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10 Best Books of 2021, from the Editors of the New York Times Book Review

As a subscriber of the New York Times, I took advantage of an invitation to join their first-ever live video-conference where they announced their picks for the 10 Best Books of the year. Below you will find the notes I scribbled down about each book as the editors talked enthusiastically about each one.

Fiction

How Beautiful We Were, by Imbolo Mbue

She tells the story of a fictional African village whose children are dying because of an environmental disaster caused by an American oil company—poisoned soil in their fields and poisoned water supplies from mismanaged drilling fluids and leaking pipelines. Even though my livelihood has come from the oil and gas industry, stories like this grab my attention and grab me by the jugular, because I admit to being a closet environmentalist. I want my industry to be clean, responsible, and accountable, and true-life stories such as the fracking gone awry in Pennsylvania (Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America, published in 2019 and won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction) both break my heart and make me angry. I guess I will have to read this book to find out how much of this fictional story is based on fact and where the author’s inspiration came from.

Intimacies, by Katie Kitamura

A multilingual court interpreter moves from New York City to The Hague, The Netherlands, to work at the International Court. She soon finds herself involved in many dramas, both personally and professionally. She gets involved with a lover who is not quite divorced yet. She becomes a court interpreter for someone who turns out to be a war criminal and The Netherlands’ former president. As one of the Times’ editors put it, “the interpreter starts misinterpreting what she hears and what she sees,” thus complicating her job and her life.

When We Cease to Understand the World, by Benjamin Labatut

The editor first discussing this book said he became such an “evangelist” for this one that he drove his friends and family insane! On the surface it would have limited appeal: it’s about physics, scientific discoveries, immense breakthroughs of understanding. The author was guided by the mathematician Alexander Grothendieck, the physicist Werner Heisenberg (remember that name from “Breaking Bad”?) and the chemist Fritz Haber, among others, to describe a journey of the ecstasy and agony of scientific breakthroughs that have been used for tremendous gains for society, and some that have the potential to destroy society.

The Love Songs of W.E.B DuBois, by Honoree Fanonne Jeffers

A story that goes back and forth between a coming-of-age Black girl growing up during the 1980s and 1990s, and her ancestors, enslaved African Americans who lived through the formation of the United States. The author is a celebrated poet and this is her first novel, weighing in at 800 pages.

No One Is Talking About This, by Patricia Lockwood

This is a book about how we write and exist online and how that differs from our flesh-and-blood interactions. A woman has been elevated to prominence by her social media posts and it has created a whole new world for her…until her real world comes crashing in. Juggling and reconciling the two realities becomes an absurd, funny, and sometimes impossible task.

Nonfiction

Red Comet—The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath, by Heather Clark

The editors describe this new biography of Sylvia Plath, at more than 1000 pages, as a monumental achievement, superseding all other attempts to describe her short life (she committed suicide at 30 years old in 1963). The author, a professor of poetry in England, dived into Plath’s letters, diaries, poetry and prose to show that, instead of the folklore that she was a madwoman (in fact she was a genius, with an IQ of 160), she was “one of the most important American writers of the 20th century.”

The Copenhagen Trilogy: Childhood; Youth; Dependency, by Tove Ditlevsen

This a series of three memoirs that were originally published separately in Denmark in the 60s and 70s, and here are published together in a single volume. The author had a poor and hardscrabble upbringing that landed her in the workforce at age 14, and two failed marriages by the age of 30. Her third marriage to a medical doctor resulted in her addiction to opioids. She examines a difficult relationship with her mother who, among other cruelties, mocks her desire to become a poet; yet she became famous for her poetry by the time she was a teenager. Ditlevsen, who committed suicide in 1976, is only now being discovered by English-speaking audiences.

How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America, by Clint Smith

For this book the author toured sites that are key to America’s slavery story, including Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary, and a Confederate cemetery. He interviews tour guides, activists, and local historians to get multiple perspectives on these historical sites and events, and tries to separate fact from fiction and willful ignorance as America struggles with its past.

On Juneteenth, by Annette Gordon-Reed

The author is not only a native Texan, but she was also a part of its desegregation by being the first Black girl to attend her East Texas school. She wrote this book on Juneteenth to set the record straight, not only about the new holiday we all celebrate (which admittedly irked her; she felt it was strictly a Texas holiday), but about a lot of Texas history that many non-natives were not familiar with. Such as, it was not only Whites that enslaved the Blacks in Texas, but so did the indigenous Texans—something I did not know and I’ve lived here 40 years.

Invisible Child—Poverty, Survival, and Hope in an American City, by Andrea Elliott

This Pulitzer Prize winning author picks up an acclaimed series she produced for the New York Times in 2013 about Dasani Coates, a homeless NY City girl and her family that consists of her mother and several siblings. For the next several years she follows this family through shelters, the courts, schools, and welfare offices as they struggle with poverty, homelessness, and addiction. She documents the joyful progress and the gut-wrenching setbacks as this family fights to stay together, and fights a system that fails them time and time again.

