“De Gaulle,” by Julian Jackson
This superb biography of the former French leader brilliantly explores how he managed to dominate his country’s political life for decades. Jackson’s account of De Gaulle’s youth and conservative milieu only enhances one’s respect for De Gaulle’s stand, in 1940, against the Vichy government, and his account of De Gaulle’s war years in London makes clear why Churchill and Roosevelt found him almost impossible to deal with. The second half of the book—which deals with De Gaulle’s return to power during the conflict in Algeria, and his somewhat autocratic presidency—is even more compelling; together the two halves form as good an argument as one can make for believing that a single individual can alter the course of history. But Jackson, with sublime prose and a sure grasp of the politics and personalities of the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Republics, never allows that argument to overshadow De Gaulle’s extremely difficult and domineering personality, and why it never entirely fit the democracy he helped rescue and then presided over. —Isaac Chotiner
“Segu: A Novel,” by Maryse Condé
In a year that began with an attempted coup, it was good to remember that zealotry and factionalism have menaced every society—and often make for excellent storytelling, too. Maryse Condé’s 1984 novel “Segu” opens in the ruthlessly competitive capital of the eighteenth-century Bambara Empire, in present-day Mali, where the ruling mansa uneasily monitors the rise of Islam and the mysterious arrival of white explorers. Griots sing the exploits of a noble family, the Traores, whose sons are destined to suffer every consequence of modernity’s upheavals. Condé, who was born in Guadeloupe but spent years in West Africa, is the great novelist of the Afro-Atlantic world, and “Segu,” her masterpiece, is the mother of diaspora epics. The novel follows the Traores as they are scattered across the globe, from Moroccan universities to Brazilian sugarcane fields, pulled every which way by their ambitions, lusts, and religious yearnings. Condé excels at evoking the tensions of a world in flux, whether it’s the ambivalence of a man torn between his family gods and Islam’s cosmopolitanism or the cynicism of a wealthy mixed woman who sells slaves on the coast of Senegal. Despite its magisterial scope, “Segu” is also warm and gossipy, and completely devoid of the sentimental attachment to heritage that turns too many family sagas into ancestral stations of the cross. Condé has a wicked sense of humor that doesn’t play favorites, especially with her mostly male protagonists, whose naïve adventurism and absent-minded cruelty (especially toward women) profoundly shape the history that eludes their grasp. —Julian Lucas
“Upper Bohemia: A Memoir,” by Hayden Herrera
I came upon this recent memoir while browsing the shelves at the Brooklyn Public Library, and was immediately drawn in by its cover: a black-and-white photograph of two young girls, perched out the back window of a sports car, whose ruffled blouses and blond hair suggested a kind of patrician free-spiritedness. Herrera is known for her biographies of artists such as Frida Kahlo and Arshile Gorky, but in “Upper Bohemia” she turns to the story of her own family, a high-Wasp clan as privileged as it was screwed up. During the nineteen-forties and fifties, Herrera and her older sister Blair were shunted, willy-nilly, between their divorced parents, both of whom were possessed of great looks, flighty temperaments, and intense narcissism. Her mother and father—each married five times—often disregarded the girls, treating them as considerably less significant than their own artistic or sexual fulfillment, whose pursuit took them through urbane, artsy circles in Cape Cod and New York, Mexico City and Cambridge. Herrera tells a fascinating cultural history of a particular milieu, but what is most affecting is her ability to channel, in sensate detail, the life of a lonely child trying to make sense of the world around her. Her tone carries a measure of detachment, but I often found it immensely moving. “Blair and I had not spent much time with our mother since the fall of 1948 when, after putting us on a train to go to boarding school in Vermont, she drove to Mexico to get a divorce,” she writes. “Whenever our mother did turn up, she brought presents from Mexico, animals made of clay or embroidered blouses for Blair and me. She always made everything sound wonderful. She was like sunshine. Blair and I moved toward her like two Icaruses, but we never touched her golden rays.” This is a beautiful book. —Naomi Fry
“Long Live the Post Horn!,” by Vigdis Hjorth, translated by Charlotte Barslund
