NYT’s critics’ top books of 2021

The New York Times’s staff critics give their choices of the best fiction and nonfiction works of the year. (Photo: NYTimes)
This was a remarkably rich and capacious year for nonfiction. While we all continued to grapple with urgent developing news about the coronavirus, climate change and global politics, authors widened the aperture, publishing books on a dizzying number of subjects: the history of Black artists in the film industry; an American woman who joined the Nazi resistance in Germany; mid-century creative ferment in New York City; groundbreaking mathematician Kurt Gödel; playwright Tom Stoppard. Other books told the stories of an 18th-century Irish poem, the “first civil rights movement”, one modest cotton sack that reflects the immense trauma of slavery. And all of this does not nearly cover the entire list.اضافة اعلان

In fiction and poetry, it was a year of well-established names delivering strong work, with new novels from Rachel Cusk, Jonathan Franzen, Colm Toibin, Dana Spiotta, Gary Shteyngart and Katie Kitamura, brilliant second novels by Atticus Lish and Asali Solomon, and a vital collection of poems about history and mortality by Rita Dove.

Below, selections by The New York Times’ daily book critics of their favorite titles from the past 12 months. The choices come from our four staff critics, Dwight Garner, Jennifer Szalai, Molly Young and Alexandra Jacobs, as well as Parul Sehgal, who was a critic for the Times until July.

An annual note on methodology: The critics limit themselves in this process, each choosing only from those books he or she reviewed for the Times since last year at this time. — John Williams


“Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump”, by Spencer Ackerman. (Viking.) Ackerman contends that the US response to 9/11 made President Donald Trump possible. He presents the evidence for this thesis with an impressive combination of diligence and verve, guiding us through two decades and showing how any prospect of national unity in response to 9/11 buckled under the incoherence of the wars that followed. The resulting narrative, Jennifer Szalai wrote, is “upsetting, discerning and brilliantly argued”.

“Traveling Black: A Story of Race and Resistance”, by Mia Bay. (The Belknap Press of Harvard University.) In this superb history, the question of literal movement becomes a way to understand the civil rights movement writ large. “Once one of the most resented forms of segregation, travel segregation is now one of the most forgotten,” Bay writes.

“Journey to the Edge Of Reason: The Life of Kurt Gödel”, by Stephen Budiansky. (Norton.) Mathematician Gödel upended his profession’s assumptions with his “incompleteness theorem”, presented in 1930, when he was 24. But expertise in formal logic is not essential for anyone’s enjoyment of this moving biography. Budiansky brings a polymath’s interest to bear on a man whose life intersected with the political and philosophical upheavals of the 20th century.

 “On Juneteenth”, by Annette Gordon-Reed. (Liveright.) Gordon-Reed, a Pulitzer-winning historian best known for her work on Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, takes a more personal approach in her latest book. In a series of short, moving essays, she explores “the long road” to June 19, 1865, when the end of legalized slavery was announced in Texas, the state where Gordon-Reed was born and raised.

“Colorization: One Hundred Years of Black Films in a White World”, by Wil Haygood. (Knopf.) “Colorization” tells the story of Black artists in the film industry, those in front of and behind the camera. It moves from pioneer Oscar Micheaux through the careers of Paul Robeson, Dorothy Dandridge and Lena Horne, and up to the work of Spike Lee, Ava DuVernay and Jordan Peele.

“In the Eye of the Wild”, by Nastassja Martin. Translated from the French by Sophie R. Lewis. (New York Review Books.) In 2015, anthropologist Martin barely survived an attack by a bear in the mountains of Kamchatka, in eastern Siberia. This slender yet expansive book is her haunting, genre-defying memoir of the year that followed. She writes about the attack; about her work among the Indigenous Even people; and about philosophy, questioning the human propensity to try to assimilate everything into familiar terms.


“Playlist for the Apocalypse: Poems”, by Rita Dove. (Norton.) Dove’s new collection is about the weight of American history, and it is also about mortality. It is the first time she has publicly acknowledged that she has had a form of multiple sclerosis for more than 20 years. Some of these poems address health troubles. Some are about Martin Luther King Jr., Robert F. Kennedy, Muhammad Ali and Barack Obama. Garner called the poems “among her best,” and wrote: “Dove’s books derive their force from how she so deftly stirs the everyday — insomnia, TV movies, Stilton cheese, rattling containers of pills — into her world of ideas and intellection, in poems that are by turns delicate, witty and audacious.”

 Intimacies”, by Katie Kitamura. (Riverhead Books.) Kitamura’s fourth novel is about an unnamed woman who goes to work as an interpreter at an international court at The Hague. She is in flight from New York City, where her father recently died. Like nearly everyone in this novel, she leads a globalized, deracinated life. At work, she interprets for — and thus climbs inside the heads of — notorious criminals. The novel’s heat lies in Kitamura’s abiding interest in the subtleties of human power dynamics.

The War for Gloria, by Atticus Lish. (Knopf.) “The War for Gloria” is a solemn, punishing, kinetic portrait of a mother and son facing her mortal illness. The book’s protagonist, Corey, grows up all but fatherless in and around Boston and seeks ways to prove himself. He tends to his mother, Gloria, this book’s great, glowing presence, who has Lou Gehrig’s disease and only a few years to live. Garner said it is “powerful, intelligent, brooding and most of all convincing; it earns its emotions”.

The Magician, by Colm Toibin. (Scribner.) This subtle and substantial novel imagines the life of Thomas Mann, the Nobel Prize-winning author of “Death in Venice” and “The Magic Mountain”, among other classics. Garner called it a “symphonic and moving” work.

Our Country Friends, by Gary Shteyngart (Random House.) Shteyngart’s new novel begins at the onset of the pandemic, with seven friends and one nemesis gathered at an estate in the Hudson Valley to wait out what they are sure will be a quick blip in their convenient and prosperous lives. Predicaments abound, mysteries multiply and betrayals proliferate.

The Days of Afrekete, by Asali Solomon. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux.) Solomon’s novel is a reverie, a riff on “Mrs. Dalloway” and a love story. Liselle, its protagonist, is a Black woman living in Philadelphia. Her husband, who is white, cut corners while running for the state legislature, and the FBI is closing in on him.

Wayward, by Dana Spiotta. (Knopf.) For Sam Raymond, the restless heroine of Spiotta’s latest novel, menopause is reason enough to reevaluate everything. Her body revolts just as her mother is starting to ail and her teenage daughter is growing remote and secretive. Sam is rash, funny, searching, entirely unpredictable.

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