When I look at this list of the best books of 2021, I see what isn’t there, what didn’t make the final cut and deserved the hosannas. Discursive biography of Rebecca Solnit “Orwell’s Roses”. Clint Smith’s thought-provoking travelogue “How the Word Gone”. Matt Bell’s epic climate change “Appleseed”. Even Seth Rogan’s “Yearbook,” a collection of essays still reflected on the weirdness of Hollywood, was not to be taken lightly. Now was a great time to read widely and often, and given the nearly one billion books sold in 2020 – and the likely record ahead for 2021 (publishers have seen double-digit sales increase for much of this year. year) – settling in 10 was difficult.
As for the next 10, I would like to be able to reread them for the first time. In no particular order:
1. “A little devil in America: Notes in praise of black performance »
(Random house, $ 27)
Columbus essayist and poet Hanif Abdurraqib – who has had the entire year nominated for the National Book Award and MacArthur’s “genius” in the same week – hasn’t written a bad book. This is a still young career, but it is probably a high note, a deep meditation on black artists and a “mundane fight for individuality”, as well as what it means to be a black audience. On “Chappelle’s Show”: “Looks like white people are laughing too hard and for too long – and laughing in the wrong place – to make the show a coffin.” On pianist Don Shirley (from “Green Book”) and his lesser-known subversion of a University of Chicago juvenile delinquency study: to himself. “Abdurraqib’s long essay on the importance of” Soul Train ”is already classic.
2. “Second place”
(FSG, $ 25)
Rachel Cusk’s first novel after her famous Outline trilogy, and much like those great books, here’s another consideration of art and responsibility, though a little less abstract, but just as exploring its characters. A mother has a revelation in a gallery and starts blowing up her world, her marriage, her future. It’s a novel of ideas, as they say. But the kind that makes you lean forward, recognizing the places where a person’s moral certainty and self-image seem manufactured.
3. “The trees”
(Gray wolf, $ 16)
Someday, inevitably, when Percival Everett is read by more people and not by a painfully forgotten novelist whose work is put in his hands with a messianic promise to “trust me”, here is the book that will tip the scales. Someone is killing the ancestors of the guys who murdered Chicago teenager Emmett Till in 1955. To tell you more would be to deprive you page after page of gasps and laughter. Everett seeks an unstable cocktail of broad parody, mystery and social justice, and the result is gripping and courageous, a swing towards a new kind of novel about American violence.
4. “Everyone knows your mother is a witch”
(FSG, $ 27)
Not quite satire, not entirely historical fiction, but full of truth and chilling hilarity in an age of QAnon plots, anti-vaxxers, and culture cancellation. Rivka Galchen takes a page from Monty Python, Salem and the #MeToo movement to tell the real-life story of Katharina, a 16th century German widow with very important children (her eldest, Johannes Kepler, explained how the planets move ). She has been fighting witchcraft accusations in court for years. Galchen breaks the POV and tackles the absurdity (“The question of how we came to know is simple – we already knew that”) but more evocatively, the long reach of sexism and endless loops of thought of group.
5. “When we stop understanding the world”
(New York Review Books, $ 18)
At first it reads like poignant nuggets of history and pride, but soon the ingenious story of Benjamin Labatut’s complicity and horrors of scientific success takes just enough freedom with the men behind it. he invention of chemical weapons and the concept of black holes (among other paradigms – shifting bits of alchemy) to disrupt our understanding of reason and fiction. “Frankenstein” feels very close, and age-old presumptions of unintended consequences become uncertain. So deliciously annoying, I guess that’s … horror?
6. “Beloved beasts: Fight for life in the age of extinction ”
(Norton, $ 28)
Science journalist Michelle Nijhuis’s gripping animal conservation story exactly eschews the cheerleaders that would make other books powerless.
Here is a movement, she writes, “full of people who did the wrong things for the right reasons, and the right things for the wrong reasons.” The characters arrive multifaceted, full of wit and irony: the Smithsonian zoologist who, to ensure he has a sample of American bison, kills 10 percent of the remaining bison; the tenacious bird watcher who buys a mountain to preserve raptors. Nijhuis is particularly good at the complexity, colonialism and racism at the heart of many efforts, without missing the innovation, and the guts of amateurs. She is frank about the future – that is to say quite pessimistic – but determined on the urgency to continue, the ends and the means envisaged. Every page is a joy. (That World Wildlife Foundation panda? WWF adopted it because it was cute. And because black and white is cheaper to print.)
7. “100 things we have lost on the Internet”
(Crown, $ 27)
Perhaps the only book on this list that could win a little bit if read in bits and pieces, tucked away by your toilet. Pamela Paul, editor of the New York Times Book Review and a sort of casual and skeptical voice of opinion in her own right, has no intention of transcending the plaintive loss of the title. This is why it becomes so painful. Each chapter is the memory of a too sudden emotion (private humiliation), a behavior (looking out the window) or an artefact (bad photos), described with boredom and anger but enough lucid memory to be a true incantation.
8. “Dirty work: Essential jobs and the hidden toll of inequality in America ”
(FSG, $ 28)
Journalist Eyal Press takes a light look at the headline’s “essential” workers pandemic, albeit strategically, with good reason: its goals are higher, the moral cost of jobs hidden. He portrays drone pilots, prison guards, slaughterhouse workers. But it is gaining momentum because whenever he pulls away from a disruptive, poorly paid job to expose himself to guilt, the harshest evaluations often bypass those responsible. Not just the usual bosses, but also the investment bankers, the software engineers. Imagine Upton Sinclair wading through the bowels of our stockyards, detecting the stench even in our most barren offices.
(Simon and Schuster, $ 27)
In the days after giving birth to twins, the left side of Sarah Ruhl’s face began to sag and stiffen and she lost her ability to smile. She’s been in that small percentage of people who get Bell’s palsy and don’t recover from it. This is not the setup to overcome obstacles. Instead, the famous Wilmette native playwright uses her sharply frozen face to circle the meaning of a smile, symmetry, disfigured villains, but also a loss of faith, the misogynistic roots of rest at reads – and much more. The story loves the epiphany, she writes, but “the chronicle resists the intrigue …”
10. “The man who lived underground”
(Library of America, $ 23)
While Richard Wright’s short story is well known, the full text of his poignant portrayal of Chicago police abuse went unread for 80 years, so Harper’s editors rejected it – at one point where Wright was the best-selling black author in America. The novel has been shelved for decades, biding its time. What is here now is feverish, familiar, the story of a black man beaten by the police who escapes under the city, at a price: his base of reality is unraveling. Does it sound like “Invisible Man”? Frenemy Ralph Ellison was inspired by it, although Wright’s full novel is singular. And nothing less than the reestablishment of a major legacy.