The Best Books We Read in 2021

Foreign Policy staffers and columnists do a lot of reading as part of our jobs to stay on top of both the news happening around the world and the conversations and debates taking place among experts, practitioners, activists, and everyday folks. But we do plenty of reading for pleasure, too, to enrich our understanding of the world we live in. Here is a roundup of the best books we read this year, from historical nonfiction to thrilling sci-fi to poignant novels and beyond.

Stranger in the Shogun’s City: A Japanese Woman and Her World
Amy Stanley (Scribner, 352 pp., $28, July 2020)

This compelling biography begins in the least promising way possible: with a tax return. In January 1801, a Buddhist priest named Emon lived in a Japanese village called Ishigami; 200 years later, Amy Stanley, a historian at Northwestern University, pored over Emon’s financial records and realized he saved hundreds of letters from his daughter Tsuneno that documented her extraordinary, rebellious life.

Tsuneno was raised to be the wife of a temple priest, and at the age of 12, she was married off to someone who lived hundreds of miles away. After she ran away from that union and endured two more unhappy marriages—women at the time were confined to the domestic sphere, but there was no stigma around divorce—Tsuneno left her mountainous countryside forever and set off on foot to Edo, Japan’s imperial capital. There, in the final years of the shogun’s rule, she reinvented herself. Tsuneno died in 1853, the same year Commodore Matthew Perry would arrive in Japan with a scheme to open the country for cross-continental commerce.

Stanley’s recreation of Tsuneno’s story is possible because even in the early years of the 19th century, an unusually high number of Tsuneno’s countrymen—and women—were literate. “Together, the people of the Japanese archipelago created what was probably the most extensive archive ever of an early modern society,” Stanley writes. The details of Tsuneno’s existence—the books she read, a mother-in-law’s expectations for her housekeeping, and the clothes she wore for her first snow in Edo—give this depiction of a society in flux an almost novelistic texture.

—Amelia Lester

Build Your House Around My Body
Violet Kupersmith (Random House, 400 pp., $27, July 2021)

It’s hard to describe Violet Kupersmith’s novel, Build Your House Around My Body, without resorting to a thesaurus—reviewers have used everything from “unsettling” and “hypnotic” to “acrobatic” and “shivery-back-of-the-neck terrifying.” And it is all of those things, but it’s also so much more.

At its heart, Build Your House Around My Body is the story of a haunting—not of a house (or rather, not just of a house) but of a country: Vietnam, where the book is set. The haunting is both literal—there are plenty of creepy ghosties and ghoulies lurking in the dark—and figurative. The specter of colonialism, war, and violence (especially violence against women) is like a dark, disorienting mist that shrouds both the characters and the land.

The main character is Winnie, a sullen, 22-year-old, biracial (half-white, half-Vietnamese) American woman who comes to Vietnam to teach English and connect with the cultural heritage she lacked growing up in suburban Maryland. Winnie stumbles miserably around Ho Chi Minh City, from her room in the house she shares with her weirdly aloof cousins and great aunt to a karaoke bar where she drunkenly hooks up with a police officer in a bathroom stall to the Achievement! International Language Academy where she does her best to avoid both her overenthusiastic fellow expat colleagues and her responsibilities toward her disinterested students. Then, suddenly, she disappears.

Weaved in and out of this main storyline are a dizzying array of side plots and characters spanning some 50 years of Vietnam’s history, including the professional ghost hunters of the Saigon Spirit Eradication Co.; the daughter of a wealthy family who, as a teenager in 1986, went missing in a rubber forest; and a French Vietnamese boy at an elite boarding school in the colonial resort town of Da Lat who goes on a school-sponsored wilderness excursion in 1945, only to be left behind on the mountain when the Japanese launch their coup.

If reading that left you feeling a bit bewildered, good: That’s the exact experience you’ll have reading this book. Don’t worry about trying to keep track of all the narrative strands; just go along for the weird, wild, whirlwind ride. I promise you’ll enjoy the trip—and perhaps come away feeling more than a little haunted yourself.

