Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

I don’t know about you, but my sense of time has been altered—to some extent “thrown off”—by the still-unfolding pandemic. But here we are, approaching the end of another year, and according to the prescribed ritual I entered into a mildly trancelike state to think about books from 2021 that stand out. As usual, I hasten to add that if the list were made on another day, it would be at least slightly different from this one.

At any given moment, even when I am not under the spell, books are jostling around in my head. I am particularly looking forward to Toya Wolfe’s novel Last Summer on State Street, coming from William Morrow in June. Just around the corner, I expect to see On the Theory of Prose, a new translation (by Shushan Avagyan) of Viktor Shklovsky’s classic (Dalkey Archive). Then there’s Adam Roberts’s new novel, coming in February in the U.K. (can it really be titled The This, purportedly with reference to Hegel?). But I mustn’t keep going down this path. There are so many books to look forward to, not to mention many more that will take me by surprise.

But on with the list. As usual, the titles are (mostly) in alphabetical order; the logic of departures from that rule will be clear. The Books of the Year will come at the end.

The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym
by paula byrne
william collins

“Too many ‘lives’ follow the same pattern,” I wrote for The American Conservative. “Indeed, if you read a lot of literary biographies, you may sometimes have the weird sensation that the boundaries between them are dissolving, as if they had somehow commingled on your shelves in one vast saga.” But that is blessedly not the case when the biographer in question is Paula Byrne (as you will know if you have read The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things, published in 2013). I wish that her capacious account here, based on diaries and notebooks at the Bodleian, had included more on Pym’s abiding faith, but I am already looking forward to Byrne’s next biography: Her subject will be Thomas Hardy.

by cynthia ozick

One of our greatest living writers, and one of the most splendidly idiosyncratic, Cynthia Ozick celebrated her ninety-third birthday shortly after this novella was published. Writing about it in National Review, I noted that

Ozick has laid a trap for unwary and complacent readers. . . . Anti-Semitism is a very unfashionable subject in 2021. How characteristic of Ozick, the consummate provocateur, to remind us that it continues to flourish, that it has even become respectable in various enlightened circles. Nowhere is this stated in the pages of Antiquities, but it is there, implicitly, between the lines.

The Bona Fide Legend of Cool Papa Bell:
Speed, Grace, and the Negro Leagues

by lonnie wheeler

“If you are a hardcore fan,” I wrote for First Things this spring, “you will have read at least a bit about Bell (1903–1991), and maybe (as I did, in a branch of the Pasadena Public Library many years ago) you will have heard some of his fellow Negro League players talk about his extraordinary feats on (and off) the diamond.” Lonnie Wheeler’s book provides the full story (including an account of Cool Papa’s wife, Clara, an “ardent Catholic,” who sounds delightful). I’d give a lot to be able to go “back in time” and watch games in which Cool Papa Bell, Josh Gibson, and other Negro League greats were playing. Maybe we will, in the playing fields of heaven.

Czesław Miłosz:
A California Life

by cynthia l. haven

Haven’s book, I say in a forthcoming review, will be “a boon both to readers who’ve only recently become aware of Miłosz and to those who have been reading him for forty years or more. Unconventional in form—it’s not exactly ‘a biography,’ not ‘literary criticism,’ though it partakes of both,” it approaches the Nobel Prize-winning poet from an unexpected perspective.

Damascus Station
by david mccloskey
w. w. norton

As I noted here in October,

just a few days before the official release of John le Carré’s posthumous Silverview, the venerable house of W. W. Norton published an uncommonly gripping first novel by a former CIA analyst, David McCloskey’s Damascus Station. Set in the “early years of the Syrian uprising” (that is to say, during Barack Obama’s second term, though he is referred to simply as “the President”), Damascus Station combines an insider’s account of tradecraft—detailed enough to satisfy the most demanding geeks—with compassion for the Syrian people, outrage at the Assad regime, and an up-to-the-minute old-fashioned love story.

I’m already looking forward to McCloskey’s next book.

The Dark Hours
by michael connelly
little, brown

“It was audacious of Connelly,” I wrote for The Goldberry Review, “in this time of rampant identity politics, to create a protagonist who is not only a woman but is decades younger than the author. But Connelly has long excelled in portraying women—not least, I think, because he is the sort of writer who seeks out feedback and insight from people he knows and trusts.” The protagonist in question is Renée Ballard, who is again teamed with Connelly’s signature creation, former LAPD detective Harry Bosch. This is Connelly’s thirty-sixth novel, but it is as compelling as his sixth and his eighteenth, among others.

