Our 51 Favorite Books of 2021

  • November 29, 2021

Hundreds of thousands of books are published annually, so it’s absurd to proclaim a handful "the best." But these are the ones that most stuck with us during this, our second — and hopefully final — pandemic year.

Our 51 Favorite Books of 2021

Unsolaced: Along the Way to All That Is by Gretel Ehrlich (Pantheon). Reviewed by Christine Baleshta. “But even Ehrlich’s captivating prose does not disguise her underlying sadness. She laments that all the places we can go to find solace are getting smaller and wonders how society could allow this to happen. Were we careless? Or just selfish? Originally intended as a bookend to The Solace of Open Spaces, Unsolaced is unpredictably timely, a compelling adventure story and an inward and outward journey that may leave the reader with more questions than answers in these uncertain times, the most provoking being, ‘Where do we go to find solace now?’”

Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause by Ty Seidule (St. Martin’s Press). Reviewed by Kitty Kelley. “Few others could write this book with such sterling credibility. Only a man of the South, a Virginian, and a soldier with a Ph.D. in history could so persuasively mount the case against a national hero, and label him a traitor. For even today, the image of Lee, who fought against his country to preserve slavery, is revered with monuments, parks, military bases, counties, roads, schools, ships, and universities named in his honor. Yet, armed with years of documented research, Seidule demonstrates that Lee, like Judas, was guilty of base betrayal.”

Aftershocks: A Memoir by Nadia Owusu (Simon & Schuster). Reviewed by Patricia Ann McNair. “Imagine a childhood of travel and privilege, of comfortable homes behind high walls, of chauffeurs and servants, of exclusive education and the adoration of a doting father. Now imagine that world being shaken and cracked, broken by immense losses and the grief that comes with them. Imagine making your way across the fault lines of this childhood only to come face-to-face with an unsubstantiated yet devastating secret and to live through tragic world events and personal, debilitating despair. Such is the stuff of Nadia Owusu’s stunning new memoir, Aftershocks.”

Imagining Iraq: Stories by Bárbara Mujica (Living Springs Publishers). Reviewed by Tom Young. “Mujica knows whereof she speaks: The collection is dedicated to her son, Captain Mauro Mujica-Parodi, and to the Georgetown University Student Veterans Association. She is a professor emerita of Spanish literature at Georgetown, and she helped create the student-veterans group…As a veteran, I always knew that each time I volunteered for a deployment, I was also volunteering my wife and parents. With some guilt, I recognized I was asking them to do the hardest job. Through her stories, Bárbara Mujica becomes an eloquent spokeswoman for those who did that job. Veterans and civilians alike owe her a sharp salute.”

Bride of the Sea: A Novel by Eman Quotah (Tin House Books). Reviewed by Kristin H. Macomber. “Would Bride of the Sea hold up as well without the structural backdrop of historical headlines along the way? It’s hard to say. The characters’ reactions to current events ably provide a first-person perspective on history from a non-American point of view, which is valuable in its own right. To comprehend what it means to be a Muslim in America, labeled a dangerous foreigner no matter where you were born, requires an empathy that can only come from putting oneself in another’s shoes (in novels as in life).”

Surviving the White Gaze: A Memoir by Rebecca Carroll (Simon & Schuster). Reviewed by Alice Stephens. “Rebecca has an idyllic childhood, free to range her commune-like neighborhood of artsy counter-culturists. But there are intimations that all is not well in her household. Her parents have an open marriage, instigated and liberally exercised by her father, modeling an unhealthy dynamic as her mother sacrifices her needs and wants for her husband’s. There is an odd family friend who likes to put his hands all over Rebecca, to no one’s objections. And Rebecca’s hair is an untidy mess of burrs, dry and coarse because no one has showed her how to care for it. Her Blackness is praised and almost fetishized by her parents, and yet they do nothing to introduce her to Black culture.”

