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The best books of 2021, to gift or read yourself

Ten of the year's best reads, whether you're shopping for yourself or someone else.

The best books of 2021
The best books of 2021Read moreKnopf and Dutton

Whether you wanted an escape from reality or a little help making sense of it, this was a great year for books. Put another way: There were so many good books published in 2021 that it’s hard to pick the best. So if you’re looking to do a little shopping or bolster your to-be-read stack before the long winter, we’ll be right with you. I’ve just got some whittling to do first.

Let’s see. There were a few that started off so amazingly that I recommended them to everybody I knew. Then I kept reading and, yeah, they didn’t quite stick the landing. Yikes. Cut.

What about that sweeping American epic that reminded me of another sweeping American epic that came out a few months earlier? Sorry. There can be only one.

Then there’s that beautifully written science book about, like, quantum physics and such. Nah. New rule: If I don’t understand it, I won’t recommend it.

And how about that awesome true-crime book about the murder at Harvard in the ‘60s? Hmm. Looks like it came out at the end of 2020. Rules are rules. Cut. (But you should really read it: We Keep the Dead Close by Becky Cooper. One of the best books of last year.)

Should we cross off that one book that was kind of a hard sell but eventually made me so desperate to talk about it that I literally Venmoed a friend five bucks so she’d read it too? No! It was too good. And I’m too invested. The book stays in the picture.

OK. Time for a few coin flips and dice rolls, and bit of dream interpretation and … voilá! The best 10 best books of 2021, no question. Buy ‘em for the most discerning reader in your life, even if it’s you.

Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing, Lauren Hough

Though the Tough Guy Author trope is thankfully on its last limping legs, there’s still something special about somebody who can throw punches and pound shots, and then write unromantically about it. In her brilliant debut memoir and essay collection, Lauren Hough recounts a life on the thorny path: raised in an actual sex cult, court-martialed by the Air Force, worked as a bouncer and a “cable guy,” etc. Her wry sense of humor and bruised-knuckle storytelling make this book unforgettable. (Vintage, $16.95)

Buy it now on | Borrow it from the Free Library

My Heart Is a Chainsaw, Stephen Graham Jones

Besides 17-year-old outcast J.D., nobody in the sleepy town of Proofrock, Idaho, seems to realize there’s a killer on the loose. Except, is there? Sure, the bodies have been piling up recently, but a) a lot of these deaths look like accidents and b) she’s got piles of slasher flicks in her trailer and a wild imagination. Dreamy, dreary, terrifying, and endlessly cinematic, My Heart Is a Chainsaw crawls inside your brain and makes you suspicious of every character you just met, every word you just read. Then it goes for the jugular. (Gallery/Saga Press, $26.99)

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No One Is Talking About This, Patricia Lockwood

Even before this lithe, sly novel clues you in to what it’s really about — a sick child, her worried parents — you feel frozen in its spotlight. Because by then you’ve already relived a slew of worthless dopamine rushes: favorited posts; liked memes; shared lies; retweeted nothings with no origin, no end, and no point. There’s a real, terrible, amazing world out there, the author seems to be saying to both her characters and her readers. You don’t need to go scrolling for feels. Or maybe she’s saying Living IRL hurts and isn’t worth it. (Riverhead Books, $25)

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A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance, Hanif Abdurraqib

This collection of connected essays by poet/author Hanif Abdurraqib (see 2019′s marvelous Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest) indeed seeks to uplift famous and non-famous Black performers whose art deserves fresh examination. But you’ll also find an illuminating through line about performances of Blackness, from vaudeville dancer Master Juba to Dave Chappelle, and the ways different audiences draw meaning from the artists they’re watching. And then there’s the bits about Josephine Baker, Sun Ra, Michael Jackson, Soul Train, and so on; there are few things more rewarding than watching Hanif Abdurraqib take a deep dive into good music. (Random House, $27)

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Crying in H Mart, Michelle Zauner

Watching Michelle Zauner ascend from indie-pop kid/coat-check attendant at Union Transfer to international rock star/best-selling author has been one of the greatest joys of covering the arts in this city over the past decade. In her debut memoir, Zauner uses the foods she grew up with to illustrate her complicated relationships with her dying Korean mother and her semi-estranged white father, and her feelings of not quite belonging in any one place. Crying in H Mart is a genuine tearjerker; in this book, as in life, love comes with grief baked in. (Knopf, $26.95)

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Appleseed, Matt Bell

Gorgeous and weird, Matt Bell’s climate disaster epic spirals forward along three separate timelines, each one offering its own characters and arcs while gradually piecing together the larger puzzle of how the planet got so royally screwed. In previous works, like 2013′s In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods, Bell has sometimes reveled in the hazy and quasi-allegorical, but Appleseed is vivid, sharp, and sensual: The sweet musk of fermented apple mush; the false buzz of nanobot bees; the sight of ribs pressing through stretched skin and matted fur. This book is lovely even as it describes a ghastly, unrecognizable future. (Custom House, $27.99)

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Hell of a Book, Jason Mott

Recently named the 2021 National Book Award winner, Jason Mott’s hilarious, anguished and aptly titled novel tells the story of a weary, bleary-eyed author who comes unstuck in reality while out on a book tour. Well, he’s always been that way, but it’s getting worse. Exhibit A: The part where he seems to have forgotten that he’s Black. Exhibit B: The parts where he converses with a mystery child no one else can see. With America’s weekly tragedy cycle as a backdrop, Hell of a Book is sometimes a devastating satire and sometimes just devastating. (Dutton, $27)

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Land of Big Numbers, Te-Ping Chen

This charming debut collection by a local author got a well-deserved Obama bump when the former president included it on his summer reading picks. In one story, a brother plays video games while his activist twin sister goes to jail for criticizing the government. In another, good citizens camp out on a subway platform waiting for a train that may never come. Throughout Land of Big Numbers, Te-Ping Chen — who writes for the Wall Street Journal and was based in Beijing for several years — blends magical realism with regular realism to describe a China that is varying shades of whimsical, absurd, pastoral, and dystopian. Thanks, Obama! (Mariner, $15.99)

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A Touch of Jen, Beth Morgan

Beth Morgan’s debut novel had a few things stacked against it: the icky title, the understandable though not exactly helpful comparisons to Search Party, the concentrated irony oozing out of every thought that pops into its main characters’ millennial brains. But “serious readers” spooked by the sheer, shiny today-ness of its sheen have missed out on A Touch of Jen’s cockeyed, heart-confusing portrayals of obsession, youth, ennui, and sudden, pointless death. This book will eat you alive if you let it. (Little, Brown and Co., $28)

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Love Songs of W.E.B. DuBois, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers

When award-winning poet Honorée Fanonne Jeffers set out to write her first novel, she thought it’d be a beach read, something easy on her, easy on the readers. She ended up with an 800-page multigenerational saga that earns the word “epic” thanks to the immensity of its ideas, the breadth of its scope, and the depth of its characters. In Ailey Pearl Garfield, Jeffers has created a protagonist whose smarts, frailties, and tenacity carry her family — and this book — through years of racism, colorism, addiction, and a thousand other hardships. (HarperCollins, $28.99)

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Also great:

Harlem Shuffle, Colson Whitehead The author of The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys unspools a twisting, tantalizing crime yarn. (Doubleday, $28.95)

Something New Under the Sun, Alexandra Kleeman A funny and oddly gorgeous satire of the film industry set in the very near future. (Hogarth, $28)

The Other Black Girl, Zakiya Dalila Harris There’s lots to love about this Get Out-ish satirical conspiracy thriller. (Atria, $27)

The Final Revival of Opal & Nev, Dawnie Walton The oral history of a band you wish existed. (37 Ink, $27)

The Sunset Route: Freight Trains, Forgiveness, and Freedom on the Rails in the American West, Carrot Quinn A train-hopping punk comes to terms with her past in this eye-opening memoir. (The Dial Press, $$$$)

Assembly, Natasha Brown Every sentence approaches perfection in this 100-page “modern Mrs. Dalloway.” (Little, Brown & Co., $23)

The Glassy Burning Floor of Hell, Brian Evenson A collection of stories that expand the horizons of horror without much bloodletting. (Coffee House Press, $16.95)

Great Circle, Maggie Shipstead A dazzling, fast-paced tour of America through the eyes of a pioneering pilot and the actor cast to play her a century later. (Knopf, $28.95)

The Promise, Damon Galgut The veteran South African author brought home the Pulitzer with this sweeping family drama. (Europa, $25)

The Committed, Viet Thanh Nguyen The acclaimed sequel to 2015′s also acclaimed spy-thriller The Sympathizer. (Grove Atlantic, $27)

Souvenir Museum, Elizabeth McCracken Short stories you that make you laugh at this cold, dumb world. (Ecco, $26.99)

Palmares, Gayl Jones The iconic author bursts back onto the scene with this stunning epic about a runaway slave in 17th-century Brazil. (Beacon Press, $27.95)

Fake Accounts, Lauren Oyler A woman discovers her boyfriend is an Instagram conspiracy theorist in this hilarious and shrewd satire of the modern condition. (Catapult, $26)