The Times Critics’ Best Books of 2021


THE LOFT GENERATION: Des de Koonings à Twombly: Portraits and sketches 1942-2011, by Edith Schloss. Edited by Mary Venturini. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux.) The memoirs of German-American writer and artist Edith Schloss were discovered in draft form after her death in 2011, and they were turned into a shining jewel of a book. It is reminiscent of a Who’s Who of characters from the art world, including Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Leo Castelli and Merce Cunningham. “The five senses are awakened” by the book, Jacobs wrote. “While nostalgia is an often hazy sixth sense, it is absent in a book that clearly feels present, clear and alive even when describing the past. ”

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THE RIGHT TO SEX: Feminism in the 21st century, by Amia Srinivasan. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux.) In these rigorous essays, Amia Srinivasan wants nothing less, she writes, than to “remake political criticism of sex for the 21st century.” It’s strewn with pitfalls, and she walks through it with determination and skill, writing about pornography and the internet, misogyny and violence, capitalism and incarceration. It also makes room for ambivalence, idiosyncrasy, autonomy and choice. “Srinivasan wrote a compassionate book. She also wrote a difficult one, ”Szalai said. “It takes our imaginations out of the worn out furrows of the existing order.”

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EMPATHY JOURNALS: A memoir, by Sherry Turkle. (Penguin Press.) In this warm and intimate memoir, clinical psychologist Sherry Turkle recounts her childhood in post-war Brooklyn; Radcliffe and Harvard in the late 1960s, as an undergraduate student; and Paris in the early 1970s, where she studied the work (and met) of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. It’s “a beautiful book,” Garner wrote. “He has gravity and grace; it is as inexorable as a fable; it goes deeper into the things that make up a life.

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PESSOA: A Biography, by Richard Zénith. (Live.) Fernando Pessoa, poet, critic, translator, mystic and giant of Portuguese modernism, has published a few books that mostly went unnoticed during his lifetime. After his death in 1935, a trunk was discovered, overflowing with his real life’s work, written not only by Pessoa but by a herd of his personas (he created dozens of them, including a doctor, a classic, a bisexual poet, a monk, a loving teenage girl). Zenith’s book is “mammoth, definitive and sublime,” Sehgal wrote. He “wrote the only type of biography of Pessoa that is truly admissible, a tale of a life which tears away the boundaries and the very burdens of self-concept.”

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SECOND PLACE, by Rachel Cusk. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux.) Rachel Cusk’s first novel since completing her acclaimed Outline trilogy is about M, a very attentive middle-aged writer who lives with her second husband on a secluded property. She invites L, a famous young painter whose work she admires, to come and stay in their “second place”, a cabin which is in a way an artist’s retreat. L arrives with a beautiful young girlfriend and the romance becomes a swirling greenhouse. “It’s like Cusk has read Joyce Carol Oates’ best novels,” Garner wrote. “She digs into the Gothic core of family and romantic entanglements.”

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PLAYLIST OF THE APOCALYPSE: Poems, by Rita Colombe. (Norton.) Rita Dove’s new collection speaks of the weight of American history, but also of mortality. It is the first time that she has publicly acknowledged that she has suffered from a form of multiple sclerosis in more than 20 years. Some of these poems deal with health issues. Some concern Martin Luther King Jr., Robert F. Kennedy, Muhammad Ali and Barack Obama. Garner called the poems “among his best” and wrote: poems that are by turns delicate, witty, and daring.

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CROSSROADS, by Jonathan Franzen. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux.) Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, which begins a trilogy, is set in the suburbs of Chicago. At its center are the Hildebrandts, another seemingly strong Midwestern family from the author. The Patriarch, Russ Hildebrandt, is the idealistic associate pastor of the local church. Throughout the novel, each of the main characters suffers from crises of faith and morality. “It’s a mellow ’70s-hued marzipan heartbreaker,” Garner wrote. It is “warmer than anything he has yet written, broader in his human sympathies, heavier in image and intellect. If I missed some of the acid from his previous novels, well, this one has powerful compensations. “

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