Milk Blood Heat: Stories by Dantiel W. Moniz (Grove Press). Reviewed by Emily Mitchell. “Throughout, Moniz’s prose is gorgeous and richly descriptive, as well as funny and acerbic in places. She uses these qualities to, among other things, evoke Jacksonville, Florida, and surroundings, where heat and water are ever present. The lushness and intensity of the environment infuse the stories and present another kind of unstable boundary, that between land and water. It’s one that many of the characters know will only grow more unstable over time.”

The Slaughterman’s Daughter: A Novel by Yaniv Iczkovits; translated by Orr Scharf (Schocken Books). Reviewed by Olesya Salnikova Gilmore. “This story should be treated as the fable it is — a celebration of one woman’s defiance of a people cowed into meekness and conformity by the czarist regime; of a country, a ‘place [that] is doomed’; and of a world “on the brink of complete annihilation.” Indeed, the setting is a rare one for historical fiction; while the years before the Russian Revolution are well-trodden ground, the experience of the Jewish people and their discrimination under the czarist regime is a uniquely impressive offering, particularly since that experience centers around a woman magnificently expert at ritual slaughter. The novel is at once a beautiful fable and a philosophical meditation on a people, their history, and their place in society.”

Winter Pasture: One Woman’s Journey with China’s Kazakh Herders by Li Juan; translated by Jack Hargreaves and Yan Yan (Astra House). Reviewed by Gretchen Lida. “A memoir about hauling snow, shoveling manure, and living in a mud hut in one of the harshest environments on earth may not sound like a pleasure read. Yet, miraculously, Li Juan’s Winter Pasture is somehow just that. Part travelogue and part cultural exchange, the book luxuriates in wide-open spaces and the simple wonder of the everyday. A bestseller in China for years and winner of the People’s Literature Award, Winter Pasture is Li’s first book to appear in the United States. Initially, there are some lazy colloquialisms to get past, but it’s hard to know whether they’re the fault of the author or the translators. Soon enough, the book finds its stride and balances both beauty and accessibility on every page.”

Economy Hall: The Hidden History of a Free Black Brotherhood by Fatima Shaik (The Historic New Orleans Collection). Reviewed by John P. Loonam. “The gift of Economy Hall is that it memorializes a once-active society that was swept up in — and tried to steer — some of the most pivotal events in New Orleans. More broadly, the men of the hall lived out the travails of American history — the struggle for prosperity; the tension between individuality and community and between diversity and homogeneity; the horrors of racism; and the fight for basic dignity and rights. If the arc of the universe is long, it bends toward institutions like Economy Hall.”

In Search of a Kingdom: Francis Drake, Elizabeth I, and the Perilous Birth of the British Empire by Laurence Bergreen (Custom House). Reviewed by Allison Thurman. “The narrative jumps back and forth between accounts of Drake’s career and discoveries and the background of his and Elizabeth’s lives. Far from being jarring, this juxtaposition highlights motive and context for their actions and creates a cliffhanger-style pace that keeps the reader turning the page…The great pleasure of In Search of a Kingdom is the revelation of Drake as a man of apparent contradictions that helped rather than hindered his ambitions. Readers in search of a story of how a clergyman’s son gained the support of a queen and helped found the British Empire will not be disappointed.”

The Upstairs House: A Novel by Julia Fine (Harper). Reviewed by Sarahlyn Bruck. “The Upstairs House is fully immersive. As I read, I appreciated that I couldn’t predict where this well-crafted ghost story was going. Part of that uncertainty was a result of how poorly understood postpartum psychosis truly is, but it mostly came from the wonderful suspense pulsing throughout. I held my breath page after page, eager to know what would happen. Would Megan keep her baby safe? Could she save herself? I won’t tell, and I won’t be able to let this story go anytime soon.”

The Elephant of Belfast: A Novel by S. Kirk Walsh (Counterpoint). Reviewed by D.A. Spruzen. “Tragedy, betrayal, and danger stalk Hettie, but Violet nurtures her as she, in turn, nurtures Violet. Inspired by true events, this moving story of two heroines — a female zookeeper and an adolescent elephant — speaks not only to the brutality of war, but also to religious tensions in Northern Ireland that remain pervasive today. The finely drawn prose is cinematic in places, and the characters are vividly brought to life with Walsh’s deft portraiture. The Elephant of Belfast is historical fiction at its best.”

