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The 5 best books of 2021 according to Jessica Ferri

The covers of the five best books of 2021 according to Jessica Ferri.
(Illustration by Martina Ibáñez-Baldor / Los Angeles Times; photos from Knopf / Simon & Schuster / Penguin / Penguin / Random House)

As 2021 comes hobbling to an end, we ask four book critics to pick their favorites from a very fruitful year (at least where books are concerned). Here are five books that Jessica Ferri loved.

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As 2021 comes hobbling to an end, we ask four book critics to pick their favorites from a very fruitful year. Here are Mark Athitakis’ top 5.

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"No One is Talking About This," by Patricia Lockwood
(Riverhead)

No One Is Talking About This

By Patricia Lockwood
Riverhead: 224 pages, $25

My mom has an expression, “I’m laughing to keep from crying,” and that could very well describe my reaction to this brilliant novel. After the past two years, it felt so good to laugh out loud at her portrayal of the utter insanity of social media. The second section tells of a family tragedy — that’s the “to keep from crying” part. Had the book ended halfway through, it still would’ve been one of my favorite novels of the last 10 years. But Lockwood goes further. Thank God.

The reigning poet of Twitter, also a memoirist, aims to capture the emptiness of social media, and then transcend it, in “No One Is Talking About This.”

Jacket for "Three-Martini Afternoons at the Ritz: The Rebellion of Sylvia Plath & Anne Sexton" by Gail Crowther
(Gallery Books)

Three Martini Afternoons at the Ritz

By Gail Crowther
Gallery: 304 pages, $28

We’re all just poor suckers starving to death at the banquet of Plath Studies, and 2021 was a banner year. Beneath the blazing tail of Heather Clark’s biography, “Red Comet,” sailed this fascinating book about Plath and her contemporary Anne Sexton. Inspired by the boozy afternoons the two spent together after Robert Lowell’s poetry seminar, Crowther delves into the archive to humanize two monolithic icons of poetry and feminism.

"Harrow," by Joy Williams
(Knopf)

Harrow

By Joy Williams
Knopf: 224 pages, $26

I had never read Williams before, and I’m not sure I completely understand the ending of “Harrow,” but perhaps that’s the point. For those interested in plot, it has to do with the end of the world, though it feels terrifyingly familiar. This book shimmers like an oil slick. Williams has the weird ability to write about minor characters in such detail, it’s like catching a glimpse of someone and wondering, “What’s their story?” Her writing feels like someone walking over your grave.

"On Freedom," by Maggie Nelson
(Graywolf)

On Freedom

By Maggie Nelson
Graywolf: 288 pages, $27

Nelson, quite simply one of the best writers and thinkers we’ve got, explores the title concept through four spheres: art, drugs, sex and climate. But at its heart this is a book about abolition — more specifically the abolition of the policing of our own minds. Nothing could be more radical, as we navigate the last two years of continued racial violence and a pandemic, than her idea that “no one is disposable.”

"Intimacies," by Katie Kitamura
(Riverhead Books)

Intimacies

By Katie Kitamura
Riverhead: 240 pages, $26

Kitamura’s last novel, “A Separation,” frustrated readers with its reluctance to tie its narrative up in a neat bow. “Intimacies,” about a woman who works as a translator in the Hague, is similarly demanding. But the author’s choice to leave her stories suspended in a gelatinous stew of human behavior is exactly what keeps her fiction so sticky; we can’t shake it off. “Intimacies” makes you wonder just how much is lost in the most basic translation — from one mind to another.

Novelist Katie Kitamura on her latest novel, “Intimacies,” which follows an interpreter in The Hague grappling with complicity and a bad boyfriend.


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