As I reviewed my book diary over this past year—nearly fifty in total—my selections covered a range of themes, characters, settings, and genres. Eight were nonfiction (such as Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy, Last Best Hope), twelve were written prior to 2021 (such as Their Eyes Were Watching God, Joy in the Morning, The Last Station, The Wright Brothers), two were advanced copies for 2022 (The Final Case, Vladimir). Several were outstanding debut novels (Damnation Spring, We Are the Brennans, The Ballerinas).
This is all to say that 2021 was a rich reading year for me. In terms of those I read that were published in 2021, here are my top five picks.
Klara and The Sun (Knopf, March) by Kazuo Ishiguro is a novel about the human heart. Klara is an AF (“Artificial Friend”) with “outstanding observational qualities,” who watches browsers from her place in a shop, hopeful that one will eventually choose her. When the possibility emerges that her circumstances may change forever, Klara is warned not to invest too much in the promises of humans. “… what was becoming clear to me was the extent to which humans, in their wish to escape loneliness, made maneuvers that were very complex and hard to fathom.” Klara is solar-powered and reveres the sun as a godlike figure who provides nourishment. She becomes the companion to Josie and learns more about humans, beyond what she learned at the Artificial Friend store, through her interactions with Josie’s family and friend, Rick. It is the rich inner reflections of the characters that offer the wisdom and depth for the reader. “There was something very special, but it wasn’t inside Josie. It was inside those who loved her.” Like all of Ishiguro’s novels, love and memory are themes in Klara and the Sun. All his narratives are quiet yet thrilling, simply told yet driven by a great emotional force. In awarding Ishiguro the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2017, the committee said that Ishiguro’s novels “uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.”
Harlem Shuffle (September, Doubleday) by Colson Whitehead tells the story of Ray Carney, a man wrestling with a double life—the striver and the crook (Carney refuses to see himself as the latter) in a wonderfully reimagined New York City of the early 1960s. It’s a family saga and a heist novel; a hilarious morality play filled with a zany cast of characters named Pepper, Tommy Lips, and Miami Joe; a social novel about racial injustice, class disparities, and power (and who holds it); and ultimately a love letter to Harlem. One of the messages within these pages has to do with the narrow path Blacks had to navigate back in the 60s to stay out of trouble. It was why Harlem was a haven; it protected them. The message from Ray’s wife’s travel agency, Black Star, to her black clients: “Stay on the path and you’ll be safe, eat in peace, sleep in peace, breathe in peace; stray and beware.” Whitehead weaves historical figures (Malcolm X, Louis Armstrong, Josephine Baker, Richard Wright, and Duke Ellington) and events (the Harlem riots of 1964) throughout his tale of a man’s love for his family, the neighborhood where he lives, and his community. It is told in cinematic prose—Harlem Shuffle would make a great film—with authentic voices placing the reader in the center of the action. Ray Carney’s insights and growth through the narrative make him a complex and intriguing character, and one Whitehead says he is not yet done with.
Cloud Cuckoo Land (September, Scribner) by Anthony Doerr follows the journey of a long-lost book from ancient Greece with the eponymous title of Doerr’s book, by Antonius Diogenes. The tale begins with Konstance, a mid-22nd century fourteen-year-old, traveling on an ark-like spaceship called Argos destined for a habitable planet. Konstance finds the book in the Argos’s library, already familiar with Diogenes’s story of a shepherd named Aethon and his search for a book that tells of all the world’s unknown lands because her father told it to her while they tended the Argos’s farm. Her father’s connection to the Diogenes book is gradually revealed but first Doerr takes the reader farther back in time. In chapters set in and around Constantinople leading up to the 1453 siege, two 13-year-old children, Anna and Omeir, converge while fleeing the city, and Omeir helps Anna protect a codex of Cloud Cuckoo Land she discovers in a monastery. Then, in 2020 Lakeport, Idaho, translator Zeno Ninis collaborates with a group of young children on a stage production of Cloud Cuckoo Land at the local library, where a teenage ecoterrorist named Seymour has planted a bomb meant to target the neighboring real estate office. Doerr moves from one narrative to another so seamlessly that the novel becomes a page-turner. The descriptions of Constantinople, Idaho, and the Argos are each distinct and fully realized as are his rich characters—all united by a determination to survive and a hunger for stories. Cloud Cuckoo Land is part historical fiction, part contemporary fiction, and part science fiction, all in one brilliant story about how Anthony Doerr’s wonderfully-drawn characters, from the time of Constantinople to sometime in the future, act in ways that steward and preserve books, and how those actions reverberate through generations!
The Lincoln Highway (October, Viking) by Amor Towles tells the tale of three eighteen-year-old boys (one is actually twenty), and an eight-year-old boy who take a journey from Nebraska to New York City in 1954. The entire book takes place over ten days (Towles’ Rules of Civility described one year in the life of a twenty-five-year-old woman about to climb the socioeconomic ladder of New York; A Gentleman in Moscow covered more than three decades of the life of a Russian aristocrat who lost all possessions and social standing). The Lincoln Highway uses many different voices in the telling, whereas the author’s earlier books were told in first person and close third person, respectively. The characters are richly developed. One, a boy named Woolly, reflects on how special the red dictionary his mother gave him is, how you could look up any word and find out what it meant, and if there was a word in the definition that you didn’t know, you could look that up and discover its meaning as well. I could only think about how that compares to Google today. There are many such nuggets of insight each character brings each stage of this unpredictable journey.
Our Country Friends (November, Random House) by Gary Shteyngart, is hilarious, farcical, and poignant all at once, thanks to the skill of this author in his fifth, and considered finest, novel. I would describe this story as a pandemic Chekovian Big Chill. It 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’re sure will be a quick blip in their convenient and prosperous lives. The owner, Sasha Senderovsky, puts these friends up in a colony of bungalows arranged alongside a main house with a cedar porch where the guests feast on exotic food cooked nightly by Ed, an heir to a wealthy Korean family. The novel is brilliant in its imagination, prose, and themes: the story unfolds through an all-knowing narrator and the unmediated points of view of each of the unique and well-developed characters. Like Chekhov, Shteyngart is a master of verbs; for example, he writes that a woman’s dimples are “activated” when she smiles. And the novel covers a range of relevant topics, including the humiliations of parenting and of being parented, the brutality of chronic illness, and the beauty of friendship.
Written by Linda Kass
About the author: I began my career as a magazine writer and correspondent for regional and national publications and am now an assistant editor for Narrative, an online literary magazine. My debut novel, Tasa’s Song, was inspired by my mother’s early life in eastern Poland during the Second World War. My second historical novel, A Ritchie Boy, was inspired by my immigrant father's role as a military intelligence office in World War II. I am also the proud owner of Gramercy Books, serving all of central Ohio!
Learn more about me on my personal website.