Some of the best books of the year so far provide welcome respite from the outside world—while others aim directly for the turbulence, providing frameworks to understand how the past informs our present. Michelle Zauner crafts a devastating tribute to her late mother, circling universal themes of grief. Torrey Peters examines what makes a family in her refreshing debut novel. And Annette Gordon-Reed explores the history behind Juneteenth, offering a comprehensive account of the holiday and its place in our culture. Here, the best books of 2021 so far.
Who Is Maud Dixon?, Alexandra Andrews
The most original and engaging thriller of the year so far takes place in an industry better known for selling mysteries than for being home to them: book publishing. In Alexandra Andrews’ propulsive debut, an ambitious editorial assistant finds herself working for the anonymous writer of a huge bestseller—and in way over her head when a research trip to Morocco turns into a deadly misadventure. Set to be adapted into a film, with The Post screenwriter Liz Hannah writing and directing, Who Is Maud Dixon? takes readers on a wildly fun ride.
The Copenhagen Trilogy, Tove Ditlevsen (translated by Tiina Nunnally and Michael Favala Goldman)
The translated trilogy of memoirs from Danish writer Tove Ditlevsen, published as a single volume, takes a startling look inside the mind of an artist. In Childhood, she describes her coming of age and yearning to be a poet. In Youth, she captures in visceral terms her desperation for artistic freedom as Europe becomes ravaged by war. And in Dependency, she boldly examines her failed marriages and drug addiction. Together, these memoirs read like gripping fiction, an intense and intimate journey of reckoning with one’s many selves.
On Juneteenth, Annette Gordon-Reed
Libertie, Kaitlyn Greenidge
Growing up in Brooklyn through the Civil War and into the Reconstruction era, Libertie Sampson’s path is prescribed: she is to follow in her mother’s footsteps to become a physician. A character based on Dr. Susan Smith McKinney Steward, the first Black female doctor in the state of New York, Libertie’s mother cares for the members of her community, including formerly enslaved people. But Libertie’s confidence in the value of caring for others wavers when her mother’s attempts to heal a man from the mental toll of being enslaved fail, and soon, she begins seeking paths beyond the study of medicine—severing her deep connection with her mother. Blending careful attention to historical detail with a focus on themes that remain timeless—how children grow into themselves and away from their parents, and the ways racism and colorism manifest—author Kaitlyn Greenidge explores through Libertie what it means to truly be free.
Empire of Pain, Patrick Radden Keefe
Milk Blood Heat, Dantiel W. Moniz
The haunting debut short story collection from Dantiel W. Moniz finds a cast of characters navigating life’s biggest challenges: heartbreak, inheritance, grief and growing up. Through these intergenerational narratives all set against the swampy backdrop of Florida, Moniz creates a portrait of women taking stock of their lives and what matters most to them. There are sisters, daughters and mothers all grappling with crises, from a 13-year-old on the cusp of becoming a teenager who is rocked by tragedy to siblings who are brought together by a trip across the country with their father’s ashes. Quiet and unnerving, Milk Blood Heat explores the most sacred relationships, and the lingering effects of loss and loneliness.
Aftershocks, Nadia Owusu
At two years old, Nadia Owusu was abandoned by her mother. A decade or so later, Owusu’s sense of stability was again upended when her father, a United Nations official, passed away. In between these traumas and after, Owusu lived all over the world, from Tanzania to Ethiopia to the U.S. In her memoir, she contemplates the many pieces of her life that have been defined by these experiences in an attempt to understand what is left of herself in the aftermath. A bruising exploration of identity and belonging, Aftershocks is Owusu’s space to survey the damage, but also to interrogate and reevaluate the definitions of home and family.
Detransition, Baby, Torrey Peters
One of the most celebrated novels of the year so far, Detransition, Baby is a story about the great decisions of adulthood, made by people who didn’t know they’d get to make it there. That starts with the title, a playful nod to the classic marriage plot: Reese is a trans woman who desperately wants to be a mother. Her ex Ames, who detransitioned after they broke up, is now expecting a child with his boss Katrina, a cisgender woman who has recently suffered a miscarriage. Can they build a family? Author Torrey Peters takes on big questions about redefining relationships, motherhood and family, but isn’t interested in offering up easy answers for readers.
The Man Who Lived Underground, Richard Wright
Crying in H Mart, Michelle Zauner
Michelle Zauner, who records indie rock under the moniker of Japanese Breakfast, has explored her grief following her mother’s death through several mediums: in her reverb-drenched album Psychopomp; in an acclaimed short story published in the New Yorker; and now in this memoir. Zauner recounts her mother’s deterioration due to cancer through prose that is lucid but far from bloodless; she shows how love during illness often looks simply like a pattern of actions and rituals of care. Zauner also writes skillfully about grappling with identity, food, music and how each impacted her relationship with her mother. It’s an at-times challenging work that plumbs her maternal relationship to its deepest depths.