My favorite books of 2021

BEAUTIFUL WORLD, WHERE ARE YOU by Sally Rooney is terrific. It’s about four people, how they feel about each other, and how they see the world in which they live. They’re young but getting older. There are things they want, but their futures are uncertain. Eventually, there’s the pandemic with which they need to wrestle. And with page after page of clean, gorgeous writing, Rooney slowly opens up their lives and lets us see who they are. This is her most self-aware novel, her book most interested in the impact of ideas. This book lingered in my head for weeks.

CROSSROADS is the first novel in a planned trilogy by Jonathan Franzen. It’s about a family falling apart in the Midwest — as so many Franzen novels are. But there’s a measure of empathy in this story that’s often missing from his other books. There’s a father (and pastor) who is wrestling with his faith in God and whether he can remain faithful in his marriage. There are children who are trying to decide what kinds of adults they want to be. And there is a mother whose rage is vibrating so close to the surface that when the narrative shifts to her voice, the writing is almost incandescent.

DAMNATION SPRING by Ash Davidson is about a logging community in northern California in the 1970s and what happens when a midwife starts asking whether the local timber company’s herbicide is causing birth defects — while her husband, a logger, is trying to buy a plot of old-growth forest to start his own operation. The heart of this story is their relationship, the strength of their commitment to each other while so many of the expectations they have for life are falling away. Davidson grew up in the town where the book is set and spent 10 years researching it. All the details are right. She lets us see the scratches that the loggers’ caulk boots leave on the linoleum floors of the local clinics. She lets us hear the crash the “big pumpkin” redwoods make when they land exactly where they’re meant to fall. When I finished the last page, I sobbed so loudly that Abby had to get out of bed to check on me.

KLARA AND THE SUN by Kazuo Ishiguro is told from the perspective of a robot who serves as a companion for a sick, young girl. Eventually, we learn why this girl is sick and why her mother believes she needs an artificial friend — but the gap between that revelation and what Klara observes creates buzzing anxiety throughout the narrative, a sort of persistent dread. This is a story about what’s replaceable in our lives and what it means to love someone.

GREAT CIRCLE by Maggie Shipstead is a big, chewy novel about an aviator in the early age of flight, the choices that lead her to try to circumnavigate the globe just after WWII, and the present-day actress who plays her in a Hollywood biopic. The central narrative moves from the frozen waters of the North Atlantic to Prohibition-era Montana to London during the Blitz. The modern storyline intersects with history in ways that are surprising and smart. It’s impossible to avoid having fun with the plot, but it is the characters that make this book so damn great.

HARLEM SHUFFLE by Colson Whitehead is completely sure of the world it invokes, and that is a big part of why it’s so hard to put down. Ray Carney is a furniture salesman in Harlem in the 1950s. He becomes a fence almost by accident. At first, he’s moving the occasional TV with questionable provenance. Then a cousin pulls him into a heist, and Carney has to decide how bent he’s willing to be. Every scene has a detail that sharpens the setting or a clever line that makes a character take root in your mind. There’s plenty to debate about which of Whitehead’s books is his best, but this is his most fun

HOW THE WORD IS PASSED by Clint Smith is a survey of how slavery is remembered in the United States. Smith visits places like Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, Angola Penitentiary in Louisiana, and a Confederate cemetery outside Petersburg, Virginia. He speaks with tourists, researchers, guides, and museum curators — trying to get a handle on how the institution of slavery is taught, contextualized, and understood. There is a ton of history in this book, but Smith’s examination of the present — particularly his conversations with other people visiting these spaces — is what makes it so powerful.

THE LINCOLN HIGHWAY by Amor Towles is about four boys who set out on a road trip from Nebraska to New York in 1954. A car gets stolen; a train gets hopped; eventually, some very expensive wine gets dumped down a drain in service of a magic trick. The plot keeps moving — there are absentee parents and an inheritance to find. Three of the boys met on a prison farm, and over time, we learn why each was sentenced. The fourth (one boy’s younger brother) is fascinated by stories of adventure, and over time, he realizes he’s in the middle of one. The whole thing is so good that as soon as I finished, I wanted to start again.

MATRIX by Lauren Groff is the story of a 12th-century nun and poet who gradually builds power for herself and security for the women in her charge. Marie is the bastard sister of Eleanor of Aquitaine, sent off to a royal abbey at 17 when she’s judged too tall and homely to be a political asset for the crown. Her new home is cold and filthy, her new sisters are on the verge of starving. So with reluctance, Marie begins to take command. She reforms the abbey’s operations, collects on the debts owed to the nuns, and restocks the larders. Gradually, her ambitions grow, and her doubts turn into a religious fervor. She receives a series of visions from the Virgin Mary — which guide her plans for building a place of sanctuary and wealth deep in the English countryside. Those passages contain some of the best writing of Groff’s career. This book is deeply feminist — in the world that Marie shapes around her, faith, love, accomplishment, and command happen almost exclusively among women. The whole thing is a blast.

VELVET WAS THE NIGHT by Silvia Moreno-Garcia is a hard-boiled thrill. Maite is a secretary in Mexico City. When her glamorous neighbor disappears under mysterious circumstances, she starts asking questions. She’s pulled into a world of leftist students, dissident artists, and KGB spies. Eventually, Maite catches the attention of a man named Elvis, who is part of a paramilitary group cracking down on protests. Slowly, they circle each other and start to find answers. The writing is stylish, the plot is tense, and the atmosphere is thick.

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