Vigdis Hjorth’s “Long Live the Post Horn!”—a swift, darkly funny novel about existential despair, collective commitment, and the Norwegian postal service—buoyed me during this strange, roiling year. Ellinor, the novel’s narrator, is a thirty-five-year-old public-relations consultant whose projects and relationships are characterized by a bleak, steady detachment. When her colleague Dag leaves town, Ellinor grudgingly inherits one of his clients: Postkom, the Norwegian Post and Communications Union, which wants to fight an E.U. directive that would usher in competition from the private sector. For Ellinor, the project begins creakily; gradually, she gets swept up. What results is a personal awakening of sorts—a newfound desire to live, connect, and communicate—and a genuinely gripping treatment of bureaucratic tedium. “Long Live the Post Horn!” is rich with political and philosophical inquiries, and gentle with their delivery. They arrive in the form of dissociative diary entries, awkward Christmas gift exchanges, and the world’s loneliest description of a sex toy (“he had bought the most popular model online, the one with the highest ratings”). There’s also a long yarn told by a postal worker, which makes for a wonderful, near-mythic embedded narrative. “What exactly did ‘real’ mean?” Ellinor wonders, experiencing a crisis of authenticity while desperately trying to produce P.R. copy for the Real Thing, an American restaurant chain. “Was the man behind the Real Thing himself the real thing, I wondered? I googled him; he looked like every other capitalist.” Expansive and mundane—this novel was, for me, sheer joy. —Anna Wiener
“Free: A Child and a Country at the End of History,” by Lea Ypi
Some people feel free to imagine their lives unbounded by history. Lea Ypi did not have that luxury. Born in 1979 in Albania, then one of the most sealed-off countries in the Communist bloc, she had little reason to question her love for Stalin until the day, in 1990, that she went to hug his statue and found that protesters had decapitated it. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the edifice of Albanian socialism collapsed, too. Even more disorienting was the fact that Ypi’s parents turned out never to have believed in it—they’d just talked a good line to prevent their dissident, bourgeois backgrounds from tainting her prospects. Ypi’s new book, “Free,” out in the U.K. and to be published stateside in January, is a tart and tender childhood memoir. But it’s also a work of social criticism, and a meditation on how to live with purpose in a world where history, far from having ended, seems energized by disinformation. Ypi, a political theorist at the London School of Economics, is interested in how categories of thought—“proletariat,” for instance—were replaced by reductive rallying cries like “freedom.” “When freedom finally arrived, it was like a dish served frozen,” she writes. “We chewed little, swallowed fast and remained hungry.” Her parents became leaders in the new democratic opposition but lost their savings to a shady investment scheme, and when the country devolved into civil war, in 1997, her formidable mother had to leave for Italy, where she worked cleaning houses. When Ypi studied abroad, her leftist friends didn’t want to hear about her experience: their socialism would be done right, and Albania’s was best forgotten. But Ypi is not in the business of forgetting—neither the repression of the system she grew up in nor the harshness of capitalism. Her book is a quick read, but, like Marx’s spectre haunting Europe, it stays with you. —Margaret Talbot
“Harrow: A Novel,” by Joy Williams
I have already written at length about the wonder of Joy Williams’s most recent novel, “Harrow.” But I feel compelled to re-state my case. The book is set in a world that climate change has transformed into a grave, and it’s dense with wild oddity, mystical intelligence, and with a keenness and beauty that start at the sentence level but sink down to the book’s core. “Harrow” tracks a teen-ager named Khristen across the desert, where she eventually meets up with a sort of “terrorist hospice” of retirees determined to avenge the earth. Her companion, Jeffrey, is either a ten-year-old with an alcoholic mother or the Judge of the Underworld. Williams, the real Judge of the Underworld, moonlights here as a theologist, animal-rights activist, mad oracle, social historian, and philosopher of language. Her comic set pieces—e.g., a birthday party in which the hastily provisioned cake depicts a replica, in icing, of Goya’s “Saturn Devouring His Son”—unlock tears, and her elegies wrest out laughter, if only because it’s absurd to find such pleasure in a study of devastation. When the book was over, I missed the awful, cleansing darkness of its eyes upon me. —Katy Waldman
“A Mad Love: An Introduction to Opera,” by Vivien Schweitzer