—Jennifer Williams

Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World
Tim Marshall (Scribner, 320 pp., $18, October 2016)

Although published in 2016, Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World is an evergreen crash course in world and regional geography. Marshall’s writing caters both to readers who picked up the book as a primer as well as seasoned map lovers. Covering every world region from the Middle East to the Arctic, Marshall focuses on how the regions’ physical geographies have shaped their modern political and social maps. It’s a quick read for anyone looking for a backstory on how the world’s regions came to be what they are today.

—Anna Weber

How to Blow Up a Pipeline
Andreas Malm (Verso, 208 pp., $19.95, January 2021)

If the U.N. climate change conference left you cold, Andreas Malm’s How to Blow Up a Pipeline is guaranteed to provide a blast of heat. Much more than its (literally) inflammatory title, Malm takes a look at successful protest movements throughout history, attempting to debunk the view that peaceful resistance is welcome, or even effective, in the face of climate catastrophe. (Activist stunt group Extinction Rebellion comes in for especially targeted criticism.) Malm asks the uncomfortable question in a world that seems content to continue the blah blah blah: If world leaders are slouching toward the end of the planet as we know it, what steps will ordinary people take to save it?

—Colm Quinn

The Island of Missing Trees
Elif Shafak (Bloomsbury Publishing, 368 pp., $27, November 2021)

Elif Shafak’s The Island of Missing Trees is a poignant novel of love, grief, and the generational trauma left by decades of division and conflict. The story opens on a fig tree in London, thriving yet still yearning for its Mediterranean home on the island of Cyprus, riven in two since 1974. The fig tree as narrator bears witness to the main characters’ forbidden love—Kostas is Greek and Defne is Turkish—and then to the war that follows: the fleeing, the partition, the reunion, and finally the displacement.

Shafak examines what trauma remains and is passed down, weaving details of the frightful conflict into a story of ordinary people in love: tragedy with joy. The Island of Missing Trees is a worthy read for our times, when so many conflicts have driven people to flee, carrying with them the horrors of war and the grief of leaving their homelands and loved ones behind.

—Shannon Schweitzer

Global Jihad: A Brief History
Glenn E. Robinson (Stanford University Press, 260 pp., $25, November 2020)

Glenn Robinson’s new book, Global Jihad: A Brief History, is a valuable contribution to the vast literature on transnational extremism. I have long been a fan of Robinson’s work. His book Building a Palestinian State: The Incomplete Revolution is among the better I have ever read on the dynamics of Palestinian politics. He also writes beautifully in short, clear sentences that pack a punch.

Global Jihad sets out four distinct periods, “waves” as Robinson calls them, of transnational jihad that were responses to specific circumstances and crises. The first three waves should not be a surprise to anyone, but they coincide with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979, Osama bin Laden’s declaration of war on the United States and Saudi Arabia in 1996, and the rise of the Islamic State that began with the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. The fourth wave—and the one that endured—is connected to the destruction of Taliban rule in Afghanistan in 2001.

Robinson makes a novel argument, situating global jihad within “movements of rage” as opposed to revolutionary movements. As such, he writes, it is “profoundly nihilistic and apocalyptic.” Global Jihad will not spread good cheer and merriment, but it is well worth your time.

—Steven Cook

The World Is Not Enough: A Biography of Ian Fleming
Oliver Buckton (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 392 pp., $34, June 2021)

Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, died in August 1964. Yet the Bond franchise continues to thrive, especially on the silver screen, with the release of No Time to Die starring actor Daniel Craig as Bond earlier this year. Those in the thrall of Bond lore will find Buckton’s The World Is Not Enough a carefully researched, judicious, if slightly repetitive, biography of compelling interest.

