Presenting Our 41 NYTBR “Notable Books of 2021”
For their” 100 Notable Books of 2021″ the NYTBR editors have selected 22 Fiction and Poetry and 19 Nonfiction and Memoir titles published by Penguin Random House imprints, 41 in all.
The complete list is link here, online at the TBR site, and available in the December 5 print edition.
Congratulations to our honored authors and their proud publishers:
- Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kupersmith (Random House) This novel, about a half-Vietnamese American in Vietnam, is preoccupied with the body and its violations — both the sexual trauma experienced by the female characters and the ravages of colonial occupation and war upon the body of Vietnam.
- Chronicles From the Land of the Happiest People on Earth by Wole Soyinka (Pantheon) The Nobel Prize winner’s first novel in 48 years, involving a sinister online business that sells human body parts for private use in rituals and superstitions, is many things at once: a caustic political satire, a murder mystery, a conspiracy story and a deeply felt lament for the spirit of Nigeria.
- Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters (One World) Following three central characters — a trans woman who wants a baby; her ex, a man who’s recently detransitioned; and the cisgender woman he’s impregnated — this debut novel suggests there are many different ways to be a parent, or a person.
- Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead (Doubleday) After winning the Pulitzer Prize for each of his last two novels, Whitehead here delivers a rollicking crime caper set in the Harlem of the 1950s and ’60s, when social upheaval was just starting to roil the neighborhood. The highlight of the novel is a brilliantly executed robbery of the famed Hotel Theresa.
- How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue (Random House) Mbue’s quietly devastating second novel — about a fictional African village with high mortality due to an American oil company’s pollution — charts the ways oppression, be it at the hands of a government or a corporation or a society, can turn the most basic needs into radical acts.
- Intimacies by Katie Kitamura (Riverhead) In the latest novel by the author of “A Separation,” a court translator in The Hague is tasked with intimately vanishing into the voices and stories of the “plethora of war criminals in our midst.”
- Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro (Alfred A. Knopf) Klara, the solar-powered humanoid who narrates the Nobelist Ishiguro’s powerful eighth novel, is an “Artificial Friend,” purchased as a companion to a sickly teenage girl. Through the robot’s eyes, and haunting mechanical voice, we encounter a near future in which technology, ominously, has begun to render humans themselves obsolete.
- The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles (Viking) Set in the 1950s, Towles’s exhilarating novel follows four boys on a trip across America, from rural Nebraska to the skyscrapers of New York. All of them seek a better future but have very different ideas about how to get there; over the course of 10 days this multiperspective story offers an abundance of surprising detours and run-ins.
- The Morning Star by Karl Ove Knausgaard Translated by Martin Aitken (Penguin Press) In his haunting new novel, Knausgaard alternates between the first-person accounts of nine characters, all of whom spot a huge, bright star that has inexplicably appeared in the sky. Realist drama gradually gives way to touches of horror and an enigmatic spiritual treatise.
- My Year Abroad by Chang-rae Lee (Riverhead) Part study of suburbia, part globe-trotting adventure, Lee’s latest novel follows a young man from a transformative trip in Asia to a low-key life in a New Jersey town. Reflective, precise writing and a steady churn of pleasures and perils make for a winning combination.
- No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood (Riverhead) This singular novel by Lockwood, a lauded memoirist and poet who first gained a following on Twitter, distills the experience of life online while transfiguring it into art. The result is a book that reads like a prose poem, at once sublime, profane, intimate, philosophical, witty and, eventually, deeply moving.
- Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout (Random House) In her quietly radiant new novel, Strout returns to a subject she writes about brilliantly (marriage) and a character readers have met before (Lucy Barton). A long-divorced couple team up for a (platonic) trip to Maine, where they learn about family history and also about themselves.
- Our Country Friends by Gary Shteyngart (Random House) Shteyngart’s fifth novel begins at the onset of the pandemic, with seven friends and one nemesis gathered at an estate in the Hudson Valley to wait out what they’re sure will be a quick blip in their convenient and prosperous lives.
