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Literary fiction dominates Maureen Corrigan's 2021 Best Books list

Maureen Corrigan picks the best books of 2021.
NPR

This was a spectacular year for literary fiction, so my "Best Books" list is exclusively composed of novels and short story collections — and I wish I could triple its length, but I'll keep it to 10.


Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro
/ Knopf
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Knopf

Klara and the Sun

by Kazuo Ishiguro

Klara and the Sun takes pride of place in this list. As he did in his 2005 novel Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro here explores what it means to be human through the perspective of a being who's regarded as merely "humanlike." Ishiguro is the master of slowly deepening our awareness of fragility and the inevitability of death — all that, even as he deepens our awareness of what temporary magic it is to be alive in the first place.


Cloud Cuckoo Land, by Anthony Doerr
/ Scribner
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Scribner

Cloud Cuckoo Land

by Anthony Doerr

Of all our contemporary literary fiction writers, Anthony Doerr is the one whose novels seem to be the most full-hearted response to the primal request, "Tell me a story." Doerr's latest, Cloud Cuckoo Land, spans eight centuries and dramatizes how an ancient tale gives light and hope to five young people, each living in dangerous times, with correspondences to our own.


Light Perpetual, by Francis Spufford
/ Simon & Schuster
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Simon & Schuster

Light Perpetual

by Francis Spufford

Francis Spufford's historical novel, Light Perpetual, is a miracle not only of art, but of empathy. It opens with a real-life incident: the dropping of a V-2 rocket on a Woolworths in London one Saturday in 1944. What follows is a narrative that unsentimentally imagines the lives that five of the victims, all children, might have lived. Light Perpetual is a resonant novel about chance, as well as a God's-eye meditation on mutability and loss.


Matrix, by Lauren Groff
/ Riverhead
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Riverhead

Matrix

by Lauren Groff

Don't be misled by the title, Lauren Groff's historical novel Matrix is no dystopian thriller, but rather a radiant novel about the 12th-century poet and mystic Marie de France, about whose life we know almost nothing. No matter. Groff richly imagines Marie's decades of exile in a royal convent, which she eventually leads. A charged novel about female ambition, Matrix also dramatizes Marie's canny political insight that: "most souls upon the earth are not at ease unless they find themselves safe in the hands of a force far greater than themselves."


Harlem Shuffle, by Colson Whitehead
/ Doubleday
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Doubleday

Harlem Shuffle

by Colson Whitehead

I'm beginning to think that any year Colson Whitehead brings out a new novel I should just reserve a spot on my "Best Books" list for it. Harlem Shuffle is a crime story in the sardonic style of Chester Himes' classic Cotton Comes to Harlem, crossed with every film noir ever made about a good man caught up in a bad situation. Ray Carney, a family man, sells used furniture in the New York of the late 1950s and early '60s: You can smell the dust on the blond wood console radios he's trying to unload as TV sets are taking over. When Ray's cousin lures him into a heist at the Hotel Theresa — the so-called "Waldorf of Harlem" — Ray's hard-won respectability threatens to crumble.


Afterparties by Anthony Veasna So
/ Ecco
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Ecco

Afterparties

by Anthony Veasna So

Afterparties, by the late Anthony Veasna So, was one of the big buzz books this year and it exceeded and upended my expectations. So, who died at the age of 28 before the book came out, was a queer first-generation Cambodian American who wrote smart, flip, rude, funny, sexually explicit and compassionate stories about the Cambodian refugee community in Stockton, Calif.


My Monticello, by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson
/ Macmillan
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Macmillan

My Monticello

by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson

The title novella of Jocelyn Nicole Johnson's collection, My Monticello, is set in the near future when a group of mostly African American characters takes a last stand against the forces of racism high atop the "little mountain" that gives Thomas Jefferson's plantation its name. That novella is a rich, eerie riff on American mythology.


Skinship, by Yoon Choi
/ Penguin Random House
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Penguin Random House

Skinship

by Yoon Choi

The eight stories in Yoon Choi's collection, Skinship, splinter out to touch on decades of family history shaped, sometimes warped, by immigration. Choi takes that familiar topic and makes her characters' predicaments vivid and nuanced.


Oh William!, by Elizabeth Strout
/ Random House
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Random House

Oh William!

by Elizabeth Strout

In Oh William! Elizabeth Strout returns to her writer character, Lucy Barton, who, with her ex-husband, goes on a road trip that carries them deep into the wilderness of their failed marriage and personal pasts. That summary sounds grim, but if you know Strout you know that she compresses into the most ordinary conversations epiphanies about love, parenting and the untold ways we humans mess up.


We Run the Tides, by Vedela Vida
/ Harper Collins
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Harper Collins

We Run the Tides

by Vendela Vida

Finally, I want to give one last plug to a novel that I don't think has yet gotten all the recognition it deserves: Vendela Vida's We Run the Tides. Set in the mid-1980s in the Sea Cliff neighborhood of San Francisco that's perched on the very edge of the Pacific, the novel follows a squad of four 13-year-old girls also perched on the very edge of things. Haunted, tough and exquisite, this sliver of a novel summons up a world of female adolescence that I, for one, wanted to remain lost in — and yet also felt relieved to have outgrown.

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