Buckton not only traces the arc of Fleming’s life from his failed attempt to join the British foreign office to his highly successful career as a novelist, but he also shows how Fleming’s personality, lifestyle, and personal proclivities shaped the contours of the most famous fictional spy of the last century. Free from much of the postmodernist talk that has ruined studies of Fleming and his creation, this book will delight any reader who remains a Bond aficionado.

—Sumit Ganguly

The Scholars of Night
John M. Ford (Tor Trade, 256 pp., $18.99, September 2021)

There are few writers like polymath and author John M. Ford, who dipped in and out of genres with ease. His works have been out of print for years following a copyright dispute after his death at just age 49, but they are now being reprinted.

The Scholars of Night is a masterful Cold War thriller that turns around Washington intrigue, high-stakes technology, and a lost play by Elizabethan genius and spy Christopher Marlowe. As usual with Ford, the prose is elegant, wry, and sometimes oblique; the new introduction, by Charles Stross, is a brilliantly done short framing of the Cold War’s stakes for a generation that might have forgotten them.

—James Palmer

The Summer of Theory: History of a Rebellion, 1960-1990
Philipp Felsch, transl. Tony Crawford (John Wiley & Sons, 280 pp., $34.76, October 2021)

It’s easy to get exhausted by the prevailing intellectual discourse surrounding Washington politics. You’ve got the horse race obsessives over here, the technical policy empiricists over there, and the amoral propagandists barging in from every direction. I found Philipp Felsch’s book, The Summer of Theory: History of a Rebellion, 1960-1990, to be a bracing corrective.

It offers a detailed history of the political-intellectual life of a significant slice of postwar Germany—the large segment of center-left and leftist politics that, from the 1960s through the 1980s, was obsessed with philosophy, sociology, and other currents of abstract thinking that nowadays falls under the heading of “theory.” It was a time when influential political actors were convinced that sensible conversations about policy ideas weren’t possible until they had been placed in the context of philosopher Jürgen Habermas’s theories of communicative action, writer Michel Foucault’s archaeologies of history, or sociologist Jean Baudrillard’s nihilist aesthetics.

It all feels light-years away from today’s Washington—and in its excessive abstractness, it makes one thankful for our contemporary literalists, horse race obsessives and all.

—Cameron Abadi

Lisa Scottoline (Putnam, 480 pp., $28, March 2021)

There are so many historical novels set during World War II that it can sometimes be hard for a new release within this subgenre to stand out. Eternal, by Lisa Scottoline, manages to do just that. In 480 pages of sultry and addictive prose, the reader is thrust onto the streets of Mussolini-era Rome and into a love triangle where members’ fates take drastically divergent turns as Italy goes to war.

Eternal is an inevitable tragedy for the 21st-century reader armed with retrospect—but not for the book’s blissful subjects, whose relentless pursuit of joie de vivre in the face of mounting evil is as inspiring as it is heart-wrenching. In a narrative that spans many years, Scottoline weaves an intricate tale that is equally laudable for its storytelling as for its moral and philosophical merit.

Each character wrestles in very different ways with the rise of fascism and age-old questions about the necessity of violence, the utility (and futility) of law, and the extremities of nationalism. Eternal’s conclusion offers no answers as to boundaries of righteous behavior. Instead, it is a reminder that happy endings are almost never achieved simply.

—Allison Meakem

Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump
Spencer Ackerman (Viking, 448 pp., $30, August 2021)

Those who blame former U.S. President Donald Trump for the United States’ current flirtation with authoritarianism should read Spencer Ackerman’s Reign of Terror, which looks at the profound impact the war on terror had on its democratic backsliding.

Ackerman submits that multiple acts of war abroad in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, reliance on drone strikes, and widespread surveillance created the foundation for similar anti-democratic measures at home. Former U.S. President Barack Obama isn’t spared for squandering the opportunity to end the war on terror after killing terrorist Osama bin Laden. What started post-9/11 as the persecution of Muslims, Ackerman argues, was allowed to metastasize into a campaign against immigrants and ultimately into a full-fledged culture war—born in the fringe but eventually cannibalizing the Republican Party and paving the way for a demagogue like Trump.

