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20 Best Books 2021 – Most Anticipated Books to Read in 2021
As the pandemic continues to disrupt film and television releases, there remains one entertainment constant we can all count on: new books. By and large, the latest and greatest books are continuing to hit shelves as planned, meaning that when it comes to your literary entertainment diet, you’ll never go hungry. Now that we’ve turned the page to 2021, we’re in for another fantastic year in books, beginning with this winter’s stunning slate of new releases. Our favorite books of the season come from authors both emerging and established, meditating on everything from life online to life in the intersections of identity. Set everywhere from the all-too-real world to the distant past, and even peering into the speculative future, they offer escape, education, and spiritual enlargement—whatever you’re looking for.
Not all of these books have hit shelves yet, but if you see something you like, do yourself a favor and pre-order it. When it lands on your doorstep in mere weeks, consider it a gift from Past You—and don’t waste any time diving in.
Aftershocks, by Nadia Owusu
Simon & Schuster
The daughter of an Armenian-American woman who all but abandoned her as a toddler and a larger-than-life Ghanaian diplomat who died when she was thirteen years old, Owusu interrogates her stateless, motherless upbringing in this dazzling memoir, reflecting on how she grew up both everywhere and nowhere. Now an adult, Owusu ruminates on the lingering clawmarks of loss—of country, of family, of innocence—while charting her peripatetic journey across continents in search of a homeland to call her own. Powerfully and poetically told, Owusu’s remarkable story chronicles the lasting legacies of grief and trauma, as well the thorny, non-linear journey of healing.
Dog Flowers, by Danielle Geller
Geller’s skill as an archivist takes center stage in her formally ambitious memoir, constructed from the ephemera of her late mother’s life, which includes diaries, receipts, photographs, and letters. This fragmented inheritance sends Geller spinning unflinchingly backward through the alcoholism and neglect that colored her childhood, as well as through her mother’s slippery reminiscences of her upbringing in the Navajo Nation. Moved by her mother’s stories, Geller sets out to discover her heritage, heading to the Navajo reservation to reconnect with her estranged family—and with the part of herself she’s never known. In this transcendent story, Geller refuses to look away from the agonizing cycles of abuse and addiction, while also writing with deep compassion about the limitations of the people we love.
Detransition, Baby, by Torrey Peters
In this electrifying debut novel, three lives coalesce around an unexpected pregnancy, forcing a bittersweet examination of identity, parenthood, and family. When Ames learns that his boss turned lover is pregnant, he confesses that he once identified as a trans woman, then hatches a plan for his lover to co-parent with his ex-girlfriend, a lonesome “trans elder” yearning to become a mother. In this compassionate, gut-punching story, Peters leans all the way into the tragicomedy of how families and identities are formed, making for a deeply searching novel that resists easy answers. Read an exclusive excerpt here at Esquire.
Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping, by Matthew Salesses
In this firmament-shattering examination of how we teach creative writing, Salesses, a novelist and professor, builds a persuasive argument for tearing up the rulebook. Tracing the traditional writing workshop to its roots in white, male cultural values, Salesses challenges received wisdom about the benchmarks of “good” fiction, arguing that we must reimagine how we write and how we teach. Only then will our canon and our classrooms be the inclusive, expansive spaces we want them to be.
Let Me Tell You What I Mean, by Joan Didion
From a titan of American letters comes a compendium of twelve early pieces, never before anthologized together, which find everyone from Martha Stewart to Ernest Hemingway in Didion’s crosshairs. Each essay showcases Didion at her very best, spotlighting her incisive reporting, her steely narrative gaze, and her commanding gifts as a prose stylist. Anthologized together in this compact volume, these peerless essays remind us just why Didion looms so large in the pantheon of American literature.
Love Is an Ex-Country, by Randa Jarrar
Through the lens of a transformative cross-country road trip from California to Connecticut, Jarrar recounts her lifelong hunger for liberation from the forces of domestic violence, doxxing, and systemic racism. Along the interstate, she tangles with racist truck drivers, destroys Confederate flags in the desert, and pays a visit to the Chicago neighborhood where her immigrant parents lived when they first touched down in the United States. This visceral, unforgettable memoir is Jarrar’s barbaric yawp, asserting her triumphant choice to live joyfully in a hostile world.
