Times Critics’ Best Books of 2021

THE LOFT GENERATION: From de Koonings to Twombly: portraits and sketches 1942-2011, by Edith Schloss. Edited by Mary Venturini. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux.) The memoirs of the German-American writer and artist Edith Schloss were discovered in rough form after her death in 2011 and polished into a glowing gem of a book. It recalls a Who’s Who of characters from the art world, including Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Leo Castelli and Merce Cunningham. “All five senses are awakened” by the book, Jacobs wrote. “If nostalgia is a sixth and often foggy sense, it is absent from a book that feels distinctly present, bright and alive, even as it describes the past.”

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THE RIGHT TO SEX: Feminism in the twenty-first century, by Amia Srinivasan. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux.) In these rigorous essays, Amia Srinivasan wants nothing less, she writes, than “to recreate the political critique of sex for the 21st century.” This is a fraught field, and she enters it with determination and skill, writing about pornography and the internet, misogyny and violence, capitalism and incarceration. She also makes room for ambivalence, idiosyncrasy, autonomy and choice. “Srinivasan has written a compassionate book. She also wrote a challenging one,” Szalai said. “She takes our imagination out of the worn grooves of the existing order.”

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THE EMPATHY DIARY: A Memoir, by Sherry Turkle. (Penguin Pers.) In this warm, intimate memoir, clinical psychologist Sherry Turkle writes about her childhood in post-war Brooklyn; Radcliffe and Harvard in the late 1960s, when she was a student; and Paris in the early 1970s, where she studied (and got to know) the work of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. This is “a wonderful book,” Garner wrote. “It has gravity and grace; it is as inexorable as a fable; it delves deeper into the things that make a life.”

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PERSON: Biography, by Richard Zenit. (Live law.) Fernando Pessoa, the Portuguese poet, critic, translator, mystic and giant of modernism, published a few books that went largely unnoticed during his lifetime. After his death in 1935, a briefcase was discovered, full of his true life’s work, written not just by Pessoa but by a swarm of his personas (he created dozens of them, including a doctor, a classicist, a bisexual poet, a monk, an amorous teenage girl). Zenith’s book is “mammoth, definitive, and sublime,” Sehgal wrote. He has written “the only kind of biography of Pessoa that is truly admissible, an account of a life plucking at the limits and burdens of the idea of ​​a self.”

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SECOND PLACE, by Rachel Cusk. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux.) Rachel Cusk’s first novel since completing her acclaimed Outline trilogy is about M, a keenly observant middle-aged writer who lives on a remote plot of land with her second husband. She invites L, a famous younger painter whose work she admires, to stay in their ‘second place’, a hut that is a kind of artist’s residence. L arrives with a beautiful young girlfriend in tow, and the novel becomes a whirlwind hothouse. “It’s as if Cusk has read Joyce Carol Oates’s best novels,” Garner wrote. “She digs into the gothic core of family and romantic entanglements.”

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PLAYLIST FOR THE APOCALYPSE: Poems, by Rita Dove. (Norton.) Rita Dove’s new collection is about the weight of American history, as well as mortality. It is the first time she has publicly admitted that she has had a form of multiple sclerosis for more than 20 years. Some of these poems are about health problems. Some are about Martin Luther King Jr., Robert F. Kennedy, Muhammad Ali and Barack Obama. Garner called the poems “one of her best” writing, “Dove’s books derive their power from how she so deftly stirs the mundane — insomnia, TV movies, Stilton cheese, clinking containers of pills — into her world of ideas and intellect. , in poems that are alternately delicate, witty and daring.”

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INTERSECTION, by Jonathan Franzen. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux.) Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, which begins a trilogy, is set in suburban Chicago. At its center are the Hildebrandts, one of the author’s seemingly solid families in the Midwest. The patriarch, Russ Hildebrandt, is the idealistic assistant pastor of the local church. Throughout the novel, each of the main characters suffers from crises of faith and morality. “It’s a soft, marzipan-tinged 1970s heartthrob,” Garner wrote. It is “warmer than anything he has written thus far, broader in his human sympathies, more weighty in image and intellect.” If I missed some of the acidity of his earlier novels, well, this one has powerful offsets.

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