Our Contributors’ Favorite Books of 2021


Best of 2021

Bud Smith’s “To Read and Reread” fridge list.

Some Paris Review contributors—from across our print issues, our website, and our podcast—give us a peek into their reading habits.

I still got that list of books on my fridge that I’m working through (one of the first pictures on my Twitter). Made it a few years ago. Classics and famous books I hadn’t read yet. When I finish one I circle it on the list and whenever I wonder what to read next and feel stumped, I just walk over to the fridge. This year I read The Brothers Karamazov, which amazed me. It was hairy and funny and, as always with the books I love, not what I expected. Easily one of the best pieces of art added to the little thing called my life. I’d read other Dostoyevsky novels and didn’t connect with them on that same crazy level I felt connected to Brothers Karamazov. The copy I had was 776 pages and I couldn’t imagine cutting it down at all.

Right now I’m reading Malone Dies, the second novel in Beckett’s trilogy (Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable). I’m halfway through and just astounded. Molloy was amazing, too, a very funny book, laugh so hard you cry… It reminded me a bit of The Sound and the Fury, when Jason Compson is chasing his niece around. In Part II of Molloy, it becomes a metafictional Smokey and the Bandit. I don’t want to give anything away, spoil anything for new readers of it. There’s a big payoff. All the things I’ve heard about Beckett, nobody ever told me how funny he is.

I also recently read Martha Grover’s new memoir, Sorry I Was Gone. Her work is killer. She’s got a part in there she wrote called “The Math Class,” and I’ve picked up the phone on more than a few occasions just to read that to people because I thought it would blow their mind. I taught it in some prose workshops I teach out of this apartment of mine. Martha Grover writes about her life in a conversational way that slips into these wild lucid-dream stretches of prose—she’s an artist like Tove Jansson or Lucia Berlin. I’d read anything she wrote about because the voice is so great. People should also check out her first two books, One More for the People and The End of My Career, both out from Perfect Day (a really great small press in Portland, Oregon).

I also just read Atticus Lish’s new novel, The War for Gloria, and thought it was great, so tough and smart and true, very personal. His first novel, Preparation for the Next Life, introduced me to a whole world of underground writing through presses like Tyrant Books, Two Dollar Radio, and many others that are gone now. But whenever I don’t feel like carrying around War and Peace, for fuck’s sake, I just go on the internet and look to see what the underground writers and presses are doing, that stuff always feels so immediate and powerful and raw, straight to the vein.

I was talking to an author the other day who was trying to find a publisher for their book of poems. They didn’t feel like they had any idea where they could send anymore—didn’t want to enter another university poetry contest after already spending an endless waterfall of submission fees. I told the poet what they should do is call around to bookstores and see if any of their local ones have a really great small press section, well curated and cared for. Just ask the person who runs the section, what are the small presses that are really moving the hearts of the people? Or even better than a phone call or email, go in to the store, talk face-to-face with the bookseller. They’ll pull their favorite book that nobody is reviewing yet right off the shelf. Buy that book from the store. I’m telling you. Somebody looks you in the eye and says, This right here is incredible (and they’re probably shaking it at you), this will move you, it’s from this artist who is important to me, from this publisher that is important to me. That’s worth so much more than what the New York Times Book Review says or doesn’t say. You’ll find the best books of your life that way.

Took me a while to learn what I even liked in contemporary writing. Like most people, I just had that stuff we were assigned in high school English, and that was all right, but if it did speak to me, it didn’t feel like there was a chance I could ever speak back to it. I got a little bit away from school and started reading classics that were just classics because people, centuries later, still couldn’t shut up about how incredible The Brothers Karamazov is. And then on top of that, a steady diet of photocopied zines and handmade chapbooks, and small press novels I had recommended to me, face to face, because I went looking and asking. I’m thankful anybody takes the time to suggest anything to me. I can’t get to it all, but if a couple people shake it at me, I have no choice but to add it to my fridge list and eventually let my life be changed by it.

