parents and grandparents fled the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime; this generation, though, is more familiar with the streets and storefronts of Stockton, California. So writes about this community—and about family, sex, and cultural inheritance—with a sharp-toothed, darkly comic bent. “Every Ma has been a psycho since the genocide,” one character muses; another achieves enlightened clarity about his boyfriend’s VC-funded “safe space” app while in the throes of a threesome. This Khmer choir of voices is, at turns, horny, haunted, irreverent, and hustling. The stories careen between doughnut shops and Buddhist temples, and spiritual reincarnation figures into several plotlines. So’s narrators sometimes balk at their parents’ religiosity, but they still can’t quite abandon the belief that their ancestors move among them. The author died last year unexpectedly, months before the book’s publication; one can’t shake the feeling that he, too, meanders through these stories now. — Nicole Acheampong
All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake, by Tiya Miles
In 2007, a woman shopping at a flea market in Nashville came across a cotton sack, frayed and marbled with age. She noticed a message embroidered on the exterior, in neat lines of brown and red and green. My great grandmother Rose / mother of Ashley gave her this sack when / she was sold at age 9 in South Carolina … she never saw her again / Ashley is my grandmother / Ruth Middleton / 1921. In All That She Carried, the historian Tiya Miles tells the story of the textile—and of the saga sewn into it. Wrenching in its subject, lyrical in its prose, corrective in its purpose, and sprawling in its scope, the book travels through 17th-century Barbados, 19th-century South Carolina, and present-day America in its attempt to answer elemental questions: Who were Rose and Ashley and Ruth? What might their lives have been like? What would the sack and its contents have meant to them? Miles weaves uncertainty into her story, and the result is an achingly new kind of history—one that fills, as Miles puts it, “the spaces between the stitches.” — M.G.
Nervous System, by Lina Meruane
The Chilean writer Lina Meruane has long been preoccupied with the betrayals of the body. In her previous novel, Seeing Red, she told a semi-autobiographical story about a woman who becomes blind after a stroke. Her nervily intelligent second book intimates that illness is a way of reading the world. Ella is an astrophysicist trying to finish a doctoral thesis on dead stars; wanting to buy herself more time, she wishes she’d get sick, only to start experiencing mysterious symptoms. As she tries to figure out what’s wrong with her, she begins to remember what she calls “the country of the past,” where she’s from, and her family’s long-running afflictions: cancer, aunts who would die “before reaching old age,” the muddily traumatic backdrop of state violence. The stories pile up, collectively suggesting that pain is a form of history, written in our bodies—that memory is physical, stretched across countries and generations. Meruane’s chapters include oblique time frames (“restless present,” “past imperfect”); along with the book’s title, they are cues for the reader to zoom out and see how each ordeal connects, and divides, us. — J.Y.K.
Excavate!: The Wonderful and Frightening World of The Fall, edited by Tessa Norton and Bob Stanley
The literature, the text, around The Fall—England’s answer to the Grateful Dead—continues to proliferate. And yes, if you’re even vaguely acquainted with The Fall, your head just exploded. The Grateful Dead?! I know: It’s a ludicrous comparison. The Dead were hippies; The Fall were punks. (Sort of. Toxically antinomian modernist Northern post-garage-art punks.) The Dead liked LSD; The Fall liked powders and pubs. The Dead were mushy and hazy; The Fall were knotty and nasty. Etc. Nevertheless, there’s something Deadlike, I am obliged to observe, in the phenomenon of The Fall: the occult magnetism, the depth of lore, the sense of initiation, the telepathy. I spent years, decades, not understanding and slightly fearing The Fall, in particular the cryptic denunciations of Mark E. Smith, the band’s frontman/seer/ego/warped elf: “The Siberian mushroom Santa / was in fact Rasputin’s brother.” So I’m grateful to the editors of Excavate!, a lavish hardcover with a magical-portal feel to it that explores and partially explains The Fall. There are (very good) essays in here, plus photos, marginalia, ephemera, arcana. If it sends you—as it did me—on a monthslong Fall binge, good luck. You’re in for a ride. — J.P.
Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro
Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel takes place in a deeply unequal future world characterized by dangerous genetic editing and children so isolated that they need robot artificial friends (AFs) for companionship. Yet the book rarely feels bleak, perhaps because it is filtered through the perspective of Klara, a mild-mannered AF. Klara is deeply observant, finding lyrical wonder in the mundane. Initially, her view of human emotion is simplistic, but her understanding slowly grows. Early in the book she learns that people can feel two things at once—that reuniting lovers might feel both happiness at seeing each other again and sadness over the time apart—and by the end, she is grappling with more complicated questions about grief and how our memories live on after death. Her emotional education’s greatest failure, and the book’s most optimistic idea, is that Klara never imitates our ugliest feelings, such as spite and hatred. She accidentally hurts some people through her social confusion, but she remains fundamentally good. Ishiguro may have written about a dystopia, but its robot protagonist is almost utopian. — K.C.