New York Times List of Best Books in the Last 125 Years:
25 Finalists

This list was published on Sunday, November 28, 2021, in the New York Times Book Review, distilled from readers’ submissions from all over the world. The survey was conducted in celebration of the Book Review turning 125 years old. Now the readers will vote on the final “best book ever,” and results will be published in December 2021. If there is a book or two in this list that you would like to read but haven’t yet, here are some handy links below!

1984, by George Orwell
All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr
Beloved, by Toni Morrison
Catch-22, by Joseph Heller
The Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger
Charlotte’s Web, by E. B. White
A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole
The Fellowship of the Ring, by J. R. R. Tolkien
A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry
A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles
Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell
The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J. K. Rowling
Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara
Lolita, by Vladimir Nabakov
Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry
One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez
The Overstory, by Richard Powers
A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith
Ulysses, by James Joyce

Book Reviews and Recommendations

Neptune: The Allied Invasion of Europe and the D-Day Landings by Craig L. Symonds

My friend Richard Hoch has this to say about Neptune: “Lovers of WWII nonfiction will want to read Craig L. Symonds’ Neptune: The Allied Invasion of Europe and the D-Day Landings. In clear language, Symonds describes the planning and implementation of the Allies’ great assault on Normandy, also offering insights into the personalities of the American and British leaders, as well as discussing the impact of hundreds of thousands of Americans on British life. Highly recommended.”

The Secret History by Donna Tartt [i.e., the same author as The Goldfinch]

My friend Richard Hoch also recommended this book: “Tartt’s debut novel, The Secret History, is a real gem. The novel opens with a murder and then proceeds to unravel a fascinating, disturbing backstory. Tartt combines an eagle eye for suburban life in the late 70s/early 80s with a vivid imagination and just enough information about the ancient Greeks to make this one of this reviewer’s favorite novels of the last 20 years.”

The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition by Caroline Alexander

This book was published in 1998 and I read it shortly thereafter, handed to me by a friend in a book club. It is by far one of the most memorable books I have ever read. It is a true account of the 1914 expedition of Irish explorer Ernest Shackleton and his crew of 27 men, as they set sail to cross the South Atlantic in hopes of being the first to reach the South Pole. This book has it all: Their ship “Endurance” gets trapped in the freezing Weddell Sea and eventually gets crushed into a thousand matchsticks, stranding the crew on the ice floes. The writer takes you through the next agonizing 20 months as they try to escape in open lifeboats, try to survive on the ice, and ultimately wait to be rescued by Shackleton himself, who leaves in an open boat to find help.

One of the most astounding things about this story is that one of the crew members was a photographer from Australia named Frank Hurley. His photodocumentation of their horrific ordeal somehow miraculously survived, and is reproduced in this book for the first time through cooperation with the American Museum of Natural History. As you know if you have read any of my blog, I am a firm believer in the power of images to tell a story. The photos published along with this narrative tell a powerful story of first their adventure, then their trauma, and finally their triumphant rescue. This is why you must read the hard copy version of this book! No audio books here. You must see these photos to get a full appreciation of what these men went through.

Also—I have since read other accounts of Shackleton’s journey. None compare with this version. This is the book you want to read for lasting impact.

The Goldfinch: A Novel by Donna Tartt

This book has been out for 5 to 6 years but I was late in reading it. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and is one of the most astounding books I’ve read in a very long time. Theo is a 13-year-old New Yorker visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art with his mother. They temporarily split up at the end of their visit—she runs into the gift shop and he flirts with a girl he spots that interests him. In this brief interlude, a terrorist bomb goes off in the museum that kills his mother; he  miraculously survives the attack. A dying older man gestures to the centuries-old Dutch master’s painting of “The Goldfinch” and tells Theo to take it with him as he’s escaping the chaos of the museum, so it doesn’t get damaged from smoke or the overhead sprinklers. On impulse, Theo does just that.

This one simple act comes to define the rest of Theo’s life in ways he never imagines, nor can the reader. Even though the book is almost 800 pages long, the journey Theo takes, along with the astonishing twist at the end, made it worth every late night I spent reading. Please don’t pass this one up.

Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder, and a Woman’s Search for Justice in Indian Country by Sierra Crane Murdoch

This book caught my interest for about five different reasons: 1) it’s a true crime story about a murder… 2) in the oil industry… 3) in North Dakota where I grew up… 4) involves a native Indian reservation and how they were exploited by the oil industry… and 5) explores the broader topics of addiction and recovery in native Americans, and their history of exploitation by our government. I was in!

I listened with a keen, attentive ear, not only for slip-ups regarding how the oil industry was portrayed (outsiders never seem to get it right), but also North Dakota itself. I was pleasantly surprised at the accuracy, right down to the last technical details and the pronunciation of the names of local towns and cities. I emailed the author as much, congratulating her on a fine body of work. It was awarded Amazon’s Best Book of March 2020.

Yearbook by Seth Rogen

Everything about Seth Rogen cracks me up, and this book was no exception. His comical outlook on life and the way he can spot the absurdity in everyday situations is just the ticket if your brain is needing a sanity break.