These days I read a lot of great work online, of course. I’m looking forward to December 31, when Brian Alan Ellis begins serializing his new novel, Hobbies You Enjoy, on his Instagram (@hobbiesyouenjoy). Every day, a new post from the novel. I’ve already read Hobbies You Enjoy; it’s hilarious, and deep, and moving—a special thing. Keep an eye out. Bud Smith


I found myself pushing Eyal Press’s book Dirty Work on people this year, because it gets at something broken about our political culture. Unfortunately this something is broken in a way that is all too convenient for America’s elite, on the left as well as the right, so it will be hard to fix. With in-depth interviews, Press tells the stories of people who do America’s dirty work and bear the scars on their bodies and souls: prison guards, drone operators, border patrol agents, slaughterhouse workers, oil rig roustabouts. Some of these jobs come with a risk of maiming and death; others, such as drone operation, do not. But all come with a risk of what sociologists call moral injury: the people who hold the jobs often have to compromise the values of their core self. In doing so, they take on stigma. They become seen, and sometimes come to see themselves, as morally reprehensible, undeserving of sympathy—which lets the rest of us off the hook. In other words, part of the job description is to bear the shame of doing what the rest of us, as a society, have decided that we want but that we don’t want to be stained with. To imprison large numbers of people while spending as little as possible. To keep the price of meat low. To project American power abroad without much concern for the deaths of innocent bystanders. The people who do the dirty work are paid—not very well, usually—to be broken. To have the nightmares. To be the ones who have to try to numb themselves by drinking and using. You might ask: But what kind of person would take a job as a prison guard, anyway? Press’s answer: someone who doesn’t have a better economic option. In our society, economic need is a kind of force. Shaming, Press suggests, is a way of covering our tracks. Dirty Work is heartbreaking, and I hope it triggers a reconception of personalized guilt as the result of a political and economic system.

I’m a member of the pandemic class of new birders, which means now I read bird books, and this year the best one I found was Jonathan Meiburg’s A Most Remarkable Creature. It’s about striated caracaras, which Charles Darwin observed stealing hats and compasses when he visited the Falkland Islands, where some of the birds still live today. As a rule, birds of prey are solitary and single-minded, interested in little but hunting. The striated caracara, however, is playful, curious, trusting, and open to new experiences. If you offer your keys, it will grab at them excitedly; from a collection of stuffed animals, it can learn to fetch Nemo and Piglet by name. Worldwide, only a few thousand survive, including fifty or sixty in Great Britain, descendants of a handful imported in the middle of the twentieth century by an eccentric millionaire enthusiast known as the Penguin King. The birds sound personable, and Meiburg’s digressive account of being smitten with them, and of traveling to Argentina, Chile, and Great Britain to meet them, and up the Rewa River and into the jungles of Guyana in search of the red-throated caracara, one of its relatives, impresses on the reader that the world is still, even now, full of marvels. Caleb Crain


Perhaps it’s because I have a tendency to read passively and allow myself simply to be immersed in the action of a story that George Saunders’s A Swim in a Pond in the Rain felt to me like a revelation. Saunders presents seven great Russian stories alongside essays exploring why they’re great and why, when reading them, we might feel what we feel. With the first story, Chekhov’s “In the Cart,” Saunders gives us a page of the text, then interrupts himself to discuss how the reader may react to what they’ve just read. He does this in simple terms: What do we know, having read the page, that we didn’t know before? What are we curious about? What are we expecting to happen next? Then he gives us the next page. And so on. It’s a risky, brilliant move. The idea is that close, intense attention to a story will inform our own writing, that some craft or instinct will be assimilated. Do I believe this? Maybe. Probably.

In any case, there was something thrilling about encountering Chekhov’s story in the company of another reader—and one as attentive as George Saunders—a page at a time. Saunders’s approach to thinking about all of the stories is usefully workmanlike, but he doesn’t forget the forces of strangeness, of mystery, of not knowing what things mean (see the astonishing fifth essay on Gogol).

The subtitle of the book is In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life. A blurb notes: “the process of writing, Saunders reminds us, is as much a craft as it is a quality of openness and a willingness to see the world through new eyes.” In A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, he shows us that the same can be said of reading.