My late grandfather spent most of his weekends holed up in his study—a sunken room, adorned with a ratty Chesterfield sofa and posters from various international chess championships—listening to opera. As a child, I found this practice impenetrable. I didn’t understand the languages blaring out of his record player, and I wasn’t old enough to grasp the rhapsodic emotion inherent in the form. Opera is about Big Feelings; it radiates youth, yet it remains a passion that most people age into. (Perhaps that has something to do with the cost of a Met ticket.) Then the pandemic hit, and suddenly all I wanted to do was listen to Maria Callas, whose unhinged arias clicked into place as the soundtrack for my anxious, pacing mind. My grandfather was no longer around to discuss my fixation, but, fortunately, I found Vivien Schweitzer’s 2018 book, “A Mad Love,” which is a sparkling cultural history of opera’s greatest composers and their obsessive brains. Beginning with Monteverdi and barrelling through to Philip Glass, the book is about the blood and sweat that goes into writing an opera (an often lunatic effort, it seems), and about the feverish attachment fans have to the resulting work. I found myself tearing through it in the bathtub, delighted not just to inhale the gossipy backstories of the “Ring” cycle and “La Traviata” but to join the society of opera nuts of which my grandfather was a card-carrying member. I finally understood what he was listening for on those Sunday afternoons: anguish, joy, love, betrayal. —Rachel Syme
“Not One Day,” by Anne Garréta, translated by Emma Ramadan
It is a peculiar feeling, reading a book that seems to have been written for you but wasn’t. The friend who recommended the Oulipian writer Anne Garréta’s “Not One Day” must have known that I would find this merger of intimacy and anonymity irresistible. While recovering from an accident that has left her body immobile, the book’s narrator, a nomadic literature professor, decides that she will write about the women she has desired. Each woman will be identified by a letter of the alphabet; to each letter, she will devote five hours a day for precisely one month. She knows that narrating desire requires discipline—and she finds that desire always, always exceeds it. Letters are skipped and jumbled, so that the table of contents reads, “B, X, E, K, L, D, H, N, Y, C, I, Z.” The narrator takes a long break from the project and, when she comes back to it, one of the stories she writes is fiction. Slowly, the categories that keep desire and its creation of “our little selves” in check—self and other, past and present, man and woman, heterosexual and homosexual, solipsistic alienation and shared passion—get wonderfully and terrifyingly muddled. Instead of a confession written in the familiar “alphabet of desire,” we glimpse the making of a whole new language. I could smother the book with adoration—it is aching and maddening, intelligent and wildly sexy. But it would be simpler to say that reading it is like meeting someone new and feeling the world come undone. Here is a book that insists that the desire for fiction, for its mimicry and its mirage, is indistinguishable from the desire for another person. —Merve Emre
“Tom Stoppard: A Life,” by Hermione Lee
For a time this year, Lee’s newest biography just seemed to be around, and during a couple weeks when I was ostensibly reading other things, I found myself opening it in odd moments—over breakfast, waiting for the pasta pot to boil—until I realized that I’d worked my way through the whole thing. The biography is nearly nine hundred pages, so my experience of it as a side pleasure, a lark, is a testament to Lee’s craft. Much of Stoppard’s history is widely known: his passage from peripatetic refugee youth to Bristol newspaperman and radio-drama hack, and then, with “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” to fame and fortune as a witty playwright. What Lee adds is detail, particularly around interesting career turns, plus a big serving of her own admiration. (Not entirely to its credit, I think, this is the sort of biography that everyone dreams of having written about them; our protagonist is always brilliant, invariably a delight. Stoppard, on reading it, was apparently moved to clarify that he was “not as nice as people think.”) What Stoppard contributes is an air of whimsy on the ride up his great tower of success. There is pleasant cohesion to his body of work, with its blend of bookish intellection and breezy verbal humor. Off the page, it becomes clear, he pairs casual social climbing with the cheery pursuit of material ease, often courtesy of Hollywood. He has maintained a stream of scriptwriting work, on projects such as the Indiana Jones franchise, and his constant efforts to boondoggle more luxury out of what’s offered him—his budget must be increased to accommodate a high-end hotel suite, he tells a studio, “because I prefer not to sleep and work in the same room”—are among the smaller charms of this book. Lee’s biography is ultimately such a pleasure, though, because it is a writer’s book: full of respect for the thrill of the craft, able to keep the progress of the life and the work aloft in the right balance. To read it is to be excited about the act of literature all over again. —Nathan Heller
