Back by popular demand — there were at least two emails, I’m sure — we bring you my annual favorite books of (fill in the year). In this case, it’s 2021, the year that was promised to us as an antidote for the terrifying year that was 2020. That promise lasted approximately six days. Should we start a poll for 2022?
So, what went wrong? COVID. And more COVID. And inflation. And storms and wildfires. And floods and tornadoes. And 100-mile-an-hour winds from God knows where. And having to learn how to spell, and pronounce, omicron. And, sure, voter-suppression laws. And Joe Manchin. And the mask/vaccine wars. And the many episodes of Court TV. And Tucker Carlson. And Dr. Seuss and the book burners. And, hell, let’s move on. I’m limiting the nonfiction recommendations this year to a few because there was so much good fiction and all of it dependably better and much truer to life than the Big Lie.
The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois, by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers
If I could recommend only one book this year, this would be it — and not just because, at 790 pages, “Love Songs” might take a year to read. The truth is, when you get to the end of this remarkable story — a first novel by a much-awarded poet — you want more. It is the multigenerational story of a Black family from Chickesetta, Georgia, told from the days before there was a Georgia, but also of Native Americans and genocide and white Americans in the time of slavery, state-sanctioned rape, Jim Crow and beyond. Be warned that there is much hard-to-read cruelty in the book, but cruelty that is never gratuitous.
This is the story, for the most part, of three generations of Black women. The central character is Ailey Garfield, a HBCU grad whose father and grandfather were doctors in “the city” and whose Uncle Root is a professor who knew Du Bois. The Du Bois vs. Booker T. Washington debates Uncle Root has with a student are worth the price of admission. Ailey becomes a professor of history, which disappoints her Talented Tenth family, who want her to become a doctor.
It’s in her research that she finds an escaped slave whose descendants came upon a Creek village in 1733. There was a plantation which would be stolen and which would, well, that’s too much to give away. Suffice it to say that we learn many truths left untold in Ailey’s family. And it is enough to know that his beautifully written book can truly be called the Great American Novel, if you mean a novel with all nastyhard bits included and one that, like Toni Morrison’s Beloved, is headed for someone’s banned-books list.
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No One Is Talking About This, by Patricia Lockwood
If you’re looking for a much shorter, but also brilliant, debut novel by a poet, this is for you. It’s a book about social media and the Internet, which Lockwood calls the portal. and how we’ve become undone by our national addiction and by the cynicism — or is it irony? — that is the ultimate product of being Extremely Online. Lockwood gives you the story in scattershot bits and pieces that read like a series of barely related tweets, only much funnier and smarter than the ones in your feed. An unnamed narrator has become famous for tweeting, “Can a dog be a twin?” Lockwood herself first became known in what passes for real life as a Twitter sensation — ribald poetry being her metier — and the narrator/Lockwood explains the phenomenon thusly, “Every day, their attention must turn, like the shine on a school of fish, all at once, toward a new person to hate. Sometimes the subject was a war criminal, but other times it was someone who made a heinous substitution in guacamole.”
That’s the first half of the book. The second turns into something much different, beginning with the news that the baby growing inside the narrator’s pregnant sister is unlikely to survive childbirth. In Lockwood’s hands, the story becomes, as one reviewer put it, not a tragedy, but a romance, and one with rapid-fire bursts of insight that you’ll insist on quoting to your friends.
Crossroads, by Jonathan Franzen
It is a given that everyone, other than book reviewers, seems to love to hate Jonathan Franzen, whose life as Famous Author began with his pronouncement that he was uncomfortable with the fact that Oprah had picked his breakthrough novel, “The Corrections,” for her middlebrow book club. @TriciaLockwood (see: above) once tweeted this take on Franzen, telling us she had written it as a draft for a short story: “I’m pregnant,” shouts Johnathan Franzen’s wife. He places a finger on her lips. “No, it is I who am pregnant,” he says. “Pregnant with the next great American novel.”
Whatever else you say about Franzen — and I’d start with the fact that he’s a great writer — he is, in fact, driven by great ambition, sometimes obnoxiously so, to tell the story of America, and particularly the American family, as few have done. “Crossroads,” which we’re told will be the first part of a trilogy — what else? — takes us to the ‘70s-era Hildebrand family of New Prospect, Illinois via the crossroads of Highways 49 and 61 in Clarksdale, Miss., where blues legend Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil in pursuit of his otherworldly music.
In New Prospect, where Russ is an oft-humiliated pastor and blues aficionado, where wife Marion is an utter mystery to her husband and maybe to herself, where the three children all take a turn with the devil — Franzen delivers a book in which religion and its place in America are seriously considered and yet where lies and secrets hold the key to something like truth. This is one of Franzen’s best, the characters — especially Marion — all memorable, and the promise of seeing them again is one I hope he keeps.