Maybe it was finishing A Swim in a Pond in the Rain early in the year that led me to spend much of 2021 going back to books I have loved: The Ice Palace, by Tarjei Vesaas (translated by Elizabeth Rokkan); They Came Like Swallows, by William Maxwell; Where Reasons End, by Yiyun Li. Maybe I thought I would come away from these books with a new understanding of them and maybe I did, a little, I’m not sure. But I know that I felt more deeply how beautiful these books are and, in the end, how mysterious. Chetna Maroo


Recently I’ve been hopping among books of nonfiction, having trouble sticking with a novel. I reread Kafka’s diaries: “I don’t read him to read him, but rather to lie on his breast,” he wrote of Strindberg on May 4, 1915. “He holds me on his left arm like a child. I sit there like a man on a statue. Ten times I almost slip off, but at the eleventh attempt I sit there firmly, feel secure, and have a wide view.” Around the same time I was chomping through Michael Zantovsky’s biography of Václav Havel, in which I learned that Kafka’s un-banning by the Communists in 1963 might have precipitated the Prague Spring. The language of two new books of poems, Wendy Xu’s The Past and Geoffrey Nutter’s Giant Moth Perishes, really gripped me (not exactly nonfiction, perhaps?). Having just introduced my five-year-old to movie musicals, I was charmed and often amazed by Earl Hess and Pratibha Dabholkar’s Singin’ in the Rain: The Making of an American Masterpiece. And the other night I read the reissue of Lucille Clifton’s memoir, Generations. The book belongs to Clifton’s charismatic father, Samuel—he’s quoted so much he becomes a kind of second narrator. As a child he was cared for by his great-grandmother, Mammy Ca’line, who was captured in Africa as a child in 1822. Much of what she remembered she never told him, and a painful refrain is Ca’line’s refusal to put certain parts of her experience into words: “And I would ask her what it was like on the boat and she would just shake her head.” She shakes her head a number of times in Generations, and it’s the sense of facts withheld, gaps in the record, memories unspoken that made me feel this short book’s awful intensity. Jana Prikryl


This year, due to ongoing insomnia, I listened to a lot of books while trying to fall asleep. Some of them so many times I’d be embarrassed to know the actual number. Primarily these were old favorites, Samantha Irby’s We Are Never Meeting in Real Life and Wow, No Thank You, and R. Eric Thomas’s Here For It. What I have noticed, listening to these essay collections multiple times, is that with both authors, the humor is so delicious it almost distracts from how brilliant they are. I also loved listening to Rachel Yoder’s Nightbitch and Jenn Shapland’s My Autobiography of Carson McCullers. Beyond audiobooks encountered in the middle of the night, I thought Claire Vaye Watkins’s I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness was a masterpiece. So chaotic and feral and good. And based on early manuscripts I’ve had the pleasure of reading, I’m eagerly anticipating Gabrielle Civil’s the deja vu and Raquel Gutierrez’s Brown Neon. Aisha Sabatini Sloan


I always learn something new about black people from white people. No matter how much I observe myself and the other black people I know, I always find, reading a book like Pete Dexter’s Train, these intriguing dimensions of experience and language that I had not noticed, revealed from another dimension. It disturbs me. It delights me. Fan of Chester Himes that I am, I was fascinated by Dexter’s portrait of a malevolent caddy dispatcher, and by that character’s counsel to the black golf caddy, Train, that an inquisitive life is better with “something on his person.”

I read Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads and was shocked to find him dealing with the same themes I am trawling through in my latest book: liturgy and the Christian seasons and the problem of Christian moral duty, sinful guilt and redemption. I noticed on the cover that his name is in bigger type than the title, so it is kind of as if he is the marquee. The characters are almost types and the situations staged and the idealized debates and conversations perfunctorily academic. And yet I think that is a problem we are having in the country today: not enough Americans have been to a good college—a damn elitist thing to say, but it still seems right.

In the summer, my son who is sixteen turned me on to a song by Chicago rapper G Herbo called “Some Nights.” We were driving to Greensboro and I was trying to stay awake and I asked him why had he put on soporific cartoon music, my general critique of post-1996 hip-hop. But on the road from old Confederate Route 29 between Danville and Leesburg, I listened to Herbo’s two minutes on Swervo and was energized and transported to my youth. In his 128 bars, he echoed our attitudes of confrontation with police and the structural force they represented, and my prayer that my own sons won’t seek out the same confrontation. “What about the Opp?” The theme of dynamic maroon-like survival is enjambed in every single overstuffed line of his. “He’n een get thu process n this nigga’s snitchin.” Not much alliteration tops that. There are the plaintive, affective dimensions of the humble lyricist who bangs the introduction “Straight up out the trenches,” and the minimalist existentialism of these twenty words squished into eight bars: “While I’m out in public I think about leaving in a blink I throw all my shit in a hoodie.” I sent a text message to my youngest son connecting “Seen you in there wit you bop you know I gotta top for uh” to the history of the blues and bebop. Lawrence Jackson