TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan says 2021 was a great year to get lost in a story. Here's her 10 favorite books of the year.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: This was a spectacular year for literary fiction, so my best books list is exclusively composed of novels and short story collections. And I wish I could triple its length, but I'll keep it to 10. Kazuo Ishiguro's "Klara And The Sun" takes pride of place in this list as he did in his 2005 novel, "Never Let Me Go." Ishiguro here explores what it means to be human through the perspective of a being who's regarded as merely humanlike. Ishiguro is the master of slowly deepening our awareness of fragility and the inevitability of death - all that even as he deepens our awareness of what temporary magic it is to be alive in the first place.
Of all our contemporary literary fiction writers, Anthony Doerr is the one whose novels seem to be the most full-hearted response to the primal request, tell me a story. Doerr's latest novel, "Cloud Cuckoo Land," spans eight centuries and dramatizes how an ancient tale gives light and hope to five young people, each living in dangerous times, with correspondences to our own.
Francis Spufford's historical novel "Light Perpetual" is a miracle not only of art, but of empathy. It opens with a real-life incident, the dropping of a V-2 rocket on a Woolworth's in London one Saturday in 1944. What follows is a narrative that unsentimentally imagines the lives that five of the victims, all children, might have lived. "Light Perpetual" is a resonant novel about chance as well as a God's-eye meditation on mutability and loss.
Another historical novel easily vaults onto this year's best books list - Lauren Groff's "Matrix." Don't be misled by the title. This is no dystopian thriller but rather a radiant novel about the 12th-century poet and mystic Marie de France, about whose life we know almost nothing. No matter - Groff richly imagines Marie's decades of exile in a royal convent, which she eventually leads. A charged novel about female ambition, "Matrix" also dramatizes Marie's canny political insight that most souls upon the Earth are not at ease unless they find themselves safe in the hands of a force far greater than themselves.
I'm beginning to think that any year Colson Whitehead brings out a new novel, I should just reserve a spot on my Best Books list for it. "Harlem Shuffle" is a crime story in the sardonic style of Chester Himes' classic "Cotton Comes To Harlem" crossed with every film noir ever made about a good man caught up in a bad situation. Ray Carney, a family man, sells used furniture in the New York of the late 1950s and early '60s. You can smell the dust on the blond wood console radios he's trying to unload as TV sets are taking over. When Ray's cousin lures him into a heist at the Hotel Theresa, the so-called Waldorf of Harlem, Ray's hard-won respectability threatens to crumble.
Let's turn to three standout short story collections, all debuts. "Afterparties" by the late Anthony Veasna So was one of the big-buzz books this year, and it exceeded and upended my expectations. So, who died at the age of 28, before the book came out, was a queer, first-generation Cambodian American who wrote smart, flip, rude, funny, sexually explicit and compassionate stories about the Cambodian refugee community in Stockton, Calif.
The title novella of Jocelyn Nicole Johnson's collection "My Monticello" is set in the near future, when a group of mostly African American characters takes a last stand against the forces of racism high atop the little mountain that gives Thomas Jefferson's plantation its name. That novella is a rich, eerie riff on American mythology. The eight stories in Yoon Choi's collection "Skinship" splinter out to touch on decades of family history shaped, sometimes warped, by immigration. Choi takes the familiar topic and makes her characters' predicaments vivid and nuanced.
Two superb novels by seasoned pros round out this 10 best list. In "Oh William!," Elizabeth Strout returns to her writer character, Lucy Barton, who goes on a road trip with her ex-husband that carries them deep into the wilderness of their failed marriage and personal pasts. That summary sounds grim. But if you know Strout, you know that she compresses into the most ordinary conversations epiphanies about love, parenting and the untold ways we humans mess up.
Finally, I want to give one last plug to a novel that I don't think has yet gotten all the recognition it deserves - Vendela Vida's "We Run The Tides," set in the mid-1980s in the Sea Cliff neighborhood of San Francisco that's perched on the very edge of the Pacific. The novel follows a squad of four 13-year-old girls also perched on the very edge of things. Haunted, tough and exquisite, this sliver of a novel summons up a world of female adolescence that I, for one, wanted to remain lost in and yet also felt relieved to have outgrown.
CORRIGAN: Maureen Corrigan is a professor of literature at Georgetown University. You can find her 10 Best Books of the year list at freshair.npr.org. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be writer Grace M. Cho. Her new memoir, "Tastes Like War," is about her Korean mother, who married an American and immigrated to the U.S. in 1972. She was later diagnosed with schizophrenia. Cho believes the trauma her mother suffered during and after the Korean War contributed to her mental illness. I hope you'll join us.
We'll close with a recording by jazz pianist and educator Barry Harris. He died last Wednesday at age 91 of complications from COVID. His obituary in the New York Times described him as having performed, taught and toured with unflagging devotion, helping to lay the foundation for the widespread academic study of jazz. He was named a National Endowment for the Arts jazz master in 1989. This is a 1969 recording from his album "Magnificent!"
(SOUNDBITE OF BARRY HARRIS' "BEAN AND THE BOYS")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering today by Charlie Kaier. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF BARRY HARRIS' "BEAN AND THE BOYS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.