The Final Revival of Opal & Nev, by Dawnie Walton
Maybe the greatest thing about this book — an oral history of an unlikely interracial rock duo from the ‘70s — is that you simply cannot believe this band exists only in debut novelist’s Dawnie Walton’s head. I can barely resist asking Alexa to shuffle their songs. Every word reads true. Every album liner note. Every footnote (yes, you must read even the footnotes). Every lyric. Every fight. Every make-up. Every Detroit club. Even the famous meet and the surprising reveal that takes Opal, an “outcast Black girl from Detroit,” and Nev, “a goofy white English boy” from then to now — it all seems like something I vaguely remember happening. And the decades-later reunion, which is sort of like Simon & Garfunkel’s famous Central Park reunion, only with a smaller audience, far more drama and far more violence, is something I could surely Google.
The story is told through the eyes of rock-magazine writer Sunny Curtis, whose father, Jimmy, was Opal and Nev’s drummer and whose long-ago violent death is at the center of the book. Nev went on to become a mainstream star. Sunny persuades Opal, who would become an obscure but influential musical influence, to tell her story and not only for journalism’s sake. Sunny wants to get inside her father’s story, which beautifully brings together race, politics and rock ‘n’ roll. What could be better?
Rock novels are hard. I think of Don DeLillo’s “Great Jones Street.” Jennifer Eagan’s “A Visit from the Goon Squad.” Roddy Doyle’s “The Commitments.” Nick Hornby’s “High Fidelity.” There are a few more more, but you can definitely add this one to your list. As somebody once sang, “It’s only rock ‘n roll, but I like it, like it. Yes, I do.”
Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro
Ishiguro (“Remains of the Day,” “When We Were Orphans”) is a Nobel laureate whose selection even Philip Roth must have applauded. The story of robot Klara, a non-robot-looking AF (Artificial Friend) designed for must-never-be-lonely children and teens of the wealthy, is set somewhere (maybe only slightly) in the future. It’s a dystopian world or possibly one that has simply gone mad, wherein the privileged can buy human-like friends/servants in a robot store. It’s a world that is built on the divide — one even greater than our own — between those privileged (the lifted, in Ishiguro’s world) and those who are not.
Klara, whose understanding is limited by experience and sometimes by incomplete data, is an unreliable but careful narrator, who was picked by Josie, who’s 14 ½ by Klara’s calculations. Josie is ill, and I won’t give away what all this means for Klara, for Josie, for Josie’s not-uplifted boyfriend, for Josie’s and Klara’s shared family, except that it’s not exactly science fiction that Ishiguro writes but more like a cautionary tale.
Harlem Shuffle, by Colson Whitehead
Colson Whitehead has been one of my favorites since his first novel, “The Intuitionist,” which offered the all-but-guaranteed promise of greatness. That promise was met, and then some, in his previous two novels, “The Underground Railroad” and “The Nickel Boys.” But with “Harlem Shuffle,” Whitehead takes us back a few steps to his roots as a chronicler of the absurd with characters to match. We go to ‘50s Harlem and Ray Carney, who has turned his furniture store into an unlikely, but semi-thriving business that also relies on some low-end fencing on the side.
The Harlem that Whitehead describes is so vivid it jumps off the page, as does Ray, an ambitious businessman limited by his skin color (he’s too dark for his Talented Tenth in-laws) and by the push and pull from his crooked cousin, Freddy. The deeper Ray is pulled into the criminal world, the better the story gets, the more outrageous the cast of characters gets, the more you will be drawn in. The book is, in a word, irresistible. And much, much fun.
Second Place, by Rachel Cusk
The “second place” is a cottage behind the narrator M’s seaside house that she shares with her husband. They invite writers and artists to spend time in the cottage as both a quiet retreat and a glorious setting in which to work. In a letter M is writing to Jeffers, she tells us, and him, of inviting M, an artist whose early work had left an impression on her she could never shake. It takes some time, but L finally agrees to visit, and it is not much of a spoiler to say that he disappoints M in nearly every way.
The book is said to be based, in part, on D.H. Lawrence’s 1922 visit to New Mexico, in which the host, Mabel Dodge Luhan, hopes Lawrence can teach her something important of herself. M, who plays the role of self-absorbed artist to the hilt, has nothing to offer L, who wants him to paint her. Instead, he says he can’t “see her” and instead paints her daughter, with whom she has a troubled relationship.
The book might be called “Second Place” because it’s a short novel that follows Cusk’s much-praised “Online” trilogy. But this new treatise on art and whether it can save a life, or destroy one, didn’t take second to too many books I read this year.
Reign of Terror, by Spencer Ackerman
The flood of Trump books is never ending, and, face it, we’re just getting started. I don’t want to think about what will follow if Trump, as he threatens, runs again in 2024. “Peril” is the Woodward-Costa book that you would have read by now if you wanted to. It does contain some juicy stuff, which I’m sure you’ve read about. “I Alone Can Fix It,” by Carol Leonnig and Phil Rucker is worth the read, but, with ever-new revelations, you should probably wait for the next one.