“Novel 11, Book 18,” by Dag Solstad, translated by Sverre Lyngstad
I first encountered “Novel 11, Book 18,” by the great Norwegian novelist Dag Solstad, on a bright, warm day, on a walk with some friends who were visiting from out of town. Buzzed on the weather and the handsome paperback cover—deep green on cream—and, above all, on the nearness of my friends, I bought it. It was almost funny, then, to discover how relentlessly bleak the book is. Published in 1992, but released in the United States this year, by New Directions, with an English translation by Sverre Lyngstad, it tells the story of Bjørn Hansen, a mild-mannered civil servant who has left his wife and son in pursuit of his lover, Turid Lammers. The change of life means a change of locale: Hansen leaves Oslo and settles in Kongsberg, a small, airless town where he soon joins an amateur theatre troupe, of which Turid is widely considered the most talented performer and a kind of spiritual leader. In probably the best and darkest bit of situational comedy that I read all year, Hansen tries to persuade the troupe—usually a vehicle for light musicals—to put on a production of Henrik Ibsen’s play “The Wild Duck.” He wins out, but the show is a terrible flop—and, worse in Hansen’s eyes, Turid gives a cynical, crowd-pleasing performance that inoculates her, and only her, from the more general disapproval of the audience. The relationship is soon over. Solstad tells the story in deceptively simple sentences that repeat themselves in a fugal fashion, gathering new and ever sadder aspects of meaning as they recur. Hansen, wading through the disappointing wash of his life—he’s having the worst midlife crisis imaginable—eventually cooks up a scheme of revenge that’s so sad and absurd it’s almost slapstick. The book’s generic title implies that tiny tragedies like Hansen’s are happening everywhere, all the time, as a simple cost of being alive. For Solstad, what feels like a reprieve—sun and intimacy, the company of friends—is just another step on a tightrope that stretches across the void. Maybe save this one for summer. —Vinson Cunningham
“Patch Work: A Life Amongst Clothes,” by Claire Wilcox
Among the books that most surprised and most moved me this year was “Patch Work: A Life Amongst Clothes,” a memoir by Claire Wilcox. Wilcox is senior curator of fashion at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, and she writes about clothing with an intoxicating specificity: century-old gowns are made from “narrow lengths of the finest Japanese silk, hand-stitched together and then pleated into rills like the delicate underside of a field mushroom.” But this fragmentary, dreamlike book is not about fashion as it is often understood. There is no industry gossip, no analysis of trends. Rather, Wilcox uses her encounters with objects—the bags of lace in the museum’s collection, the pair of purple velvet trousers she borrowed from a charismatic friend—to explore themes of love and loss, birth and bereavement, family and tribe. The book, which is as skillful and oblique in its structure as the precious gowns she describes, is stitched together with loving care from narrative scraps and images, ultimately revealing how materiality and memory operate on one another, so that the sensation of holding a button in her fingers brings Wilcox back to her earliest memory of fastening her mother’s cardigan: “buttoning and unbuttoning her all the way up, and then all the way down again.” —Rebecca Mead
“Sabbath’s Theater,” by Philip Roth
Over the course of the pandemic, the actor John Turturro and I have been adapting Roth’s novel for the stage, so I’ve read the book probably twenty times now. I have been astonished again and again. It’s never the adulterous urinating or alte kaker underwear-sniffing that shock me. It’s Roth’s singular capacity for conjuring death—its promises, its terrors, its reliability, and the relentless ache that it leaves behind. There are times when Roth approaches the subject with a cosmic lightheartedness: “Exactly how present are you, Ma? Are you only here or are you everywhere?” Mickey Sabbath, the aging, insatiable puppeteer, asks his dead mother’s ghost. “Do you know only what you knew when you were living, or do you now know everything, or is ‘knowing’ no longer an issue?” When it pertains