On Fragile Waves: A Novel by E. Lily Yu (Erewhon Books). Reviewed by Janet A. Martin. “The author’s precise prose creates an immediacy of presence, trundling the reader along the immigrants’ desperate journey uphill and down as the four family members, harassed by dire circumstances and insurmountable uncertainty, fall prey to petty bickering and understandable stress. The reader feels every bump in the road. A recipient of the LaSalle Storyteller Award in 2017 and the Astounding Award for Best New Writer in 2012, E. Lily Yu is an author to watch. On Fragile Waves foreshadows an innovative new direction in storytelling. In startling language, she combines dreams, myth, poetry, and drama to tell the contemporary saga of one small girl’s story of migration. The story is not soon forgotten.”

George Washington: The Political Rise of America’s Founding Father by David O. Stewart (Dutton). Reviewed by William Rice. “Under Stewart’s energetic hand, the cold-marble hero warms into a flawed but remarkable person: ambitious, evenhanded, tender, callous, impetuous in his youth, wiser with age. Fathering no children of his own, he worried and grieved over two troubled stepchildren Martha brought into their marriage who died young. He loved buying land — and sometimes used sharp practices to acquire it — but was a bad investor always in debt. Stewart gives due attention to the most disturbing aspect of Washington’s life and character: his enslavement of hundreds of people of African origin. The author references this ongoing crime throughout the book and dedicates its last section to it.”

Amber & Clay by Laura Amy Schlitz (Candlewick). Reviewed by Emma Carbone. “Schlitz’s ambitious standalone middle-grade story is meticulously researched and brings ancient Greece to life as Hermes instructs readers on the country’s proper name (‘Don’t call it Greece’), and Rhaskos is shown Athenian attractions like the Trojan Horse and the Akropolis, where ‘the stones of the temples were bathed in gold’ for the first time. What begins as a story about a spoiled girl and a common boy becomes, in the author’s capable hands, a much larger commentary on art, friendship, and identity as we watch Melisto and Rhaskos transform, becoming ‘the girl as electric as amber, the boy, indestructible as clay.’”

Girlhood by Melissa Febos (Bloomsbury Publishing). Reviewed by Yelizaveta P. Renfro. “Melissa Febos, who eloquently describes the patriarchy as ‘an elegant machinery whose pistons fire silently inside our own minds, and whose gleaming gears we mistake for our own jewelry,’ makes great strides in exposing the inner workings of that machine. Girlhood is a book that deserves to be savored, to be read more than once, to be given to all the people in your life — not just the girls and women — because we are all responsible for ensuring that every person be able to live by their own narrative.”

The Age of Acrimony: How Americans Fought to Fix Their Democracy, 1865-1915 by Jon Grinspan (Bloomsbury Publishing). Reviewed by Kitty Kelley. “Not all historians write with the verve and dash of Grinspan, whose titles snap, crackle, and pop: ‘Where do all those cranks come from?’ and ‘Reformers who Eat Roast Beef’ and ‘Investigate, Agitate, Legislate.’ For the most part, the chapters flow with narrative flair. For example, ‘Streetcar Number 126 wobbles its way up Lancaster Avenue into West Philadelphia’ starts his foray into the central issue of the Gilded Age, which was not class, race, industrialization, or immigration, but rather the political paralysis that made addressing those issues impossible. Sound a bit familiar?”

On Juneteenth by Annette Gordon-Reed (Liveright). Reviewed by Eugene L. Meyer. “In On Juneteenth, Harvard historian Annette Gordon-Reed grapples with the myths and contradictions of her beloved home state — a place that once subjugated, segregated, and lynched Black people (including in her home county) and remains ruled by politicians determined to suppress the hard-won votes of minorities and maintain their own power even as demographics inevitably shift. In a series of essays, she offers a thoughtful and affectionate meditation on the state in which, despite its dualities, she still feels most at home. Where others might see a simple picture of unreconstructed racism, Gordon-Reed sees — and dissects — complexities that largely defy stereotypes. In so doing, she makes On Juneteenth an important part of the discussion about who and what we are as 21st-century Americans.”

