The 10 best books of 2021

(María Medem for The Washington Post)

There was at least one bright spot in our second pandemic year: an abundance of engaging books. These 10 standouts are an eclectic bunch, but all will make you see the world a little differently.

The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War

By Craig Whitlock, Simon & Schuster

NONFICTION | As Afghanistan fell to the Taliban mere days after the departure of American troops, stateside watchers wondered how we got here. Whitlock, a Washington Post investigative reporter, explains the inevitability of the outcome while also uncovering the deception that took place over several presidential administrations. By juxtaposing newly available classified documents with public statements, Whitlock shows how early in the conflict and how thoroughly U.S. leaders began misleading the world — and themselves — by putting a smiling face on failure and calling it success.

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Review: Buried doubts and public deceptions in the Afghan war

All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake

By Tiya Miles, Random House

NONFICTION | Miles, a Harvard professor, uses an artifact — a cloth sack passed from an enslaved mother to her 9-year-old daughter just as she was about to be sold — to trace the lives of generations of Black women through Reconstruction, Jim Crow segregation and beyond. The innovative storytelling in Miles’s National Book Award winner fills gaps in the historical record to create a bold reflection on American history, African American resilience and the human capacity for love in the face of soul-crushing madness.

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Review: A humble cloth sack tells a story of enslavement and separation

Crossroads

By Jonathan Franzen, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

FICTION | With its dazzling style and tireless attention to the machinations of a single family, “Crossroads” is distinctly Franzenesque, but it represents a new level of discipline and even a deeper sense of mercy. The story revolves around an associate pastor at an active Protestant church in suburban Chicago who’s troubled by his own envy and adultery. Branching out to consider the moral crises of the pastor’s wife and children, the novel presents an electrifying examination of the irreducible complexities of an ethical life.

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Review: Jonathan Franzen’s ‘Crossroads’ represents a marked evolution in a dazzling career

Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty

By Patrick Radden Keefe, Doubleday

NONFICTION | The gifted storyteller and investigative journalist behind “Say Nothing” turns his attention to the Sackler family and its association with the potentially addictive pain medication OxyContin. Keefe marshals a large pile of evidence — interviews with more than 200 people, access to internal company documents and a review of tens of thousands of pages of court documents — and deploys it with prosecutorial precision. The book also benefits from his talent for capturing personalities, which is no small thing given that the Sacklers didn’t provide access.

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Review: For the Sackler family, a dynasty built on medicine, marketing and pain

Gold Diggers

By Sanjena Sathian, Penguin Press

FICTION | Already chosen by Mindy Kaling for an upcoming TV series, this debut is an effervescent social satire that breaks the bonds of ordinary reality. The novel follows Neil Narayan, the American son of Indian immigrants who wilts under his parents’ impossible expectations. When he discovers the girl next door using alchemy to excel, he imagines it might be the key to his own success. But the real miracle here is the way Sathian melds ancient magic to the contours of her otherwise natural story of contemporary life.

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Review: Sanjena Sathian’s ‘Gold Diggers’ is a witty social satire with a dash of magic

Klara and the Sun

By Kazuo Ishiguro, Knopf

FICTION | Ishiguro’s first novel since winning the Nobel Prize is a delicate, haunting story. Klara, the narrator of this genre-straddling novel, is an Artificial Friend designed to provide companionship to teenagers. Why young people need robot companions is one of the questions that Ishiguro raises but postpones so naturally that the horror feels almost incidental. Although some of the themes overlap with Ishiguro’s chilling “Never Let Me Go,” this is a gentler exploration of the price children pay for modern advancements.

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Review: In Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘Klara and the Sun,’ a robot tries to make sense of humanity

The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois

By Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, Harper

FICTION | Rarely is a debut novel as ambitious as Jeffers’s National Book Award-longlisted epic that ingeniously interweaves the past and present. This is a coming-of-age tale about a city girl named Ailey Garfield and her burgeoning passion for historical excavation. It’s punctuated by interludes involving Ailey’s enslaved ancestors on a brutal Georgia plantation. At roughly 800 pages, it is, indeed, a mountain to climb, but the journey is engrossing, and the view from the summit will transform your understanding of America.

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Review: ‘The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois’ is the kind of brilliant epic that comes around only once in a decade

Matrix

By Lauren Groff, Riverhead

FICTION | Now that we’ve endured almost two years of isolation and social distancing, Groff’s new novel about a 12th-century nunnery feels downright timely. But that’s just part of its allure. This National Book Award finalist is about 17-year-old Marie de France — a real but little-known historical figure — and her struggles to revive a dilapidated abbey. Although “Matrix” is radically different from Groff’s masterpiece, “Fates and Furies,” it too is a captivating story of a woman redefining both the possibilities of her life and the bounds of her realm.

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Review: In Lauren Groff’s hands, the tale of a medieval nunnery is must-read fiction

Somebody’s Daughter: A Memoir

By Ashley C. Ford, Flatiron

NONFICTION | Ford’s heart-wrenching memoir tells the story of a family haunted by a conspicuous absence — that of her incarcerated father. As the book opens, Ford learns that her dad will be released from prison. But after decades of wishing he were there, and enduring a heinous attack that echoes her father’s own crimes, Ford must find a way forward. In recounting that journey, in its most raw and unabridged form, she creates an unforgettable account of a life marked by sorrow but also joy.

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Review: What happens to a family when a father goes to prison

Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future

By Elizabeth Kolbert, Crown

NONFICTION | While Kolbert’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Sixth Extinction” detailed the human penchant for environmental destruction, “Under a White Sky” examines the arduous efforts to stave off that damage, even as those technological “solutions” risk making matters worse. Kolbert expertly mixes travelogue, science reporting and explanatory journalism, all with the authority of a writer confident enough to acknowledge ambiguity. Revealing the Anthropocene at its most absurd, the book is sometimes inspiring, occasionally bleak and entirely worthy of our attention.

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Review: Why humanity can’t be trusted to repair its own environmental damage