Surviving the White Gaze, by Rebecca Carroll
Simon & Schuster
Carroll’s searing memoir recounts her complicated childhood as the only Black person in a rural New Hampshire town, where even the love of her adoptive white parents could not answer the incompleteness within her. When her white birth mother enters the picture to cruelly undermine Carroll’s Blackness and self-worth, the aftershocks reverberate across Carroll’s lifetime, sending her spiraling through a pattern of self-destructive behaviors in search of her racial identity. In this vulnerable and layered meditation on race, adoption, and family, chosen and otherwise, Carroll unspools a poignant story of becoming.
Land of Big Numbers, by Te-Ping Chen
Chen’s remarkable debut collection of stories unfolds across the modern Chinese diaspora, pinballing between acutely observed realism and tragicomic magical realism. In one story, a man becomes addicted to chasing the highs and lows of the volatile Chinese stock market; in another, a group of commuters remain trapped in a subway station for months on end, awaiting permission to leave. Each haunting, exquisitely crafted story poses powerful questions about freedom, disillusion, and cultural thought, firmly establishing Chen as an emerging visionary to watch.
Milk Fed, by Melissa Broder
The novelist and viral poet behind So Sad Today returns with her outstanding second novel, a bold and luscious story of desire in all its forms—for food, for sex, for belonging. Twenty-four-year-old Rachel has replaced Judaism with calorie restriction as her religion, but when she begins a three month detox from her impossible-to-please mother, who prizes thinness at all costs, her obsessively structured life soon changes course. Enter Miriam, the devout Orthodox heiress to a frozen yogurt fortune, who wants nothing more than to feed Rachel. When Rachel’s psychosexual obsession with Miriam spirals out of control, it leads to startling insights about faith, family, and food. Rarely has the fraught intersection of pleasure, appetite, and diet culture been written about so deliciously as in Milk Fed.
Fake Accounts, by Lauren Oyler
One of the year’s sharpest debut novels, Fake Accounts opens on the eve of Donald Trump’s inauguration, when a young woman snooping on her boyfriend’s phone discovers his secret life as an online conspiracy theorist. She plots to end the relationship, then decamps to Berlin, where the dizzying weight of her own falsehoods soon warps her reality. Told in our narrator’s seductive, incisive, and often deceptive voice, Fake Accounts is a ferociously smart dissection of the social media age, where we’re long on carefully-crafted fictions and short on truth.
We Had a Little Real Estate Problem: The Unheralded Story of Native Americans & Comedy, by Kliph Nesteroff
Simon & Schuster
Nesteroff traces the long and shameful marginalization of Native American comedians in this deeply researched volume, beginning as early as the 1800s, when Native Americans were forced to perform as caricatures of themselves in traveling Wild West shows in order to avoid imprisonment. The book toggles between historical analysis and modern-day interviews with emerging Native comedians, who are struggling to break into show business amid the dearth of opportunities on reservations. Nesteroff also deconstructs caricatures of Native Americans as stoic people, highlighting an irreverent and often hilarious chorus of voices aching to be heard.
No One Is Talking About This, by Patricia Lockwood
Never has the experience of being Extremely Online been more viscerally rendered than in No One Is Talking About This, Lockwood’s astonishing novel about a viral celebrity who travels the world on the back of her popular tweets. It takes a family tragedy to reawaken her to the world beyond her screen, where she’s reminded that the internet can’t contain the wonders and horrors of real life. Written in a style at once lyrical and fragmentary, brimming with memes and texts, this novel locates both the profane and the profound in how we live online. No One Is Talking About This will frighten you, implicate you, and scrape your guts out, in the best way possible.
Infinite Country, by Patricia Engel
Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster
Beginning unforgettably with a young girl’s high-octane escape from a Catholic reform school, Engel’s sweeping novel gives voice to three generations of a Colombian family torn apart by man-made borders. When Elena and Mauro move their children to the United States, the cruelty of deportation sunders their family, but never their bonds. Gorgeously woven through with Andean myths and the bitter realities of undocumented life, Infinite Country tells a breathtaking story of the unimaginable prices paid for a better life.
What’s Mine and Yours, by Naima Coster
Grand Central Publishing
Set in the foothills of North Carolina, Coster’s gripping sophomore novel centers on two mothers: Jade, a Black single mother striving to set her son up for success in a racist world, and Lacey May, a white woman who refuses to recognize the heritage of her three half-Latina daughters. Their small community is riven when the predominantly white high school begins accepting students from the largely Black side of town; meanwhile, when Jade’s son and Lacey May’s daughter grow close during a school play, the two families become bound forever. Coster’s remarkable characters, each one of them authentically flawed and gorgeously realized, propel this wise and loving story ever forward, making for a graceful meditation on family, inequality, and the ties that bind.
Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro
In Ishiguro’s first publication since winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017, we meet the humanoid robot Klara, an Artificial Friend designed to be a child’s companion. Sunning herself in the display window of a store, Klara ruminates on the world passing her by, hoping all the while to be chosen. When she is at long last adopted by a teenager named Josie, their growing bond is threatened by Josie’s terminal illness. Tender and suspenseful, the novel probes timeless questions about personhood, morality, and what makes a good life.
The Committed, by Viet Thanh Nguyen
In this blistering sequel to 2015’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Sympathizer, Nguyen’s nameless North Vietnamese spy, last seen speeding across the sea to an uncertain future, washes up as a refugee in Paris, where he embeds himself in the French criminal underworld of the 1980s. To survive his harrowing life as an outsider, the Sympathizer deals drugs to the upper echelons of political and intellectual society, but he can’t shake traumatic memories of his past, nor plot a trouble-free future. Like The Sympathizer, The Committed rewards repeated reading, deepening with each read from a noirish literary thriller into an elegant treatise on colonialism and identity. You’ll want to sit with this one again and again for years to come.
Mona, by Pola Oloixarac
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
On the morning that Mona, a young Peruvian-American writer, is set to fly to a Swedish convention where she’s been nominated for a prestigious literary prize, she wakes up covered in inexplicable bruises. At the convention, she longs to be subsumed by the familiar rhythms of the professionalized literary world, rife as it is with resentful and entitled men, but the haunting mystery of what’s happened hems in at the edges of her consciousness. At once a brutally observed satire of literary society and a tragic story of how identity can be commodified, Mona is a daring new work from one of Argentina’s most exciting novelists.
How Beautiful We Were, by Imbolo Mbue
In the fictional African village of Kosawa, the locals live in fear of Pexton, a predatory American oil corporation, whose destructive practices pollute the water and the farmland. When children begin dying after ingesting toxic drinking water and the corrupt government turns a blind eye, the villagers mount a courageous uprising—one that comes at a steep personal cost. A generation of narrative voices, many of them children, shape this sweeping, elegiac story of capitalism, colonialism, and boundless greed, reminding us of the myriad ways we fail to make a better world for our children.
Libertie, by Kaitlyn Greenidge
Inspired by the life of one of the first Black female physicians in the United States, this mesmerizing novel begins in Reconstruction-era Brooklyn, where Libertie Sampson is expected to follow her mother’s path in the medical field, despite her musical calling. When a Haitian doctor proposes marriage, promising to live as her equal in Haiti, she elopes with him, only to discover that colorism and sexism reign supreme on the island. Freedom in all its forms comes under Greenidge’s powerful lens: freedom from oppression, freedom to choose one’s own path, freedom to love and forgive. What emerges from her careful study is a powerful, transporting story about self-determination in an oppressive world.
A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance, by Hanif Abdurraqib
The celebrated author of Go Ahead in the Rain returns with a far-reaching collection of twenty essays, each one a remarkable synthesis of criticism, autobiography, and cultural study about Black performance in America. Abdurraqib meditates on performances past and present, spotlighting everything from Soul Train to Whitney Houston, Josephine Baker to the Wu-Tang Clan. He illuminates what’s personal and political about Black performance, weaving a jubilant love letter to the resilient entertainers who’ve graced stages both big and small.
Adrienne Westenfeld is a writer and editor at Esquire, where she covers books and culture.
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