- The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr. (G.P. Putnam’s Sons) A lyrical and rebellious love story about two enslaved boys in Mississippi, whose relationship is accepted and even cherished until a Christian evangelist, also enslaved, turns the plantation against them. The novel is about their choice to love in the face of the forces that would crush them, and the repercussions of that love.
- Send for Me by Lauren Fox (Alfred A. Knopf) Inspired by a trove of letters written by her great-grandmother in 1930s Germany and incorporated into the text, Fox’s latest novel spans four generations and two continents, offering a nuanced exploration of the burden of inherited trauma on a single family riven by the Holocaust.
- Something New Under the Sun by Alexandra Kleeman (Hogarth) Kleeman’s novel is an unlikely amalgam of climate horror story, movie-industry satire and made-for-TV mystery, following a flailing writer who has come to Los Angeles for a film adaptation of his novel starring a tabloid-tragic teen star.
- The Sun Collective by Charles Baxter (Pantheon) In Baxter’s new novel, an aging couple‘s search for their missing son leads them to a quasi-anarchist group. With generous, keen humor, the author suggests that their real problem might be mortality: not our tumultuous times, but time itself.
- Velvet Was the Night by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Del Rey) Immensely satisfying, refreshingly new and gloriously written, this vibrant noir, set in 1970s Mexico City, traces how a dowdy secretary on the cusp of 30 sparks to life thanks to the disappearance of her beautiful and glamorous neighbor.
- The War for Gloria by Atticus Lish (Alfred A. Knopf) Lish’s substantial gifts are on abundant display throughout this gorgeously written novel, which offers a rich tapestry of troubled lives in and around working-class Boston. Corey, the young protagonist, grows up with a terminally ill mother and a perplexing father whose presence gradually turns sinister.
- Wayward by Dana Spiotta (Alfred A. Knopf) A middle-aged woman spontaneously buys a new house and moves into it alone, without her husband or teenage daughter. Spiotta’s precisely observed, fiercely intelligent novel excavates the long and winding path that led our protagonist to this place.
- What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad (Alfred A. Knopf) El Akkad’s second novel examines opposing sides of a migrant crisis from the point of view of two children: a boy who washes up on an island after a doomed ship passage, and the girl who takes him in and tries to get him to safety. In a compassionate but nuanced telling, the novel effectively effaces assumptions of superiority and inferiority, good and bad.
- The Wisteria Society of Lady Scoundrels by India Holton (Berkley) This romance novel has considered realism and punted it outside the highest available window. Letter openers have a hidden rapier blade; a respectable lady’s house in Mayfair is equipped with a flying spell and can sail to Bath. Yet amid the often wacky melodrama, there are moments of emotion that cut to the quick.
- America and Iran: A History, 1720 to the Present by John Ghazvinian (Alfred A. Knopf) This book presents the long, troubled relationship between the United States and Iran in a breezy and supple narrative, replete with poignant anecdotes, to posit convincingly that “antagonism between Iran and America is wholly unnecessary.”
- American Baby: A Mother, a Child, and the Shadow History of Adoption by Gabrielle Glaser (Viking) Focusing on a single intimate tale that contains the seeds of today’s adoption practices and parenting norms, Glaser’s account is the most comprehensive and damning yet of the scandals at the postwar adoption agency Louise Wise Services.
- Beautiful Country: A Memoir by Qian Julie Wang (Doubleday) In 1994, Wang moved from China to Brooklyn with her family. This is her memoir of their tumultuous early years building a life in an unfamiliar and mostly inhospitable place.
- Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted by Suleika Jaouad (Random House) This memoir from a young survivor of acute myeloid leukemia provides an unlikely roadmap to the new not-normal of the pandemic era. Through her treatment and subsequent cross-country roadtrip, Jaouad demonstrates the courage it takes to live with unanswered questions.
- Catching the Wind: Edward Kennedy and the Liberal Hour by Neal Gabler (Crown) Gabler relates how the youngest Kennedy brother overcame ridicule and scandal to become one of the most effective senators in U.S. history. In five decades, Ted Kennedy sponsored nearly 700 bills that became law, and left his imprint on scores of others.