First Steps:
How Upright Walking Made Us Human
by jeremy desilva

I like to walk (especially with Wendy), and I like to read about walking. Every year I add more books to my “walking” collection, including First Steps, “one of the most interesting ‘science books’ I’ve read in the last five years and one of the most interesting ‘walking books’ over the same span.” Of course, as I wrote here, the claim to have pinned down “what makes us human” needs to be taken with a grain of salt: “There are many answers on offer. We are human because we ate meat. (Yes, really.) Or because we were stone-cold killers. Or because the left hemisphere of the human brain evolved with a specialization for language. And so on.” But whether or not you entirely buy the claim in the subtitle, I expect you will find DeSilva’s book both enlightening and companionable, as I did.

A Global History of the Cold War, 1945-1991
by philip jenkins
palgrave macmillan

This may be the first time that I have included a textbook in one of these end-of-year lists, but it is a textbook by Philip Jenkins, and that makes all the difference. I have been working on a piece that will include this book and others which deepen and extend our understanding of a subject that might be thought exhausted. On the contrary!

Going to Church in Medieval England
by nicholas orme
yale university press

As I wrote here in August,

Orme is a distinguished historian with a long list of publications to his credit. My favorite among his previous books I’ve read is Medieval Children. Unlike many of his fellow historians, especially the younger ones, he is not chatty. (I hasten to add that I enjoy some chatty writers while deploring others.) Some readers will find his style a bit too austere; others, myself included, will not mind at all, and will savor his occasional shafts of dry wit all the more. (For example: “Reason dictates that rectors and vicars existed who were conscientious.”) He consistently emphasizes what the sources can tell us and what they cannot.

I predicted that Going to Church in Medieval England would in due course show up on my end-of-the-year list, and lo and behold, it has!

Of Sound Mind:
How Our Brain Constructs a Meaningful Sonic World

by nina kraus
mit press

I’m fascinated by the notion of the “soundscape” and the ways in which sound more generally helps to shape our experience of the world. Reading Walter Ong’s 1967 book The Presence of the Word (which I first stumbled upon in 1968 as a junior in college) set me on this track, which has branched into more side-paths than I can adequately follow. The back flap of Kraus’s book describes her as “a neuroscientist who has done pathbreaking work on sound and hearing for more than thirty years.” I wish I had convening power to invite her to give a lecture for a general audience.

by john le carré

News of a posthumously published novel by a favorite writer typically creates anxiety along with a sense of anticipation. Such projects often turn out to be flawed in one way or another. But not always. I was happy to report, for The Goldberry Review, that Silverview is, in my judgment, “le Carré’s best novel since the underrated Our Game (1995), with which it has some deep affinities, and the only regret it prompts is that he wasn’t given a few more years in which to write another book or two. Still, for a novelist to finish at the height of his powers isn’t the worst of fates.” If you have never tried le Carré, this book—a standalone—would be an excellent place to start.

Talk to Me
by t. c. boyle

“Roughly 40 years ago, in Pasadena,” as I recalled for National Review in September, 

in an apartment court dating from the Raymond Chandler era, I heard T. C. Boyle read his story “Ike and Nina,” purporting to give a former staffer’s account of an improbable attraction between President Eisenhower and the wife of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. He was T. Coraghessan Boyle in those early days, a theatrical figure with a name to match; I’d been reading him since his first stories appeared in little magazines. Some writers are good readers of their own fiction; more are not. Boyle is one of the best I’ve ever heard, not least because he relishes the art of performance. After all, a story, let alone a novel, is nothing if not a sustained performance, though a lot of writers, oddly enough, seem not to grasp this basic fact. Boyle gets it, always has, and that comes through on the page.

As it does on the pages of his new novel, Talk to Me.