The Lady of Zamalek: A Novel by Ashraf El-Ashmawi; translated by Peter Daniel (Hoopoe). Reviewed by Alice Stephens. “The Lady of Zamalek hits all the sweet spots that a Western reader of historical fiction craves: a grand family drama set in a society at once strange and familiar, rife with surprise revelations that keep the reader fully engaged. It is also a brutally frank portrait of 20th-century Egypt, a country rich in resources, people, and, above all, stories. It deserves to be a bestseller, just as Egyptians deserve a government that serves them.”

The Atmospherians: A Novel by Alex McElroy (Atria Books). Reviewed by Tara Campbell. “Reading The Atmospherians was like eating one dark chocolate, sea salt truffle after another until, oops, I’d eaten the whole box. ‘Sea salt truffle’ may sound weirdly specific, but I assure you, the humor here is delicious, and Sasha is salty. She’s prickly, a woman who by no means goes out of her way to be kind. But she’s also complex, protective of her fragile friend Dyson, and prone to bouts of empathy for the Atmospherians, men who are at once acolytes and threats.”

A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance by Hanif Abdurraqib (Random House). Reviewed by Colin Asher. “A Little Devil in America has no single thesis, but Abdurraqib revisits a number of themes within its pages, folding new meaning into his observations each time he adopts a fresh perspective. He writes about the relationship between Black performance and freedom; the need for ‘a people’ to embrace joy, ‘lest they believe themselves only worthy of pain’; and the fraught relationship between Black performers and white audiences. And he weaves his own story through the text as he does so, adding emotional resonance to the book by tying his observations and his characters’ stories to his lived experience.”

Why Peacocks?: An Unlikely Search for Meaning in the World’s Most Magnificent Bird by Sean Flynn (Simon & Schuster). Reviewed by Julie Dunlap. “Why Peacocks? is not a natural history discourse or paean to biodiversity in the style of Ben Goldfarb’s Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter or Katie Fallon’s Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird. Rather, Flynn gives us an intimate and humor-laced ode to a glorious being, one ‘wondrously improbable’ enough to distract and uplift a father, husband, and reporter who has witnessed crime, war, cruelty, and disaster on six continents. Confined in a scrap-wood coop that Martha Stewart would never approve of, Flynn’s peacocks, through his well-crafted prose, set each of us free to seek out beauty and bring it closer to where we live.”

Revival Season: A Novel by Monica West (Simon & Schuster). Reviewed by Beth Mowbray. “Exploring the deep-rooted beliefs of the Horton family in the context of the larger Black church community they reside within, Revival Season is sure to appeal to those raised in the Bible Belt as much as at will to those who’ve looked curiously in from the outside. West has so carefully crafted the dynamics of family relationships that readers will feel as if they’re riding along down the highway in the Hortons’ packed van or sitting next to Miriam under the revival tent on a hot summer evening. There is something captivating and beautifully painful about this story, as well as West’s writing. A bit of the magic of storytelling, perhaps, that just cannot be put into words. Readers must experience it for themselves.”

Quiet Desperation, Savage Delight: Sheltering with Thoreau in the Age of Crisis by David Gessner (Torrey House Press). Reviewed by Christopher Lancette. “Quiet Desperation, Savage Delight is a fast-paced but powerful, moving treasure trove of life lessons Gessner divined by spending a year making the best he could of a global tragedy. He doesn’t try to make sense of the pandemic — that’s impossible. Instead, he assesses what he can learn from his life amid this mess and, by extension, what we can learn from ours — knowledge that can be put to use now and post-corona. Consider it a how-to guide for how we can live a better life and create a better world.”