- The Contrarian: Peter Thiel and Silicon Valley’s Pursuit of Power by Max Chafkin (Penguin Press) In this energetically reported book, Chafkin paints a deeply disturbing portrait of the billionaire entrepreneur turned Donald Trump backer Peter Thiel, tracing his ascent through the ranks of Silicon Valley moguls along with his embrace of far-right causes and beliefs.
- Crying in H Mart: A Memoir by Michelle Zauner (Alfred A. Knopf) In the musician’s gutting account of coming to terms with her mother’s death and coming into her own as a Korean American, food is her lifeline.
- Doomed Romance: Broken Hearts, Lost Souls, and Sexual Tumult in Nineteenth-Century America by Christine Leigh Heyrman (Alfred A. Knopf) This account of a love triangle that roiled the country’s burgeoning evangelical movement in the late 1820s is scholarship at its most entertaining and insightful, as Heyrman, mining smoldering letters by aspiring missionaries, chronicles the ambition, hypocrisy and sexism at the heart of a crusade.
- Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by Patrick Radden Keefe (Doubleday) Tenacious reporting and deft storytelling by Keefe, the prizewinning author of “Say Nothing,” about Ireland’s Troubles, give this exposé of the family widely blamed for igniting the opioid crisis the moral heft of Greek tragedy, yielding a mesmerizing portrait of appalling greed and indifference.
- The Engagement: America’s Quarter-Century Struggle Over Same-Sex Marriage by Sasha Issenberg (Pantheon) This lively, thorough and fascinating history reconstructs the fight for gay marriage, tracing how an issue that barely registered among queer activists became, in the wake of outspoken opposition from the religious right, a priority.
- Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival and Hope in an American Cityby Andrea Elliott(Random House) Expanding on a 2013 series for The Times about a homeless New York schoolgirl and her family, Elliott delivers a searing account of the family’s struggles with poverty and addiction in a city and country that have repeatedly failed to address these issues with efficacy or compassion.
- JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1956 by Fredrik Logevall (Random House) In this first of two projected volumes, Logevall demonstrates how, even at an early age and despite his playboy reputation, John Kennedy took a serious interest in politics, forming a cleareyed sense of the world and his nation’s place in it.
- Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion (Alfred A. Knopf) The 12 previously published essays collected here (mostly) for the first time were written between the late 1960s and the year 2000. Revisiting Didion’s work now provides a familiar joy, as well as a reminder of her prescience.
- Life’s Edge: The Search for What It Means to Be Alive by Carl Zimmer (Dutton) Zimmer’s book tackles some of biology’s hardest questions: What is life? How did it begin? And what criteria should we even use to call something “living”? From metabolism to sentience to evolution to our current focus on DNA, Zimmer takes the reader on an elegant, deeply researched tour.
- A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance by Hanif Abdurraqib (Random House) Abdurraqib, a poet, cultural critic and essayist, uses the tales of Black performers to make powerful observations about race in America, gliding through music, television, film, minstrel shows and vaudeville. The book is also a candid self-portrait, written with sincerity and emotion.
- Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath by Heather Clark (Alfred A. Knopf) The bar is high for a new Plath biography, but Clark’s meticulously researched account manages to be both riveting and revelatory, restoring complexity and nuance to a poet whose career has been overshadowed by the circumstances of her tragic early death.
- Say It Loud!: On Race, Law, History, and Culture by Randall Kennedy (Pantheon) This collection of essays offers a full portrait of Kennedy’s thinking as a law professor and public intellectual, demonstrating his commitment to reflection over partisanship, thinking over feeling.
- A Whole World: Letters From James Merrill Edited by Langdon Hammer and Stephen Yenser (Alfred A. Knopf) The poet’s letters cast light on a generous soul with an active social life and a quicksilver wit. Artifice was Merrill’s way of being natural. He lavished his correspondents with parody and aphorism, as well as assessments of his poetic peers.
- Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America by John McWhorter (Portfolio) McWhorter, a Black liberal who dissents from much of the left’s views on race, argues against the position that racism and white supremacy are “baked into” the structure of American society.