Tender Is the Bite & It’s a Wonderful Woof
by spencer quinn

If you have followed me for any length of time, you know of my fondness for the Chet & Bernie series: Chet, the dog, narrates their adventures (by the alchemy of art, we are privy to his consciousness) as partners in the Little Detective Agency. You may recall as well that “Spencer Quinn” is a pen name for Peter Abrahams, a superb suspense novelist who began writing the Chet & Bernie series in 2009. Typically only one book appears each year, but in 2021 we got two. Try one or both and then, if you like them, go back to the start of the series (which Wendy loves too). Here I write about the most recent volume and the theme of “Serial Thinking.”

by a. g. mojtabai

Thirst is a novella, a form that I love, and Mojtabai doesn’t waste a word in the telling. It is both exhilarating and frustrating, as I wrote here in February, to read a new work of fiction that 

will not get anything like the attention it deserves—when the author in question, though she has been praised here and there over the course of her career, has mysteriously been ignored by tastemakers, and even more when she has grown old (in her eighties!), and more still when the publisher of her book is a small press (quite excellent) with no clout. . . . Father Theo, a lifetime priest, serves in a mission diocese in rural Texas. The adjacent convent now holds only seven sisters, six of them infirm to a greater or lesser degree. Father Theo himself has been feeling the burden of the years, and at the end of the short first chapter he withdraws to die, a job that will require some time.

This is an uncluttered, enigmatic book that will remain in your thoughts long after you have finished reading it.

The Truth and Other Stories
by stanisław lem
translated by antonia lloyd-jones
mit press

In June 2020, I wrote for the Englewood Review of Books about a batch of six books by Stanisław Lem reissued by MIT Press, focusing especially on The Invincible, and expressing hope that the press would do more. Happily, this fall, MIT published The Truth and Other Stories, a collection of twelve pieces, only three of which had previously appeared in English, and a collection called Dialogues, described as a work of nonfiction “conceived under the spell of cybernetics.” (I have not yet seen the latter but will in due course.) The Truth and Other Stories comes with a bonus: a fascinating introduction (an essay really, nothing faintly perfunctory) by Kim Stanley Robinson.

When Christmas Comes (A Yuletide Mystery)
by andrew klavan
mysterious press

Like Cynthia Ozick’s Antiquities and A. G. Mojtabai’s Thirst, Andrew Klavan’s When Christmas Comes is a novella. The three books are wildly different from one another in “style” and angle of attack, yet each of the three partakes of the uncanny. As I wrote here roughly a month ago, 

We don’t typically associate Christmas with the uncanny, though the most famous Christmas story ever, by one Charles Dickens, shows that it can be done to great effect. Perhaps today more than ever, when Christmas has been commodified, misappropriated, and travestied to a degree even Dickens couldn’t have imagined, we need to see it from an unexpected angle. . . . Part of what makes this new book so enjoyable is its cunning misdirection of the reader—all conducted, I assure you, with the requirements of fair play in mind. The novella is a kind of game in which the author and his readers collaborate—though not “just a game.” Indeed, it is infused with unpretentious moral seriousness, but constructed to provide surprise and delight. I don’t want to spoil that.

Books of the Year:

A Line of Driftwood:
The Ada Blackjack Story

by diane glancy
turtle point press

If you have followed me for any length of time, you should know that Diane Glancy is among my favorite living writers. (See, for example, this list for 2020, which includes Glancy’s Island of the Innocent: A Consideration of the Book of Job.) For this new book, I am going to quote praise from a poet and critic of poetry I greatly admire, A. M. Juster: 

Building on diaries from a century ago, Diane Glancy weaves poetry and prose to tell the story of an ill-fated expedition to a remote Arctic island. She brings bits of dry historical research to life by interspersing poetry in the voice of a troubled Indigenous woman who displayed great resilience founded on her Christian faith. A Line of Driftwood is unforgettable.


The Everlasting People:
G. K. Chesterton and the First Nations
by matthew j. milliner
intervarsity academic

Seeing this project grow from its original conception through a series of three lectures (in the Hansen Lectureship Series at Wheaton) and then to the finished book has been one of the great joys of the past decade. I will quote my endorsement to be found just before the title page: “Somewhere under the larches of Paradise, G. K. Chesterton and Nicholas Black Elk are sharing a pipe to celebrate the publication of The Everlasting People. Down here we can do our part by spreading the word. Buy a copy for yourself and three more to give to friends.” Earlier, in connection with Nina Kraus’s book Of Sound Mind, I spoke of “convening power.” If you have institutional convening power, consider inviting Matthew Milliner to speak. His use of images is unparalleled in my experience: Image and word work together, neither subordinate to the other.

John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.

First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.

Click here to make a donation.

Click here to subscribe to First Things.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles