Best of Books 2021: Why these stood out


By Christopher Borrelli - Chicago Tribune



The best books of 2021 are “The Man Who Lived Underground” by Richard Wright; “Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America” by Eyal Press; “The Trees” by Percival Everett; “Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction” by Michelle Nijhuis; “A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance” by Hanif Abdurraqib; “Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch” by Rivka Galchen; “Smile” by Sarah Ruhl; “Second Place” by Rachel Cusk; “When We Cease to Understand the World” by Benjamin Labatut; “100 Things We’ve Lost to the Internet” by Pamela Paul.

The best books of 2021 are “The Man Who Lived Underground” by Richard Wright; “Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America” by Eyal Press; “The Trees” by Percival Everett; “Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction” by Michelle Nijhuis; “A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance” by Hanif Abdurraqib; “Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch” by Rivka Galchen; “Smile” by Sarah Ruhl; “Second Place” by Rachel Cusk; “When We Cease to Understand the World” by Benjamin Labatut; “100 Things We’ve Lost to the Internet” by Pamela Paul.


When I look over this list of the best books of 2021, I see what’s not there, what didn’t make the final cut and deserved the hosannas. Rebecca Solnit’s discursive biography “Orwell’s Roses.” Clint Smith’s sobering travelogue “How the Word is Passed.” Matt Bell’s climate-change epic “Appleseed.” It’s been a great time to read widely and often, and considering the near-one billion books sold in 2020 — and the probable record coming for 2021 (publishers saw double-digit sales leaps for much of the year) — settling on 10 was tough.

As for the following 10 — I wish I could read them again for the first time. In no particular order:

1. “A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance” (Random House, $27): Columbus essayist and poet Hanif Abdurraqib — who’s had quite the year, named a National Book Award nominee and MacArthur “genius” in the same week — hasn’t written a bad book. His is a still-young career, but this is probably a high mark, a profound meditation on the Black artists and “mundane fight for individuality,” as well as what it means to be a Black audience.

2. “Second Place” (FSG, $25): The first novel from Rachel Cusk after her celebrated Outline Trilogy, and somewhat like those great books, here is another consideration of art and responsibility, if slightly less abstracted, though just as probing of its characters. A mother has a revelation in a gallery and proceeds to detonate her world, her marriage, her future.

3. “The Trees” (Graywolf, $16): Someday, inevitably, when Percival Everett is read by more people and not a painfully passed-over novelist whose work gets thrust into hands with a messianic promise of “Trust me,” here’s the book to tip the scales. Someone is killing the ancestors of the guys who murdered Chicago teenager Emmett Till back in 1955.

4. “Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch” (FSG, $27): Not quite satire, not entirely historical fiction, but full of truth and chillingly hilarious in an age of QAnon conspiracies, anti-vaxxers and cancel culture. Rivka Galchen takes a page from Monty Python, Salem and the #MeToo movement to tell the story of real-life Katharina, a 16th-century German widow with very important children (her oldest, Johannes Kepler, explained how planets move). She fights court accusations of witchcraft, for years.

5. “When We Cease to Understand the World” (New York Review Books, $18): At first, it reads like harrowing nuggets of history and hubris but soon, Benjamin Labatut’s ingenious story of complicity and horrors of scientific achievement takes just enough liberty with the men behind the invention of chemical weapons and the concept of black holes (among other paradigm-shifting bits of alchemy) to upend our understanding of sanity and fiction.

6. “Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction” (Norton, $28): Science journalist Michelle Nijhuis’ engrossing history of animal conservation avoids exactly the cheerleading that would render other books impotent. Here is a movement, she writes, “full of people who did the wrong things for the right reasons, and the right things for the wrong reasons.”

7. “100 Things We’ve Lost to the Internet” (Crown, $27): Perhaps the only book on this list that might gain a little if read in dribs and drabs, tucked away beside your toilet. Pamela Paul, editor of the New York Times Book Review and a breezy, skeptical op-ed sort of voice in her own right, does not set out to transcend the plaintive loss of the title.

8. “Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America” (FSG, $28): Journalist Eyal Press leans slightly into the pandemic “essential” workers of the title, albeit strategically, with reason: His aims are higher, the moral cost of jobs hidden away. He profiles drone pilots, prison guards, slaughterhouse workers.

9. “Smile” (Simon & Schuster, $27): In the days after giving birth to twins, the left side of Sarah Ruhl’s face began to droop and stiffen and she lost her ability to smile. She found herself in that small percentage of people who contract Bell’s palsy and do not recover. This is not the setup for overcoming-the-odds kind of uplift.

10. “The Man Who Lived Underground” (Library of America, $23): Though Richard Wright’s novella was well-known, the full text of his harrowing portrait of Chicago police abuse went unread for 80 years, so disturbing Harper editors they rejected it — at a time when Wright was the bestselling Black author in America. What’s here now is feverish, familiar, a tale of a Black man beaten by police who escapes under the city, at a cost: His foundation of reality frays.

The best books of 2021 are “The Man Who Lived Underground” by Richard Wright; “Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America” by Eyal Press; “The Trees” by Percival Everett; “Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction” by Michelle Nijhuis; “A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance” by Hanif Abdurraqib; “Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch” by Rivka Galchen; “Smile” by Sarah Ruhl; “Second Place” by Rachel Cusk; “When We Cease to Understand the World” by Benjamin Labatut; “100 Things We’ve Lost to the Internet” by Pamela Paul.
https://www.limaohio.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/54/2021/12/web1_BOOKS-BOOK-BESTOFYEAR-TB.jpgThe best books of 2021 are “The Man Who Lived Underground” by Richard Wright; “Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America” by Eyal Press; “The Trees” by Percival Everett; “Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction” by Michelle Nijhuis; “A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance” by Hanif Abdurraqib; “Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch” by Rivka Galchen; “Smile” by Sarah Ruhl; “Second Place” by Rachel Cusk; “When We Cease to Understand the World” by Benjamin Labatut; “100 Things We’ve Lost to the Internet” by Pamela Paul.

By Christopher Borrelli

Chicago Tribune

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