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19 of the Best Books of 2021
A bookworm is happiest when they’re surrounded by books — both old and new. Undoubtedly, 2021 was a great year for both fiction and nonfiction, with bestsellers like Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters and Second Place by Rachel Cusk. Whether you read memoirs or young-adult (YA) novels, 2021 was a fantastic year for book lovers. While we can’t squeeze in all of our favorites from 2021, we’ve rounded up a stellar sampling of must-reads. Here’s some of the year’s best books.
“Crying in H Mart: A Memoir” by Michelle Zauner
In her profound memoir Crying in H Mart , Michelle Zauner shares an unflinching view of growing up as a Korean American person — all while reflecting on losing her mother to terminal cancer. Author Dani Shapiro notes that the Japanese Breakfast musician “has created a gripping, sensuous portrait of an indelible mother-daughter bond that hits all the notes: love, friction, loyalty, grief.”
“The Prophets” by Robert Jones, Jr.
In Robert Jones, Jr.’s lyrical debut novel, The Prophets , Isaiah and Samuel are two enslaved young men who find refuge in each other — and their love becomes both sustaining and heroic in the face of a vicious world. Entertainment Weekly writes that “While The Prophets’ dreamy realism recalls the work of Toni Morrison… Its penetrating focus on social dynamics stands out more singularly.” Now that’s a compliment.
“The Hill We Climb” by Amanda Gorman
At President Joe Biden’s inauguration, Amanda Gorman read her electrifying poem, “ The Hill We Climb .” Since then, it has been praised for its call for unity and healing. Vogue captures the feeling of reading the poem well, calling it “deeply rousing and uplifting.”
“Beautiful World, Where Are You” by Sally Rooney
New York Times bestselling author Sally Rooney has returned with a sharp, romantic drama, Beautiful World, Where Are You . Two separate relationships are in chaos, threatening to ruin friendships. Vogue declares that the author has “invented a sensibility entirely of her own: Sunny and sharp.”
“Somebody’s Daughter: A Memoir” by Ashley C. Ford
Ashley C. Ford’s coming-of-age memoir, Somebody’s Daughter , centers on her childhood. Ford, a Black girl who grew up poor in Indiana, recounts how her family was fragmented by her father’s incarceration. With rich, unflinching writing, Ford has penned a debut for the ages. The memoir’s publisher perhaps puts the core of the book best, noting that Ford “embarks on a powerful journey to find the threads between who she is and what she was born into, and the complicated familial love that often binds them.”
“Last Night at the Telegraph Club” by Malinda Lo
Everyone remembers their first all-consuming love — and for Lily Hu, the teenage protagonist of Malinda Lo’s queer YA novel, that love is Kathleen Miller. Set in the 1950s in San Francisco, Last Night at the Telegraph Club is not just one of the year’s best, but one of Lo’s best. O: The Oprah Magazine notes that the novel is “proof of Lo’s skill at creating darkly romantic tales of love in the face of danger.”
“¡Hola Papi!” by John Paul Brammer
In his memoir, ¡H ola Papi!: How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessons , advice columnist John Paul Brammer delves into his experiences growing up as a queer, biracial person. The Los Angeles Times writes that “Brammer’s writing is incredibly funny, kind, and gracious to his readers, and deeply vulnerable in a way that makes it feel as if he’s talking to only you” — and we couldn’t agree more.
“Honey Girl” by Morgan Rogers
In Morgan Rogers’ novel Honey Girl , Grace Porter is an overachiever — and certainly not the type of person to marry a stranger in Las Vegas. Or, at least, she didn’t think she was that type of person. As Grace navigates the messiness of adulthood, Rogers takes us on a journey that’s both heartfelt and unflinching, illustrating that love is all about risks — even when it comes to loving ourselves.
“Aftershocks: A Memoir” by Nadia Owusu
Nadia Owusu’s memoir, Aftershocks , reflects on her experience of being abandoned by her parents at a young age. Entertainment Weekly notes that “Owusu dispatches all of this heartache with blistering honesty but does so with prose light enough that it never feels too much to bear.”
“Klara and the Sun” by Kazuo Ishiguro
What if an artificial intelligence (AI) assistant had feelings? In Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel, Klara and the Sun , Klara is an Artificial Friend who wonders if friendship is possible. The Financial Times called the Never Let Me Go author’s latest “a deft dystopian fable about the innocence of a robot that asks big questions about existence.”
“100 Boyfriends” by Brontez Purnell
Brontez Purnell’s romantic, intoxicating book, 100 Boyfriends , is a look at the romantic lives of queer men who are striving to find out not just where they belong, but where they can shine. Author Bryan Washington praised the collection, writing that “Each story in 100 Boyfriends is a minor eclipse: stunning in scope, technically blinding, and entirely miraculous.”
“One Last Stop” by Casey McQuiston
In Casey McQuiston’s big-hearted romance novel, One Last Stop , August meets Jane on a New York City subway — but she doesn’t realize just how fateful their chance encounter is at first. New York Magazine called the novel “an earnest reminder that home — whether that means a time, a place, or a person — is worth fighting for,” and we wouldn’t expect anything less from the Red, White & Royal Blue author.