Razorblade Tears: A Novel by S.A. Cosby (Flatiron Books). Reviewed by José H. Bográn. “This is the first book I’ve read by Cosby, and I enjoyed his knack for including small, seemingly throwaway lines that add flavor to each scene and bring the narrative to life. Although it touches on sensitive topics, Razorblade Tears is primarily crime fiction with a mystery at its core and a big reveal at the end. The action sequences come fast and close together and pulse with a visceral streak that will leave readers holding their breath until the final gunshot rings out. It’s no wonder the novel has already been optioned by Paramount Players.”

The Guild of the Infant Saviour: An Adopted Child’s Memory Book by Megan Culhane Galbraith (Mad Creek Books). Reviewed by Alice Stephens. “To be an adoptee is to be a hybrid grafted onto a new family tree, an experiment in social engineering. To fully express the composite nature of the adoptee experience, Megan Culhane Galbraith has created an achingly beautiful hybrid memoir, The Guild of the Infant Saviour, blending the visual with the literary to convey the complexities of the adopted person’s search for identity and belonging. With brutal candor, the author explores every nook and cranny of her adoption while interrogating prevailing cultural attitudes toward family, motherhood, femaleness, and sex, bookending each essay with original photos selected from her ‘adopted child’s memory book’ and recreations of those photos using antique plastic dolls and other found objects.”

Monkey Boy: A Novel by Francisco Goldman (Grove Press). Reviewed by Chris Rutledge. “Yet this is no list of conquests. Instead, we see Frankie reflecting on the pivotal role women have played in his life, providing him safety and succor over the years. They have helped soften the isolation and loneliness he experienced first as an abused child, later as a wandering writer detached from close relations, and always as a racial outsider. Indeed, it is that sense of persistent loneliness that drives the narrative and gives it its poignancy. Thanks to Francisco Goldman’s skill, we are compelled to recognize Frankie Goldberg’s melancholy and allow it to wash over us.”

Facing the Mountain: A True Story of Japanese American Heroes in World War II by Daniel James Brown (Viking). Reviewed by Paul D. Pearlstein. “Facing the Mountain is a splendid book. Daniel James Brown’s writing is compelling, and his depictions of battle scenes are frighteningly authentic. By capturing the personalities and emotions of the people who lived through this part of WWII, he has illuminated some of the best and worst moments of our nation’s history and has also inspired hope that we can do better.”

Hell of a Book: A Novel by Jason Mott (Dutton). Reviewed by Adam Schwartz. “Just over a third of the way into Jason Mott’s Hell of a Book, the narrator describes the wood-burning heater in his childhood home as having ‘more tricks than a carful of monkeys.’ One could say the same about Mott’s wonderful new novel itself. Hell of a Book is many things: part send-up of the publishing industry, part road-trip comedy, part metafictional sleight of hand. But at its core, the novel is a harrowing and powerful meditation on racial injustice and its effects on the human psyche.”

Blind Man’s Bluff: A Memoir by James Tate Hill (W.W. Norton & Company). Reviewed by Kitty Kelley. “Some memoirs flicker like fireflies on a summer night. Others pierce your psyche with their subjects’ tortured experiences, consequent miseries, and — finally — their oh-so-glorious survival. The Story of My Life by Helen Keller, Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt, The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou are among the memoirs that leave you breathless; they’re books you keep and don’t pawn off on your neighbor’s yard sale. Now comes another keeper: Blind Man’s Bluff by James Tate Hill. With his pluperfect title, Hill winningly recounts his life after he was declared legally blind.”

The Irish Assassins: Conspiracy, Revenge, and the Phoenix Park Murders that Stunned Victorian England by Julie Kavanagh (Atlantic Monthly Press). Reviewed by Bob Duffy. “Kavanagh vividly presents the innumerable players in this saga. And she never neglects the thorny human dimension of her story: the acts of impulse, folly, and desperation, of betrayal and heroism. In a nutshell, she has built a narrative that’s faithful to the flow of events, both overt and behind-the-scenes, while never losing sight of the frailties and passionate commitments behind them.”