What Noise Against the Cane, by Desiree C. Bailey
“I dreamed the sea scabbed over,” writes Desiree C. Bailey in the first entry of her debut poetry collection. What Noise Against the Cane is an epic dedicated to straddling multiple shores: the Haitian Revolution as well as American police brutality; migration as well as dispossession; the enduring aches and affirmations of Caribbean womanhood. In that opening poem, “Chant for the Waters and Dirt and Blade,” a wounded sea sounds possible, as Bailey takes the voice of an enslaved girl in Saint-Domingue traumatized by the violence of her transatlantic journey. A careful witness to this violence, the sea speaks too. Running along the bottom of every page is a stream of small text, words from what Bailey names the “Sea Voice”––a spunky, sage narrator who footnotes and subtly disrupts the poems by “churnin in di margins.” Layered voices act as vessels for the painful legacy that Bailey, a Trinidadian writer raised in Queens, aims to tenderly capture and release. As she writes: “I give what is mine to give / I return the wound.” — N.A.
Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty, by Patrick Radden Keefe
Journalistic investigations sometimes read like indictments: forceful, detailed, dry. Empire of Pain, though, is an investigation and a page-turner. Patrick Radden Keefe’s story of the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma—the entities that introduced, and deceptively marketed, the addictive painkiller OxyContin—is deeply reported, informed by interviews, court documents, and historical research. It offers incisive character studies of the three Sackler brothers—Arthur, Mortimer, and Raymond—and of their heirs and extended family. Chapters wind and converge and culminate in cliff-hangers. And Keefe supplements the facts he’s uncovered. Learning about the Sacklers, I also learned about the rise of pharmaceutical advertising; the history of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the intricacies of patent law; and the evolution of attitudes toward addiction and mental illness. Keefe’s book even verges, at moments, on the poetic. “It flowers beautifully, deep red or pale pink,” he writes of the poppy that gives opioids their magic and their menace, “and looks mellow or maddenly indifferent, almost vain.” — M.G.
Detransition, Baby, by Torrey Peters
Reese is a trans woman living in Brooklyn who sleeps with married men and longs for motherhood. Ames, her ex, who was Amy during their relationship but has since detransitioned, has recently accidentally impregnated his boss, Katrina, with whom he is having an affair. Now, Ames is hoping the three of them might raise the child together as a sort of jagged, modern family. Torrey Peters’s debut novel is as dishy and plotty as it sounds—I basically held my breath through its entire third act—but it’s also big-hearted and big-brained, full of provocative ideas about how to be a woman, a parent, a person, and the unwilling tenant of a body that doesn’t always do what you want it to. That the book manages all this without lapsing into self-seriousness or sermonizing is a triumph. — Ellen Cushing
Crying in H Mart, by Michelle Zauner
For the biracial singer Michelle Zauner, who’s best known to the public as the Grammy-nominated musician Japanese Breakfast, food has always anchored her to her Korean heritage. Savoring the seaweed soup miyeokguk or carefully making tteokguk, rice cakes soaked in beef broth, could remind her of summers in Seoul with her Korean family, or bring her solace when she felt helpless. Cooking was a profound comfort when her mother got sick with cancer, too; Zauner prepared the dishes she and her mother shared to process the pressure she felt to be a good daughter and to make up for the strain her artistic ambitions put on their relationship. Later, those meals would be her means of accessing potent memories: the way her mother would order everything “steamy hot,” perhaps, or the times she’d raid the refrigerator with Zauner on those jet-lagged nights abroad. As a food memoir, Crying in H Mart stirs readers’ appetites, but it also inspires reflection on how love can manifest in unexpected ways, through unexpected senses. — Shirley Li
The Life of the Mind, by Christine Smallwood
Don’t be daunted when I tell you that the protagonist of Christine Smallwood’s debut novel is an adjunct professor of English who teaches (among too many other classes) a course called “Writing Apocalypse” and finds herself dealing with a gunky, protracted miscarriage. Dorothy herself isn’t daunted, mostly. Adrift on a path with no obvious future, she’s instead mordantly observant. In Smallwood’s satiric portrayal of brainy precarity, a valiant sort of curiosity triumphs over careerist myopia. “What did you call it when a life stopped developing, but didn’t end?” Dorothy wonders, and becomes a connoisseur of postdoctorate academic stasis, fruitless therapy sessions, and other endings that “sputtered and limped along.” Smallwood’s sentences do nothing of the sort (which won’t surprise readers of her criticism). Page after page, her astute novel is tautly funny—right up to the end, which will, of course, leave you hanging. — Ann Hulbert
Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival & Hope in an American City, by Andrea Elliott
The investigative reporter Andrea Elliott met Dasani, an 11-year-old Black girl living in a Brooklyn homeless shelter, in 2012. Her family of 10 was crammed into a single room where roaches scaled the walls and the baby’s crib was heated by a hair dryer; just blocks away were posh townhouses. One of 22,000 unhoused children in one of the most unequal cities in America, Dasani—named after the bottled water that her mother could never afford—stood out to Elliott for her astuteness and idealism. Every morning, before getting her siblings ready for school, she would stare out at the Empire State Building, which, she told Elliott, made her “feel like there’s something going on out there.” For eight years, Elliott followed the family almost everywhere—to school, court, welfare offices, and therapy sessions—and researched their ancestors. (Elliot learned that Dasani’s great-grandfather was a decorated World War II veteran who—unaided by the GI Bill that elevated millions of white veterans into the middle class—was unable to secure a mortgage in redlined Brooklyn.) The resulting book is at once a tender portrait of a family, and a tour of America’s broken welfare systems and racist policies. — S.H.
