Our Staff’s Favorite Books of 2021

In which we tell you some of the things we most enjoyed reading this year. 

Rhian Sasseen’s reading log.

Maybe this is unsurprising for an audio producer, but I like listening to people talk: about their job, their bad childhood, their love life, the bigots living next door. People are funny, especially when discussing things that aren’t. Here are some of the books I read this year that felt like listening.

In Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, Belarusian oral historian Svetlana Alexievich sits at kitchen tables across the former USSR and records people’s stories. Not for the faint of heart. Or if you are, I recommend taking frequent breaks to watch dogs at the dog park. 

In the seventies, right before computers would change almost everything, Chicago radio interviewer Studs Terkel walked the streets and asked people “what they do all day and how they feel about what they do.” Every single one-and-a-half-page testimony in Working feels like a novel.

For The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson picked just three people to tell the story of the Great Migration: a sharecropper from Mississippi, a labor organizer in Florida’s orange groves, and a doctor from Louisiana. It’s filled with such great details, it makes me weepy with gratitude that someone saved them from the dustbin.

A set of ocher silk sheets, her mother’s death, her electric bike, the time her father was imprisoned in South Africa—Deborah Levy treats every morsel of her living autobiography (Things I Don’t Want to Know, The Cost of Living, Real Estate) with equal aplomb. It’s like listening to someone’s mind. Minus the repetition. —Helena de Groot


I read three books this year that I’ll never forget. The first is The Dry Heart, by Natalia Ginzburg, a short book that has all the force of a mountainous novel. On the first page, the protagonist kills her husband; the remaining hundred or so are given to showing why this was an inevitable conclusion to their relationship. You probably won’t like any of the people in this book, but you won’t be able to look away from them. The second is Olga Tokarczuk’s Primeval and Other Times, one of the few books by the recent Nobel winner that we’ve got in English, about a mythical, timeless town; it turns out to be the story of just about everything, all leading up to and away from the horrors of World War II. The last is In Memory of Memory, an indescribable novel/critical work/essay collection thingie by Russian poet Maria Stepanova. It’s a long and luxurious meditation on how the past is ever present. It has a beautiful purple cover and nothing that resembles a plot. I’ll be reading it well into 2022. —Craig Morgan Teicher


Nothing I read this year had anything to do with anything, except for my perennial desire to read all about love, including bell hooks’s All about Love, which I took up in a tender bid to understand love’s most vexed manifestation, the couple. I read, at a clip, a trio of Natalia Ginzburg books: The Dry Heart, Happiness, as Such, and Family Lexicon. The latter begins with one of the best author’s prefaces in the history of apathetic mic drops: “In the writing of this book, I couldn’t bring myself to change the real names which seemed to me indissoluble from the real people. Perhaps someone will be unhappy to find themselves so, with his or her first and last name in a book. To this I have nothing to say.” Domenico Starnone’s 2017 novel Ties is, to me, couple canon, which is why I was so happy when Jhumpa Lahiri’s translation of his 2019 novel, Trust, about a couple haunted by a third, came out this fall. 

Conspicuously absent from too many books about couples are digressions on sex; I read The Right to Sex, by Amia Srinivasan, whose arguments about the shape-shifting capacities of desire I frenetically paraphrased to everyone I encountered, and then Sara Ahmed’s Complaint!, which is less concerned with the act itself, and more with the way institutional complaints about sexual abuse get stalled and deferred, or else taken up and reflected back onto the complainer, who thus risks being tainted by the negative qualities of the event complained about. Not everything I read was so thematically fixated, or even so continental. I picked up a novel about a white, very online American woman trying to differentiate herself from other white, very online American women, but I didn’t finish that. —Maya Binyam


D.A. Miller’s  Jane Austen, or the Secret of Style is a dazzling close reading of Austen’s prose style that is also an obsessive mirroring of it. I love fan fiction; this is fan criticism. Miller quotes Barthes: “Whatever its sophistication, style has always something crude about it.” Indeed, the whole book, which is also about Miller being gay and Austen being unmarried, is “a bit much,” just like the clothes I most covet—that’s why it’s so good. Analyzing a jewelry-shopping scene in Sense and Sensibility:

As the figurative manufactory of the brilliant, the sparkling, the precious, the lapidary, the engraved … the jewelry shop must be the natural mise-en-abîme of Austen Style… Simultaneously determined by narrative thematics and the course of stylistic reflection, the shop situates a collision between the claims of the literal gem, a properly functional item … and those of the figurative gem, an eminently aesthetic thing whose social destination is vague, mysterious, trifling, troublesome.

Miller’s argument is too intricate to intimate here, but this book is really for anyone who loves language (especially the thesaurus-addicted, adjective-infested, alliterative, “bad” kind you’re not supposed to like); or mean girls; or sparkling, precious, perfect diamonds.

Three more well-styled books:

Stanley Cavell’s Pursuits of Happiness: Cavell writes with a grace and care appropriate to the subject of his chosen genre (the subtitular Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage), which is romantic love: a special kind of love that is crafted, most of all, through conversation. So he speaks with us about how he loves the films he does, i.e., how best to write and think about and with them. Like a good boyfriend, he steers us through his argument with a steady hand. I most liked his descriptions of these movies’ mythic personalities—Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Lauren Bacall, Katharine Hepburn—and how the aura of each changes the way the camera sees a scene.

Guys like Yukio Mishima because of the politics-and-violence demons they struggle with, but the pathologies that take center stage in Star, a lesser-known novella of his translated from the Japanese by Sam Bett, are more for girls. This book is preoccupied with describing the physiognomies and facial expressions of more or less beautiful men and women, and how being more or less beautiful mars their personalities forever. There are also good descriptions of wearing clothes, and lines of sight.