China Room: A Novel by Sunjeev Sahota (Viking). Reviewed by Samantha Rajaram. “The interplay between the two primary characters is, at first, challenging. Mehar’s story is so captivating that I felt briefly irritated at having to move into the secondary story of the addict. But I soon lost myself in Sahota’s compelling universe. He has particular compassion for his female characters, and I delighted in both Mehar and the modern-day character Radhika, a young doctor who befriends the addict and who insists on living on her own terms. The two become poles in the same universe — one woman flattened by poverty, history, and patriarchy, the other defying them.”

Real Estate: A Living Autobiography by Deborah Levy (Bloomsbury Publishing). Reviewed by Patricia Schultheis. “In Greece, for example, she stays on Hydra, the island where Leonard Cohen loved and left his treasured Marianne. But Levy’s own catalog of goodbyes, told through the lens of Cohen’s, doesn’t reach the level of poignancy either deserves. On the other hand, she adroitly interweaves the tension between an artist’s — especially a female artist’s — need for solitude and need for family and friends. Not to mention the attendant obligations thereof. To Levy’s credit, Real Estate, the final installment of her triparted autobiography, holds neither a hint of rancor nor victimhood. Instead, with wit and insight, she takes us where few new books go: into the lively, varied, happy world of an intelligent older woman.”

First Friends: The Powerful, Unsung (And Unelected) People Who Shaped Our Presidents by Gary Ginsberg (Twelve). Reviewed by Kitty Kelley. “Previously, readers have been treated to books on first families, first ladies, first butlers, first chefs, first photographers, first dogs, and first cats. For his first book, Ginsberg, who served in the Clinton Administration, ingeniously presents bite-size biographies of U.S. presidents and their best friends — and how those friendships influenced presidential legacies and affected the country. The author wraps history and humanity in a sparkling package, concentrating on nine U.S. chief executives and their closest friends…It’s an inspired idea that will thrill anyone who loves life stories woven into presidential history.”

The Failed Promise: Reconstruction, Frederick Douglass, and the Impeachment of Andrew Johnson by Robert S. Levine (W.W. Norton & Company). Reviewed by Eugene L. Meyer. “This book lacks a bibliography, an omission that some may find puzzling. But the author’s personal bibliography, 10 titles listed in front, includes scholarly works relating to Douglass and associated topics. Further, Levine’s 31 pages of notes are extensive and helpful. Most importantly, The Failed Promise is an engaging new look at an old story. It is a welcome addition to the growing catalog of books that implicitly link the past to the present, providing historical context for the nation’s current reckoning with its original sin of slavery and its enduring legacy.”

Graceland, at Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache from the American South by Margaret Renkl (Milkweed Editions). Reviewed by Kitty Kelley. “So far, this lovely little book is bright, courteous, and informative, even lady-like, but then Renkl ventures into territory that more timid Southerners would avoid: sex, religion, and politics. Here, she shows her soul as she lambasts the Tennessee legislature for its misbegotten attempts to amend the state constitution to prevent same-sex marriage, for denying birth certificates to babies born to undocumented parents, and for outlawing abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which is, Renkl writes, frequently before a woman even knows she’s pregnant.”

Matrix: A Novel by Lauren Groff (Riverhead Books). Reviewed by Bob Duffy. “Beyond the linguistic, a rash of other dualities stands out: the exuberant excess of the Norman nobles versus the hardscrabble poverty among the English commoners; the strict vow of chastity versus the human urge for sexual expression among the abbey’s sisters; and the rarely questioned authority of Church and State versus Marie’s independent streak. Most significantly, though, the central opposition in Matrix is a far more consequential one — the gulf between the mindsets and customary roles of women versus those of men. Like ungainly Marie, this interplay towers over the others, spinning the narrative headlong into a resonant feminist transfiguration. What results is a propulsive, enchanting, and emotionally charged read.”

Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World by Katharine Hayhoe (Atria/One Signal Publishers). Reviewed by Julie Dunlap. “Through storytelling and figurative language, Hayhoe disarms critics who would derogate her as a hectoring tree-hugger or a sentimentalist more concerned with birds and butterflies than injustice, economics, or national security. Why worry about a two- or three-degree rise in global temperature, these critics might ask, in light of all the real problems in the world? For one, an extended metaphor about human body temperature clarifies how a once-stable system in energy imbalance threatens that system’s future. And woven throughout the text, stories reveal how extreme weather already imposes suffering on vulnerable communities and exacerbates wealth disparities, refugee crises, urban violence, and biodiversity collapse.”

On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint by Maggie Nelson (Graywolf Press). Reviewed by Zak Salih. “Nelson does not decree. She opens herself up to challenges, sets different viewpoints against one another. She reminds the reader constantly that she is simply ‘thinking about with others.’ Quite often, she deploys phrases like ‘it seems to me’ and ‘it’s possible that’ — phrases that to some may suggest passivity but, to this reader, emphasize the idea of intellectual thought as a continual work in progress. Much like ‘the knot of freedom and unfreedom’ — the central issue under discussion in On Freedom — knotty social issues are never untangled. The work is never finished.”

The Book of Form and Emptiness: A Novel by Ruth Ozeki (Viking). Reviewed by Mike Maggio. “And then there are the refrigerator magnets which inexplicably rearrange themselves into messages Annabelle believes are from her late husband. And so, that question keeps coming up: What is real? What are we and the characters we encounter supposed to believe? With all confidence, I can say that The Book of Form and Emptiness is very real. It’s a wonderful, heartwarming story of emotional growth filled with characters as real as anyone you would meet on the street. Except we are meeting them through the Book. And the Book, as we learn, knows all.”

Believing: Our Thirty-Year Journey to End Gender Violence by Anita Hill (Viking). Reviewed by Kitty Kelley. “Hill has schooled herself in the miasma of gender violence and how it imperils our country’s health, safety, economic security, housing, transportation and educational opportunities. As might be expected of an academic, her tone is a bit pedantic as she makes her grim case with studies and citations and statistics. She admits up front that she’s ‘neither charismatic nor a gifted speaker.’ Unfortunately, she’s right. At various points, this disquisition cries out for a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down, but Anita Hill is not Mary Poppins. Her treatise is on man’s inhumanity to man, and while her catalog of ills is short on solutions, she spotlights behavior that will make some readers cringe at the extent of sexual violence in our society.”

Against White Feminism: Notes on Disruption by Rafia Zakaria (W.W. Norton & Company). Reviewed by Sarah J. Trembath. “The chapters are tough reads at times. Emotionally, I mean. This is likely especially true for white readers who remain entrenched in mainstream feminism without having critically questioned it. Zakaria masterfully exposes hypocrisy where she finds it, even among the leadership of sacred feminist organizations like NOW, the Association of American University Women, and the Feminist Majority Foundation. But those white feminists who make it through the book, buoyed its prose and the insight, will be rewarded.”

The Body Scout: A Novel by Lincoln Michel (Orbit). Reviewed by Josh Denslow. “Raymond Chandler walks into a bar. A robot dressed as a 1920s flapper informs him the place has an anti-comm field, so he’s going to have to stay sharp. He meets Isaac Asimov at a table, and they begin to concoct a story. A real humdinger of a mystery. Suddenly, Max Barry arrives to lighten the mood. And he’s brought along George Saunders. Within an hour, they have the whole book mapped out beginning to end. Then they smoke a round of eraser cigarettes and get so mellow that nobody ends up writing it. Good thing Lincoln Michel comes along to take it over.”

My Monticello: Fiction by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson (Henry Holt and Co.). Reviewed by Carr Harkrader. “To paraphrase Rick James: Nostalgia is a hell of a drug. Taken in large quantities, it can cause delusions of grandeur, hypnotic and violent episodes, and the loss of clear sight. An overdose can elect presidents and fuel hysteria. While there is no one course of treatment for nostalgia, it must be carefully monitored and managed for fear of spreading. But there is hope. Jocelyn Nicole Johnson provides a mesmerizing antidote in her new story collection, My Monticello, the titular novella in which provides the centerpiece for an examination of history’s impact on our present-day landscape and future possibilities.”