to Drenka, Sabbath’s Croatian mistress—his “sidekicker,” as she puts it—death is tinged with so much yearning that it’s almost too much to bear, for both Sabbath and the reader (this one, anyway). “Got used to the oxygen prong in her nose. Got used to the drainage bag pinned to the bed,” Sabbath thinks, recalling the last of many nights he spent at her hospital bedside. “Cancer too widespread for surgery. I’d got used to that, too.” For all of Sabbath’s lubricious opportunism, Drenka is his one love. “We can live with widespread and we can live with tears; night after night, we can live with all of it, as long as it doesn’t stop.” But it does, of course. It always stops. Though not, in this book, for Sabbath, Roth’s most unrepentantly diabolical hero, despite his relentless flirtation with suicide: “He could not fucking die. How could he leave? How could he go? Everything he hated was here.” —Ariel Levy
“Warmth,” by Daniel Sherrell
In “Warmth,” the writer and organizer Daniel Sherrell’s bracing début memoir, he refers to climate change as “the Problem”—the horrifying, galvanizing fact that should cause all sentient people to lose sleep, to shout themselves hoarse, to reorient their lives in fundamental ways. And yet, apart from a small minority, most people seem content to listen to the string ensemble on the deck of the Titanic, shushing anyone who tries to interrupt the music. To be clear, this is my harsh indictment, not Sherrell’s. For an unabashed climate alarmist, he is mostly compassionate to the quietists, in part because, like all Americans, he used to be one. Sherrell was born in 1990. His father, an oceanographer, took long research trips to the polar ice caps. Of all people, the Sherrells understood what an emergency climate change was—and yet their household was a normal one, in the sense that the Problem didn’t come up much. “Even when all the evidence was there before us,” Sherrell writes, “it was difficult to name.” The book is marketed as a climate-grief memoir, and it certainly is that, but what came through for me, even more clearly than the grief, was a kind of existential irony: not only are we apparently unable to solve the Problem, we can’t even seem to find an honest way to talk about it. Most Americans claim to believe the science; the science says that, unless we make drastic changes, the future will be cataclysmic; and yet, Sherrell observes, “it still sounded uncouth, even a little ridiculous, to spell this all out in conversation.” This is the way the world ends: not with a bang, and not even with much of a whimper. “Warmth,” written in the form of a letter to a child that Sherrell may or may not conceive, is not a thesis-y sort of book. But, if it has a central claim, it’s that the activist chestnut “Don’t mourn, organize!” is a facile mantra, a false choice. Why not both? —Andrew Marantz
“Brothers and Keepers,” by John Edgar Wideman
John Edgar Wideman was teaching at the University of Wyoming in the mid-seventies when, one day, his brother, Robert, showed up in town unannounced. Wideman had a young family and a steady job as a writer and an academic. Robert was on a more tumultuous path; he was on the run after a botched robbery back home, in Pittsburgh, had ended with one of his accomplices shooting a man, who later died from his injuries. Published in 1984, “Brothers and Keepers” is Wideman’s attempt to reckon with their diverging lives, and with the bond that they will never relinquish. He sifts through episodes from their childhood, searching for overlooked turning points. No single genre can tell such a complex story. Sometimes, the book is about the deprivations of the criminal-justice system, as Wideman describes in granular detail his visits to the prison where Robert serves a life term. (Robert would pursue education himself in prison, and, in 2019, his sentence was commuted.) At other times, the book feels surreal and fantastical, as Wideman entertains the possibility that their lives might have taken them elsewhere. And there are moments of austerity and dread, as he contemplates the ethics of turning his brother into a character. I often find that memoirs flatten the degree to which “the personal is political” is an idea rife with contradictions. What makes “Brothers and Keepers” so absorbing is that Wideman feels love but not sympathy—not for his brother, and certainly not for himself. —Hua Hsu
2021 in Review
- Richard Brody on the best movies.
- Doreen St. Félix on essential TV shows.
- Ian Crouch on the funniest jokes.
- Amanda Petrusich on the best music.
- Alex Ross on notable performances and recordings.
- Michael Schulman on the greatest onscreen and onstage performances.
- Kyle Chayka on the year in vibes.
- Sign up for our daily newsletter to receive the best stories from The New Yorker.