The one book that did break though for me was Ackerman’s “Reign of Terror,” which attempts to draw a not-always-straight line from 9/11 to January 6, which, Ackerman writes, serves less as a bookend to 9/11 “than a manifestation of it.” He says 9/11 gave way to never-found weapons of mass destruction to the endless wars to the security state, which Bush and Cheney made possible, which beat back antiwar candidate Barack Obama, which gave way to Trump’s anti-immigrant demagoguery and, of course, to the Big Lie. There are many twists and turns, but Ackerman makes a strong argument, and if, like me, you still can’t explain Donald Trump’s hold on America, Ackerman’s insight is a good place to start.
The Unwinding, by George Packer
I’ve been reading this book off and on for a few years — it’s the book I want to write when I grow up — but finally gave it my full attention this year. Packer famously tells us stories writ large, but in bite-sized narratives. In this one, he introduces us to a set of real-life characters who take us through the economic upheavals that have plagued the middle and lower classes for decades now. Packer writes that he owes a debt to John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy — probably the most influential books of my late youth — in which Dos Passos tells the story of the beginning of the American century, with pithy biographies, with Newsreel commentaries, with words like these: “The rich were getting richer, the poor were getting poorer, small farmers were being squeezed out, workingmen were working twelve hours a day for a bare living; profits were for the rich, the law was for the rich, the cops were for the rich….”
Packer, taking us from the late ‘70s to 2012, gives us the rich in Peter Theil, a Rust Belt factory worker in Tammy Thomas, the Harzells, who were born poor and could never escape their poverty, a politician gone Wall Street in Jeff Connaughton, who tells us of a time “when norms began to erode and disappear that had held people back at least from being garish about the way they made money, the culture changed.” It’s a book that doesn’t offer solutions, only the well-argued point that too many are left on their own in the search. I wish everyone in the Republican caucus would read it, and Joe Manchin, too.
I’m advised by my editors that even in cyberspace there are space limitations, so some shorter recommendations.
The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett
This is another story of race in the ‘50s, in which identical twins, light-skinned girls who disappear from their forgotten small town of Mallard, La., that Blacks have basically to themselves and where colorism is, its way, as critical as racism. A strange set of circumstances leads to one of the light-skinned twins passing as white in New York — “she’d walked in a colored and left a white one” — and the other who remains Blacks and eventually moves to Washington. They both have daughters, and when we meet them, that’s where the story takes off.
The Hard Crowd, by Rachel Kushner
Kushner, a great young novelist — “The Flamethrowers” is one of the best books of the past decade — now gives us 19 essays, some of them already printed, many of them updated, some of them breathtaking. You can’t do better than the title piece in which Kushner, born to children of the ‘60s, takes us to her teen years in San Francisco as a bartender in the Tenderloin. Unless it’s the illegal motorcycle race down the Baja, in which Kushner raced and which could be a novel in itself. Kushner writes hard truths, from East Jerusalem to Milan, from her life as a young would-be outlaw to one as a brilliant outlaw writer.
War and Turpentine, by Stefan Hertmans
If, like me, you miss the late novelist W.G. Sebald, try this Sebaldian effort by Flemish writer Stefan Hertmans. Having told the story of his life so many times that no one in his family wanted to listen any more, Hertmans took to writing them down, over 600 pages of memoirs of his time fighting in World War I and of growing up in Belgium as the son of a poor restorer of religious paintings. The grandson, a writer, took those words and formed them into a novel, which is not quite a novel but something just as entrancing.
Tom Stoppard: A Life, by Hermoine Lee
The first Broadway play I saw in which I bought the tickets was Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” — on the musings of Hamlet’s famous and, yes, dead characters — and I was hooked forever. Stoppard is the Czech-born, English-raised refugee with hidden Jewish roots, who was the likely spawn of Beckett and Pinter, but the international version. Stoppard wrote many great plays, including my favorite, “Arcadia,” and also the movie “Shakespeare in Love.” Many of the best writers live their lives at a desk, but Stoppard lived a larger-than-life life that Lee brilliantly describes.
Homeland Elegies, by Ayad Akhtar
This is another great hybrid novel in which the narrator is named Ayad Akhtar and many of the characters, including his doctor father, are drawn at least to some extent from his life. This father, who moved from his family to America from Pakistan, becomes a Fox News-watching, Trumpian disciple in a book that makes you question everything you might have thought you knew.
Silverview, by John Le Carré
This is not a great novel, but it’s the great David Cornwell’s final finished novel. John Le Carré, Cornwell’s pen name, is, as everyone knows, the one-time British spy who would write about spies and the Cold War and moral relativism and made his genre writing into labyrinth art, and his vocabulary — he invented words like “mole” — into ours. His breakthrough novel was “The Spy Who Came In From the Cold,” and it is his Smiley-Karla trilogy (“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” “The Honourable Schoolboy” and “Smiley’s People”) that will be read 100 years from now. If you wish to say goodbye, “Silverview,” a good novel with trademark Le Carré touches, is a fitting farewell.
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
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