Admit This to No One: Stories by Leslie Pietrzyk (Unnamed Press). Interview by Cathy Alter. “What are people in DC afraid of? What makes them squirm? What are the secret thoughts they would never admit, not to anyone? What deep shames do we carry with us every day? With her trademark scalpel wit in hand, Pietrzyk explores these questions in a DC universe where an unnamed speaker of the house is the book's sun around which all other characters — an unwanted daughter, a past mistress, and a landscape that includes a parking garage in Rosslyn, the view of DC from Anacostia, and the inner sanctum of the Executive Office — revolve. Searing, hilarious, and unflinching, Pietrzyk's characters are sad and selfish and, most likely, people we've met (at least once) before in our nation's capital.”

Castaway Mountain: Love and Loss Among the Wastepickers of Mumbai by Saumya Roy (Astra House). Reviewed by C.B. Santore. “The mountain is its own ecosystem. It has its own black market and its own extrajudicial system. Babies are born, children grow to adulthood, marriages are made and broken, and the aged decline and die as the pile grows and grows. Life goes on, sometimes happy, sometimes sad, always precarious. Some of the pickers do better than others, resulting in a social hierarchy on the mountain, but all nonetheless share an unbreakable sense of community and help each other during the roughest times — floods and fires, illnesses and accidents. The endemic insecurity of the pickers’ lives makes for a compelling story that looks at a global issue from a fresh perspective.”

Lemon: A Novel by Kwon Yeo-sun; translated by Janet Hong (Other Press). Reviewed by Alice Stephens. “Though the incident that is at the center of the plot is a violent one, violence is not the main preoccupation of this slim but extremely nuanced novel, but rather the societal conditions that allow violence to go unpunished. Da-on’s act of revenge is so subtly seeded into the story that the reader might miss it. Some readers, too, may be disappointed that the murderer is never explicitly named or brought to justice. But this is not that kind of crime novel. The very point is that the murderer escapes legal repercussions. In an inequitable society that offers the marginalized little protection, revenge is the last chance for any sort of justice.”

The Pastor by Hanne Ørstavik; translated by Martin Aitken (Archipelago). Reviewed by Patricia Schultheis. “A less profound writer than Ørstavik may have opted for a more commercial storyline, one in which the wise townspeople gently educate their bumptious young preacher about their quirky ways. Instead, like Alice McDermott, another author who doesn’t shy away from the spiritual, Ørstavik drives Liv into the realization of her own failure: She hasn’t come to Norway’s far reaches to minister to others; she’s come to escape.”

Shelf Life: Chronicles of a Cairo Bookseller by Nadia Wassef (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Reviewed by Jennifer Bort Yacovissi. “She describes Diwan’s concept as one way of influencing the cultural narrative through its organization and offerings. Throughout, the book highlights the challenges faced by three women operating a first-of-its-kind business in a paternalistic society mired in a bureaucracy administered by a corrupt and unjust government. Along the way, her descriptions of family, friends, and employees, the zeitgeist of Cairo in the early 2000s, and the challenges that Diwan brought into her life all add a wonderfully intriguing, quirky flavor and bounce to the narrative. Wassef knows how to tell a good story, and her language is surprisingly spicy. (Her recounting of exchanges she had with Minou in Diwan’s café are eye-popping.)”

A Long Way from Douala: A Novel by Max Lobe; translated by Ros Schwartz (Other Press). Reviewed by Susi Wyss. “In short, Max Lobe’s novel is l’ambiance africaine in literary form — a delightful read that provides an inviting window into Cameroonian culture and leaves you wanting more. For readers who need a neat and tidy ending, A Long Way from Douala might disappoint. But it also feels more real than most road-trip stories because it exemplifies the old adage: It’s about the journey, not the destination. If you’re in the mood for a bumpy, boisterous one, you won’t regret going along!”

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