All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days: The True Story of the American Woman at the Heart of the German Resistance to Hitler, by Rebecca Donner

You will find WWII to be a common topic in my book recommendations, so if this subject matter doesn’t interest you, you can skip this one. A fascinating true story that was long buried about an American woman who got deeply involved in the resistance to Hitler.

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

This book was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize for 2021, and I had passed it by before, but when I saw that, I thought I should give it a try. Normally books about artificial intelligence and robots don’t interest me (I’m not a sci-fi fan) and I’m still not sure after finishing this book whether I liked it or not. The concepts are interesting and a little frightening to think about. If anyone has read it and has any comment about it, I’d be interested to hear what you think.

The Confidence Men by Margalit Fox

Another fascinating war story, this time about two prisoners of war during WWI who engineered their escape by an ingenious psychological scheme played out on their captors. I learned that the term “con men” actually comes from the phrase “confidence men,” something that is explained more fully in the book. Loved this one!

The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom

The 2019 National Book Award Winner for Nonfiction. A memoir about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath in New Orleans, Louisiana, and how, in particular, it affected the poor. The “yellow house” is the house the author grew up in, the damage it sustained, and how it anchors not only the family but the story itself. This memoir held particular interest for me, because I’ve watched so much of the same bungling of billions of dollars of government hurricane relief dollars go mismanaged and unspent in areas that were hardest hit, namely in Rockport and Houston, Texas, after Hurricane Harvey.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

The Mirror & the Light by Hilary Mantel

These three books I list together, as they are a trilogy by Hilary Mantel about the life of Thomas Cromwell, from the time he rose to power in Tudor England, in Henry VIII’s court, until his execution on the order of the self-same Henry VIII. Also featuring Queen Catherine of Aragon (wife no. 1), Anne Boleyn (wife no. 2), Jane Seymour (wife no. 3), Thomas More, and other fascinating characters of the British court in the 1500s. I guess she will have to write three more books to incorporate the last three wives!

Adobe Stock image. Get 10 free Adobe Stock images.

She is probably my favorite author. She became the only female author to win the Man Booker Prize twice, and that prize was won for the first two of the three books. These I read in hard cover, and all three I read twice. One of the things I so admire about Hilary Mantel, is I learned that she suffers from a debilitating illness (a severe form of endometriosis) and is in almost constant pain. Therefore she almost never leaves her home. Yet she can transcend that to do astounding research and write complex, unforgettable sentences. One of my favorite exchanges: Thomas and his son were looking at a newly finished portrait of Thomas painted by the famous portraitist of the day Hans Holbein. Thomas said, “He made me look like a murderer.” His son looked at him and said, “Did you not know?”

The Eagle’s Nest: The Immigrant Series, Book 1, by Mary Barton

A true story about immigrants from Poland who escaped poverty and conscription into war to find a better life in America in the late 1800s. They settled in North Dakota and Minnesota and their descendants still inhabit the area today.

OK. Shameless plug…this was written by my sister. And edited by yours truly. 🙂 But it’s still an awesome, true account of my family’s history going back several generations, written in novel format. And also, probably a similar history of many generations of people who went through similar struggles to start a new life in a strange new country, back during a time when America was practically giving away land, just to lure people to come here, break ground, settle the land, and build communities. That’s the story that this book tells.

[All “white people” images on this post are from Adobe® Stock, of which this site is an affiliate.]

7 Responses

  1. Lovers of WW II non-fiction will want to read Craig L. Symonds’ Neptune: The Allied Invasion of Europe and the D-Day Landings. In clear language, Symonds describes the planning and implementation of the Allies’ great assault on Normandy, also offering insights into the personalities of the American and British leaders as well as discussing the impact of hundreds of thousands of Americans on British life. Highly recommended.

  2. Tartt’s debut novel, The Secret History, is a real gem. The novel opens with a murder and then proceeds to unravel a fascinating, disturbing backstory. Tartt combines an eagle eye for suburban life in the late 70s/early 80s with a vivid imagination and just enough information about the ancient Greeks to make this one of this reviewer’s favorite novels of the last 20 years.

  3. Gail,
    I submitted “To Kill a Mockingbird” to the New York Times for best book. It is a ridiculous request to ask for the best book in the last 125 years. But that is the one I choose anyway.

    1. Hi Mary –

      That’s a good one! My gut instinct was to nominate “The Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin, but then I realized that one didn’t make the cut because it’s about 150 years old. It will be fascinating to see what wins, or to even see what makes the final 10…Books of science? Philosophy? Great fiction? My curiosity is already killing me…

      Thanks for participating!

      Gail

    1. Hi Jackie,
      I do too! So I’ll be happy to hear what you are reading! Right now I’m in the middle of “Great Circle” by Maggie Shipstead. It’s another one that was long-listed for the 2021 Man Booker prize. It’s about a female aviator who was contemporary of Amelia Earhart’s but no one really knew about her, she didn’t have the notoriety that Amelia did. The writer goes back and forth between the 1920s and modern day, to the actress that is playing this aviator in a movie. So it’s a bit jarring. I have a long way to go before I finish…I’ll let you know if I end up liking it or not!

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