The Independent's 51 Favorite Books Of 2021


The nonprofit Washington Independent Review of Books, host of the annual Washington Writers Conference, announced its 51 Favorite Books of 2021 at the end of November.

“Given that hundreds of thousands of books are published annually, it’s absurd to proclaim a handful the best,” said Editor-in-Chief Holly Smith. “But these are the ones that most stuck with us in 2021, our second — and hopefully final — pandemic year.”

Below are the first 10 books on the list. Read about the others at

Unsolaced: Along the Way to All That Is” by Gretel Ehrlich
Reviewed by Christine Baleshta

“But even Ehrlich’s captivating prose does not disguise her underlying sadness. She laments that all the places we can go to find solace are getting smaller and wonders how society could allow this to happen. Were we careless? Or just selfish? Originally intended as a bookend to ‘The Solace of Open Spaces,’ ‘Unsolaced’ is unpredictably timely, a compelling adventure story and an inward and outward journey that may leave the reader with more questions than answers in these uncertain times, the most provoking being, “Where do we go to find solace now?’”

Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause” by Ty Seidule
Reviewed by Kitty Kelley

“Few others could write this book with such sterling credibility. Only a man of the south, a Virginian, and a soldier with a Ph.D. in history could so persuasively mount the case against a national hero, and label him a traitor. For even today, the image of Lee, who fought against his country to preserve slavery, is revered with monuments, parks, military bases, counties, roads, schools, ships and universities named in his honor. Yet, armed with years of documented research, Seidule demonstrates that Lee, like Judas, was guilty of base betrayal.”

Aftershocks: A Memoir” by Nadia Owusu
Reviewed by Patricia Ann McNair

“Imagine a childhood of travel and privilege, of comfortable homes behind high walls, of chauffeurs and servants, of exclusive education and the adoration of a doting father. Now imagine that world being shaken and cracked, broken by immense losses and the grief that comes with them. Imagine making your way across the fault lines of this childhood only to come face-to-face with an unsubstantiated yet devastating secret and to live through tragic world events and personal, debilitating despair. Such is the stuff of Nadia Owusu’s stunning new memoir, ‘Aftershocks.’”

Imagining Iraq: Stories” by Bárbara Mujica
Reviewed by Tom Young

“Mujica knows whereof she speaks: The collection is dedicated to her son, Captain Mauro Mujica-Parodi, and to the Georgetown University Student Veterans Association. She is a professor emerita of Spanish literature at Georgetown, and she helped create the student-veterans group … As a veteran, I always knew that each time I volunteered for a deployment, I was also volunteering my wife and parents. With some guilt, I recognized I was asking them to do the hardest job. Through her stories, Bárbara Mujica becomes an eloquent spokeswoman for those who did that job. Veterans and civilians alike owe her a sharp salute.”

Bride of the Sea: A Novel” by Eman Quotah
Reviewed by Kristin H. Macomber

“Would ‘Bride of the Sea’ hold up as well without the structural backdrop of historical headlines along the way? It’s hard to say. The characters’ reactions to current events ably provide a first-person perspective on history from a non-American point of view, which is valuable in its own right. To comprehend what it means to be a Muslim in America, labeled a dangerous foreigner no matter where you were born, requires an empathy that can only come from putting oneself in another’s shoes (in novels as in life).”

Surviving the White Gaze: A Memoir” by Rebecca Carroll
Reviewed by Alice Stephens

“Rebecca has an idyllic childhood, free to range her commune-like neighborhood of artsy counter-culturists. But there are intimations that all is not well in her household. Her parents have an open marriage, instigated and liberally exercised by her father, modeling an unhealthy dynamic as her mother sacrifices her needs and wants for her husband’s. There is an odd family friend who likes to put his hands all over Rebecca, to no one’s objections. And Rebecca’s hair is an untidy mess of burrs, dry and coarse because no one has showed her how to care for it. Her blackness is praised and almost fetishized by her parents, and yet they do nothing to introduce her to Black culture.”

Milk Blood Heat: Stories” by Dantiel W. Moniz
Reviewed by Emily Mitchell

“Throughout, Moniz’s prose is gorgeous and richly descriptive, as well as funny and acerbic in places. She uses these qualities to, among other things, evoke Jacksonville, Florida and surroundings, where heat and water are ever present. The lushness and intensity of the environment infuse the stories and present another kind of unstable boundary, that between land and water. It’s one that many of the characters know will only grow more unstable over time.”

The Slaughterman’s Daughter: A Novel” by Yaniv Iczkovits; translated by Orr Scharf
Reviewed by Olesya Salnikova Gilmore

“This story should be treated as the fable it is — a celebration of one woman’s defiance of a people cowed into meekness and conformity by the czarist regime; of a country, a ‘place is doomed’; and of a world ‘on the brink of complete annihilation.’ Indeed, the setting is a rare one for historical fiction; while the years before the Russian Revolution are well-trodden ground, the experience of the Jewish people and their discrimination under the czarist regime is a uniquely impressive offering, particularly since that experience centers around a woman magnificently expert at ritual slaughter. The novel is at once a beautiful fable and a philosophical meditation on a people, their history, and their place in society.”

Winter Pasture: One Woman’s Journey with China’s Kazakh Herders” by Li Juan; translated by Jack Hargreaves and Yan Yan
Reviewed by Gretchen Lida

“A memoir about hauling snow, shoveling manure, and living in a mud hut in one of the harshest environments on earth may not sound like a pleasure read. Yet, miraculously, Li Juan’s ‘Winter Pasture’ is somehow just that. Part travelogue and part cultural exchange, the book luxuriates in wide-open spaces and the simple wonder of the everyday. A bestseller in China for years and winner of the People’s Literature Award, ‘Winter Pasture’ is Li’s first book to appear in the United States. Initially, there are some lazy colloquialisms to get past, but it’s hard to know whether they’re the fault of the author or the translators. Soon enough, the book finds its stride and balances both beauty and accessibility on every page.”

Economy Hall: The Hidden History of a Free Black Brotherhood” by Fatima Shaik
Reviewed by John P. Loonam

“The gift of ‘Economy Hall’ is that it memorializes a once-active society that was swept up in — and tried to steer — some of the most pivotal events in New Orleans. More broadly, the men of the hall lived out the travails of American history — the struggle for prosperity; the tension between individuality and community and between diversity and homogeneity; the horrors of racism; and the fight for basic dignity and rights. If the arc of the universe is long, it bends toward institutions like Economy Hall.”


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