KCRW’s Top 10 Books of 2021

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As in past years, this is a list of favorite books of the year. Critics who use the term "best books" are not thinking. Of the thousands of books published each year, no one has read enough to say which are the best. These are our favorites.

10. Rebecca Sacks — "City of a Thousand Gates"

Sert in Israel among Israelis and Palestinians, this book accomplishes the nearly impossible task of bringing thus-far irreconcilable cultures together. The author has studied both Arabic and Hebrew — "City of a Thousand Gates" takes on a daring project, dramatizing irreconcilability and making cultural impossibility soar in language in a way it can't in reality.

More: Listen to Rebecca Sacks discuss “City of a Thousand Gates” on Bookworm

9. Robert Jones, Jr. — "The Prophets"

Like the number one entry below, "The Prophets" is a first novel — we do very few first novels on Bookworm. Over 30 years, we may have featured less than 20. "The Prophets" mixes our interests in new books by people of color and books about sexual diversity. This book follows two Black men who are slaves and lovers on a Southern plantation before, during, and after the Civil War. It is a daring novel, written in a beautiful and original dialect, that captures the secret underlying lives we think we already know.

More: Listen to Robert Jones, Jr. discuss “The Prophets” on Bookworm

8. George Saunders — “A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life”

I think this is my favorite book I've ever read about the art of writing fiction! In this book, George Saunders takes seven Russian short stories by the masters — Tolstoy, Chekhov, Gogol, Turgenev — and leads us through them practically sentence by sentence, until we see how meaning forms and how subtly revelations work in the writing of fiction. This book even taught me, The Bookworm, Michael Silverblatt, a deeper vision of how a short story works.

More: Listen to George Saunders discuss “A Swim in a Pond in the Rain” on Bookworm

7. Atsuro Riley — "Heard-Hoard"

In what is to my mind the strongest new book of poetry this year, Atsuro Riley universalizes the traumas of childhood in the Carolina mountains. He restores the memories of what he heard--the heard-hoard--to the word-hoard, the mountains of language that ensnare and liberate us all. It's a magnificent followup to his award-winning "Romey's Order" published eleven years ago. A long-awaited and satisfying book.

More: Listen to Atsuro Riley discuss “Heard-Hoard” on Bookworm

6. Rikki Ducornet — "Trafik"

Science fiction! In a very postmodern form. In this book, Rikki Ducornet explores the future of the universe as viewed from spaceships by characters who hardly know their past or their destinies. It's fast and funny. Ducornet is not only brilliant, as usual, but entertaining as the creator of a new science fiction form as well.

More: Listen to Rikki Ducornet discuss “Trafik” on Bookworm

5. Richard Powers — "Bewilderment"

Richard Powers writes about the enormous difficulty of raising a brilliant child in a post-literate culture. In this novel, the child Robin's mother has died, and his father, a scientist, struggles to remember what childhood is and how to face its problems. The result is a beautiful nighttime novel about the desire to rescue the past, the soul, and the child.

More: Listen to Richard Powers discuss “Bewilderment” on Bookworm

4. Louise Erdrich — "The Sentence"

The great Indigenous writer, winner of a recent National Book Award, and recent Pulitzer Prize winner Louise Erdrich takes a vacation and gives us a powerful twist on a genre-based novel. In this case, it is a novel about a haunted bookshop. In "The Sentence," the bookshop in question specializes in Native American writers. The shop is haunted by a character who is white, but wishes she were Indigenous. "The Sentence'' is a deep novel about the interpenetration of cultures.

More: Listen to Louise Erdrich discuss “The Sentence” on Bookworm 

3. Robert Coover and Art Spiegelman — "Street Cop"

A secret book. The writer, Coover, and the artist, Spiegelman, collaborated to create this graphic novel. Find it immediately. It was published in a limited edition. The book is physically tiny, and it is as pleasurable to look at as it is to read. In it, a "street cop" dreams of the "old days," when it was simple to locate a criminal and arrest him. Now the modern city is constantly shifting and everyone, everyone is a suspect.

More: Listen to Robert Coover and Art Spiegelman discuss “Street Cop” on Bookworm

2. Kazuo Ishiguro — "Klara and the Sun"

The Nobel prize winner contributes a characteristically oblique novel about artificial intelligence. In this novel robots mingle with humans and the relationship becomes emotional--and blurred. We discover that the "artificial friends" are solar powered. That is, like our planet, they are dependent on the sun. The heroine and the robot enter an interdependency that moves the reader as much as it astounds.

More: Listen to Kazuo Ishiguro discuss “Klara and the Sun” on Bookworm

1. Honorée Fanonne Jeffers — "The Love Songs of W.E.B. DuBois"

For me, this doesn't take much thought. It is THE novel of the year. This astonishing work is the first fiction by a writer whose poetry collections are profound and beautiful. In this book, a young woman follows her family history into the recesses of slavery in America. The young woman is a historian, so we are following her into her stunning access to the documentation of her family's capture and beyond, to the present.

More: Listen to Honorée Fanonne Jeffers discuss “The Love Songs of W.E.B. DuBois” on Bookworm