—Elise Labott

Käsebier Takes Berlin
Gabriele Tergit, transl. Sophie Duvernoy (New York Review Books, 304 pp., $16.95, July 2019)

This year, I read the English translation of the German novel Käsebier Takes Berlin, originally published in 1931. It is one of only two books written by German Jewish author Gabriele Tergit, who fled the country just two years after it was published. Nominally, the book is about an unknown popular singer—the titular Käsebier—making it big in Weimar Berlin.

But Tergit tells much of the story through the perspective of several reporters working for a collapsing newspaper, and it’s also about the news. The knowledge of what comes next makes it gripping: It’s set against the backdrop of a country on the brink of crisis—and the culture wars, fake news, and somewhat wild parties that come with it. (In this way, it’s reminiscent of the Netflix show Babylon Berlin.) The novel is often funny but ultimately tragic—and feels extremely prescient in the current era.

—Audrey Wilson

A Memory Called Empire
Arkady Martine (Tor Books, 464 pp., $25.99, March 2019)

This book is great for foreign-policy nerds—and doubly great for the foreign-policy nerds who love science fiction. A Memory Called Empire is a diplomatic/political thriller that follows an ambassador from a small space station on the periphery of a vast empire in the distant future. She arrives in the empire’s capital and is thrown into a world of political intrigue, assassination plots, and some good, old-fashioned epic space opera fun.

The author, Arkady Martine, is herself a historian with expertise in the Byzantine Empire, so there’s some fascinating Earthling history sprinkled throughout her meticulous worldbuilding of the Teixcalaanli Empire. (Look out for homages to the Byzantines, Aztecs, and Mongols.) Don’t expect this to be a page-turner from the get-go; this book takes a little while to get into. But once you’re through the opening chapters and fully invested, it’s going to be really hard to put down.

—Robbie Gramer

​​A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life
George Saunders (Random House, 432 pp., $28, January 2021)

Like many art forms, short stories—especially classic 19th-century Russian ones—sometimes require an extra push: Sure, it may be easy to enjoy one on a first read, but at least in my case, it often helps to have the guidance of someone who loves the craft of storytelling to make you appreciate what those stories are capable of.

That’s partly why I’ve carried around George Saunders’s A Swim in a Pond in the Rain like a Bible this year. (The other reason is Saunders’s prose, which always manages to be deeply funny, self-effacing, and hopeful.) Saunders, perhaps the greatest living American short story writer, takes the reader through seven stories by four authors—Anton Chekhov, Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy, and Nikolai Gogol—painstakingly detailing what he’s discovered in them over his 20 years of teaching a Russian story class as a creative writing professor.

Much has been written over whether fiction makes you a better person. (Saunders, famously a Pollyanna, doesn’t hide his belief that the Russians seemed to consider fiction a “vital moral-ethical tool.”) But regardless of where you fall on that spectrum, it’s hard not to come away from Saunders’s book with the sense that these stories, which mostly concern the domestic lives of humble Russians, possess a quiet resistance in their idea that “every human being is worthy of attention.”

—Chloe Hadavas

The Lorax
Dr. Seuss (Random House, 72 pp., $16.99, August 1971)

Fifty years after greedy, green-handed villains clear-cut forests to produce useless garments, destroying the habitats of cuddly animals and displacing furry local residents, The Lorax, Dr. Seuss’s 1971 environmentalist cri de coeur, has taken on new relevance as climate activists descend on Glasgow, Scotland, and face off against the modern-day Once-ler in the form of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro as he opens the door to further deforestation of the Amazon.

Meanwhile, a latter-day Lorax speaks for the trees in the pages of FP, warning the Amazon has already transformed from a carbon sink into a carbon source and the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s rainforest remains the “first and last line of defense against climate change.”

—Sasha Polakow-Suransky

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