Eyes, countless as the gravel at a shrine, pressed in all around me. They found their center—my image coalesced. In that moment, dressed as a yakuza, I became a sparkling apparition, like a scepter thrust against the sky.

Mishima’s simplicity and precision are admirable; his writing is less “cinematic” than like a detailed script (as befits his sociopathic movie star protagonist). But what makes the book fun are the bouts of bad figurative language to which our narcissistic narrator is given, especially in his most main-character moments: 

I like to have a mint before a kissing scene… I assumed a stoic air, knotted my tie, rolled up my sleeves, and shook a few mints into my palm. Against my skin, these prosaic pellets felt like currency, little symbols of the kisses I relied on for my livelihood.

Jane Unrue’s Life of a Star, conversely, features a hyperfeminine hysteric suffering/enjoying delusions of grandeur. The story is structured like a creepy hedge maze and proceeds in a strange, vacillating fashion: some pages are nearly blank, some are painstakingly covered.

When I am not engaged in matching gazes with the gentleman on horseback posing proudly at the foot of his estate, or with the praying servant boy illuminated by a painted glow of holy-looking light, or with the tiny waxen likenesses in boxy gilt-edged frames, I often find that I am exiting the Gallery of Art and veering toward the little bridge that signals that the northern pathway through the Public Garden is about to take me in the direction of that fountain on so many seemingly ordinary afternoons.

The protagonist herself, what’s happening to her—the plot—vanishes into this baroque, perversely disordered prose, which is like a schizophrenic daydream of what language could be. The effect is astonishing; no one writes like Unrue! (I also like The House and Love Hotel.—Olivia Kan-Sperling


“He understood the word transitional to refer to more than the seasons: for a year he’d live in a transitional time,” writes Wolfgang Hilbig of his directionless East German narrator in The Interim, newly translated into English by Isabel Fargo Cole. Like Hilbig’s C., with his propensity for loitering in train stations, I found myself drawn in 2021 to the idea of the transitional, the fractured, the in-between. The books I liked best this year shared a similar sensibility, like Bae Suah’s Untold Night and Day (translated by Deborah Smith), with its overlapping timelines set in a Seoul plagued by frequent blackouts, or Nona Fernández’s The Twilight Zone (translated by Natasha Wimmer), which blurs fact, fiction, and references to pop culture phenomena in order to portray post-Pinochet Chile and the liminal space that is life lived under a dictator.

I loved books in which forms collided, like Cheswayo Mphanza’s poetry of ekphrasis in The Rinehart Frames, or Ann Quin’s sinister, experimental 1966 novel of a love triangle, Three. The essays in Rachel Kushner’s The Hard Crowd, on subjects as varied as motorcycles, postwar German poets, and prison abolition, fascinated me, as did Lauren Elkin’s No. 91 / 92: A Diary of a Year on the Bus, a book literally written in the in-between space of a Parisian bus commute. The strange, off-kilter humor and surreal sensibility of Moon Bo Young’s poetry collection Pillar of Books (translated by Hedgie Choi) thrilled me, as did Anne Serre’s novel of a love affair, The Beginners (translated by Mark Hutchinson), with its sly observations on both writing and the heart. And Teju Cole’s Black Paper: Writing in a Dark Time offered new insights into what a photograph can accomplish that a paragraph can’t—and vice versa. —Rhian Sasseen


This year I’ve been reading a lot of Annie Ernaux, on whom no scrap of experience seems ever to have been wasted, and Gayl Jones, who speaks in many voices yet whose singular virtuosity marks them all. I could (and perhaps should) reread Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights every year that remains to me. The book I found most useful was Patricia Highsmith’s Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction. The boldest and most unsettling was Percival Everett’s comic novel about lynching, The Trees (though my current favorite of his is Glyph). Then there were the books that moved me in ways I absolutely didn’t anticipate, like historian Joanna Bourke’s Loving Animals: On Bestiality, Zoophilia, and Post-Human Love (full of odd insights about language, autonomy, damage, pleasure) or Niki de Saint Phalle’s small, handwritten Mon Secret, written in her sixties about her abuse as a child and its aftermath. Or The Devil’s Treasure, a zine-like concoction in which Mary Gaitskill intersperses pieces of her older and current fiction and nonfiction and, through and alongside these texts, grapples with the more profound and harrowing questions writers encounter. “It was not about words,” she writes at one point, “it was too big for words and did not care about words. But because I am a person I needed words; I needed form.” —Lidija Haas


Early in the year, I treated myself to Bette Howland’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, a collection of stories I’d been meaning to read since I first encountered her writing in the magazine A Public Space. Like the Chicago sky, as Howland describes it, her stories are “full of gloom, but here and there [is] a splinter, a gleam.” The gleam is often Howland’s sense of humor, and the way the narrator addresses the reader like another member of her comfortingly messy extended family. New to me was the novella that closes the book and gives it its title, a tale that brings mythic gravitas to all the stories that precede it. More recently, I started reading my mother’s copy of Pachinko—a full-on Sweeping Family Saga of a Korean immigrant family in Japan—and finished a library copy, marveling all along at Min Jin Lee’s uncompromisingly democratic approach to fiction, the beauty and precision of her prose, and my own ignorance of history. I balanced this epic with Pond, Claire-Louise Bennett’s slim collection of prose about a woman living alone in an ancient cottage. Pond is funny, meditative and tender yet sharp as ice, and utterly delightful. I will never again take a kitchen appliance for granted thanks to Bennett. All of these books, I think, recognize a kind of unfulfilled human homing instinct, a desire for a specific place where we can feel right. That may not exist, but in the new year, may we all find books that bring us closer. —Jane Breakell


Craig Morgan-Teicher’s reading log.