“Afterparties: Stories” by Anthony Veasna So
In Afterparties , Anthony Veasna So weaves together tenderhearted stories about the lives of several Cambodian American characters. Although the stories vary quite a bit in terms of content, author George Saunders writes that they are all “powered by So’s skill with the telling detail,” and are much like “…beams of wry, affectionate light, falling from different directions on a complicated, struggling, beloved American community.”
“Malibu Rising” by Taylor Jenkins Reid
In Taylor Jenkins Reid’s novel Malibu Rising , readers meet four famous siblings as they throw their annual end-of-summer party in Malibu. However, over the course of 24 hours, family drama ensues. The Washington Post calls this read “a fast-paced, engaging novel that smoothly transports readers.”
“Let Me Tell You What I Mean” by Joan Didion
Between 1968 and 2000, award-winning journalist and essayist Joan Didion wrote 12 pieces about a variety of well-known figures, ranging from Ernest Hemingway and Nancy Reagan to Martha Stewart. Now, these works have been gathered in the essay collection Let Me Tell You What I Mean . Bret Easton Ellis writes that Didion’s “prose remains peerless,” so, if you’re a fan of the iconic writer, this is a must-read.
“Intimacies” by Katie Kitamura
Intimacies is Katie Kitamura’s fourth novel, following 2017’s critically acclaimed A Separation . In it, an interpreter for the International Court at the Hague gets drawn into a political scandal after agreeing to translate for a former world leader and potential criminal. The novel is a fascinating investigation into the instability of language and how it influences identity. Dana Spiotta describes Intimacies as “a haunting, precise, and morally astute novel that reads like a psychological thriller.”
“Detransition, Baby” by Torrey Peters
In Detransition, Baby , Torrey Peters tells a witty and nuanced story about partnership, parenthood and identity. About the novel, Ginny Hogan from the New York Times states “[Detransition, Baby upends] our traditional, gendered notions of what parenthood can look like.”
“Second Place” by Rachel Cusk
In Rachel Cusk’s novel Second Place , a follow up to her brilliant Outline trilogy, a woman invites an artist she admires to live in her remote guesthouse for the summer. As the stay unfolds, a series of unexpected events spurs revelations about womanhood, marriage and security. About Second Place , Jenny Singer from Glamour writes “there is mayhem; surprising sweetness and brilliant observations tumble from every page.”
“Sellout: The Major-Label Feeding Frenzy That Swept Punk, Emo, and Hardcore ” by Dan Ozzi
In Sellout: The Major-Label Feeding Frenzy That Swept Punk, Emo, and Hardcore , rock critic Dan Ozzi traces the stories of eleven separate bands that transitioned from the indie scene to achieve mainstream success in the ‘90s. Including interviews and anecdotes from bands like Green Day, Jimmy Eat World and Blink-182, this is a must-read for any music lover.
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Yale press to publish nobel prize-winner’s latest book in english.
French author Annie Ernaux, who today was named the winner of the 2022 Nobel Prize in Literature, will soon be among the authors whose books have been translated into English as part of The Margellos World Republic of Letters, a Yale University Press series dedicated to making literature from around the world available in English through translation. It will be the first time the Press publishes a work by Ernaux.
In April 2023, the Press will publish the first English translation of Ernaux’s “Look at the Lights, My Love,” which it describes as “a diaristic meditation on the uniquely modern phenomenon of the big-box superstore: an institution that is part of all of our lives but has been paid scant attention in art and literature.
“ Annie Ernaux explores this space as a site of collective memory and unexpected encounter, interpreting its details with her signature attentive gaze and elucidating what they reveal about the contours of society.”
This is the second time since the literature-in-translation series was created in 2008 that one of its featured authors has won a Nobel Prize in Literature. In 2014, French novelist Patrick Modiano was honored on the eve of the release of “Suspended Sentences: Three Novellas,” which was translated by Mark Polizzotti and published by the Yale Press/The Margellos World Republic of Letters. The Press has since published nine books by Modiano.
“ As a great admirer of Annie Ernaux’s extraordinary work, it is a particular pleasure for me to see her receive this global recognition,” said John Donatich, director of Yale University Press, of her Nobel Prize. “Her visionary nonfiction is a profound achievement, and it richly deserves the wide readership this prize will attract. Those many new readers are about to make a wonderful discovery.”
A prolific author of some 20 books, Ernaux has excavated her own memory of growing up in rural France to blend autobiography and fiction in many of her novels. Her first book, “Les armoires vides” (1974) was published in English as “Cleaned Out” in 1990. Her other books include (in English titles) “Simple Passion,” “Happening,” “A Girl’s Story,” “Getting Lost,” and “The Years.”
In announcing this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature, Mats Malm, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, praised the 82-year-old Ernaux for “the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements, and collective restraints of personal memory.”
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From Marguerite Duras, an Uncovered Tale of Young Womanhood
“The Easy Life,” the author’s second novel, is translated into English for the first time.