Milk Blood Heat, by Dantiel W. Moniz
The best short stories create a world, draw readers into intimate spaces, and make them feel invested in—or repelled by—the characters who occupy that world, all in a relatively small amount of space. That task is difficult, but in her debut book, Milk Blood Heat, Dantiel W. Moniz demonstrates remarkable control over plotting alongside distinct and affecting prose. Moniz is a recent National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree, and her intergenerational stories, set in Florida, are tender and haunting, full of characters you will want to console, and some you will want to warn. In the first line of the title story, she writes, “‘Pink is the color for girls,’ Kiera says, so she and Ava cut their palms and let their blood drip into a shallow bowl filled with milk, watching the color spread slowly on the surface, small red flowers blooming.” Moniz uses language in ways I have not encountered before, in ways that push us to see, hear, and sit with moments that we might otherwise overlook. — Clint Smith
The Book of Difficult Fruit: Arguments for the Tart, Tender, and Unruly (With Recipes), by Kate Lebo
“Look, the ‘difficult’ of difficult fruit is not code for ‘exotic’ or ‘ethnic’ or ‘other,’” Kate Lebo clarifies early in her freewheeling, recipe-filled journey through the interconnected natural and social worlds of fruit. “Difficult” fruits, according to Lebo, are ones that don’t yield easily to human harvests or taste buds. Writing on durian, an “exceptionally odiferous” example, she approaches her task with humility, clearly wanting to avoid sensational coverage of what is for many an unremarkable food. Instead, she uses the chapter to analyze the role of scent in memory and weaves her insights into the recipes at the end, in this case for durian ice cream and lip balm. Through tender inquisitions into a list containing aronia, elderberry, Osage orange, quince, and yuzu, Lebo, a poet and cookbook author, also tends to her own life, detailing her family’s complicated history, the dissolution of a relationship followed by the rewards of new love, and her evolving connection to the Pacific Northwest, where she lives. Lebo’s unexpected discoveries, like many of the fruits that she examines, aren’t always useful or simple to digest—and that’s the point. — Emma Sarappo
No One Is Talking About This, by Patricia Lockwood
In addition to two volumes of poetry and her memoir, Priestdaddy, Patricia Lockwood has now written a novel. In her bones, though, she’s still a poet. She freaks out like a poet. Language comes to her as it comes to a poet, i.e., like wild airborne yeast. No One Is Talking About This has the feeling of a memoir that got turned into a novel, and that’s okay. The plot: We’re in a place that smells like 2016, the internet is “the portal,” Donald Trump is “the dictator,” and a young literary-type woman goes viral, goes vertical, with a post that asks “Can a dog be twins?” Her new fame sweeps her up and hollows her out. Then a family emergency arises, real life (whatever that is, at this point) asserts itself, and epiphanies ensue. Sounds terrible, right? But it’s not. It’s fantastic. Lockwood writes the most beautiful sentences in America. To qualify that slightly: She writes the most beautiful sentences that I have read, while in America, this year. Her sense of humor has survived its immersion in the shallow acids of the internet. Her sociology is dead on. Her theology, if I can put it like that—her feel for what’s important—is also dead on: “The light on the drive home was like the hide of a breathing animal, silver and gold hillsides of it, fawn and rabbit and fox quivering in a blue snow. It allowed her to approach even though she was human: for once it was not afraid.” — J.P.
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