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THE EASY LIFE, by Marguerite Duras, translated by Emma Ramadan and Olivia Baes
Remember boredom? The first English translation of the French writer Marguerite Duras ’s second novel, “La Vie Tranquille,” published by Gallimard in 1944 but only just here as “The Easy Life,” will transport you right back to those old blank stretches of time when you couldn’t just whip out the Candy Crush. When there was no electronic refuge from your own punitive thoughts, or absence of thought.
“Nothing can be as surprising as boredom,” declares Duras’s narrator, Francine “Françou” Veyrenattes, who is undergoing what we might now call a quarter-life crisis, in one of several meditations on this grayest and most grinding of emotions. “You think each time that you’ve reached the end. But it’s not true. At the very end of boredom, there is always a new source of boredom. You can live off boredom.” (And maybe a little escargot?)
At only 177 pages of text, starting with a plunge into murder before drifting both actually and metaphorically out to sea, “The Easy Life” is itself too short, too seeded with early indicators of its complicated author’s talent, to risk boredom. It crams in three dramatic deaths, only one of which I’ll reveal here: that of Jérôme, Françou’s uncle, who has gotten a walloping from her brother, Nicolas, over a woman — a confrontation Françou encouraged. Once Jérôme begins to expire, a fairly prolonged and graphic process, she quickly covers up the fracas, coldly telling a doctor she summons, and other village people, that the victim was kicked in the liver by her horse.
Not an unreliable narrator then, since she freely confesses to us, but not a clearly likable one either. I’d expect no less from Duras, that mildly tarnished national treasure of France best known in the United States for writing the lulling (some would say maddeningly opaque) screenplay for the 1959 Alain Resnais film “ Hiroshima Mon Amour ”; for an ahead-of-her-time outspokenness about alcoholism ; and for her 1984 autobiographical novel “ The Lover ,” which is even shorter than this one.
These days, that book would probably have a different title, given that it’s about a 15-year-old white girl’s sexual relationship with a Chinese businessman more than a decade her senior in Saigon, near where Duras was born and raised in what was then French Indochina. “The Lover” came out when Duras was 70 ( it’s never too late! ), won the prestigious Prix Goncourt that had eluded her over a long and prolific career, and continues to be passed around and pored over.
“Nowadays it often seems writing is nothing at all,” Duras recorded in it presciently, years before the internet made everyone a créateur or -trice . “I can see that all options are open now, that there seem to be no more barriers, that writing seems at a loss for somewhere to hide, to be written, to be read.”
Produced during World War II when writing was still a romantic act, “The Easy Life” is an understandably simpler and more homespun book than “The Lover,” from its rural setting to its skein of a marriage plot. Unlike Duras’s parents — her father died young, and she took her last name from his hometown — Françou’s are still together, if a little loopy and logy. (They tend to huddle together conspiratorially whispering.) After a series of even more unfortunate family events, our heroine — invasive ruminations arriving “each one with a little mouse face” — retreats alone to a hotel by the ocean.
There has been much contemplation of nature’s rhythms; Duras describes an “August-before-September vertigo,” where “woods, ripe plains, warmed cliffs, stood still in a supernatural stupor.” When Françou met with her paramour, Tiène, magnolia leaves trickled down from the trees “between the swaths of total silence,” in what would now seem only imaginable in a perfume commercial. The ocean itself is ominous and, like much of Duras’s imagery, vaguely sexualized; night, she writes, “would arrive with its parade of stars and moons in a motionless straddling of the sea.”
The translation, by Emma Ramadan and Olivia Baes, flows smoothly; only the over-modern phrase “call out,” when Françou shames Tiène in conversation, jarred. I did wonder about the choice to render “tranquille” as “easy,” rather than “quiet” or “calm.” There’s an American ring to that — the Big Easy, easy listening, easy-peasy — while Duras, though her prose is spare and concentrated, is practically an avatar of French existential difficulty.
This is a minor work, in a minor key, that might be of interest only to Duras completists but for its overlaps with other recent chronicles of young womanhood (Sally Rooney, I’m looking at vous ). Love, worry, numbness, confusion and urgency about when and how “real” life begins: The technology may have changed, but the song remains the same.
THE EASY LIFE | By Marguerite Duras | Translated from the French by Emma Ramadan and Olivia Baes | 187 pp. | Bloomsbury | $18
Kevin Wilson's new novel
Other pages in this section:
Kevin Wilson's new novel, Now Is Not the Time to Panic , is available at bookstores and online. It is a coming-of-age story that focuses on two kids—Frankie and Zeke—over the course of a summer.
- Professor Wilson joined Hoda Kotb and Jenna Bush Hager on NBC's Today Show to talk about his new book, Now Is Not the Time to Panic , and to share the personal story that inspired the novel. Watch the interview here .
- The New York Times interviewed Professor Wilson and also reviewed the new book (subscription required).
- In an interview with Entertainment Weekly , Professor Wilson discusses the background and inspiration for the novel. Read it here .
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