Books of the Year 2021

We asked people we worked with over the last 12 months to tell us about their favourite books from those they have read this year. We hope you will find inspiration for the holiday period and beyond.

Are your favourites included here?

Cecile Barendsma, Cecile B Literary Agency, Brooklyn

Favourite Book 2021

The 1619 Project by Nikole Hannah-Jones

and Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet by Thich Nhat Hanh

I chose these two because climate challenges and an economy and society built on slavery are rooted in the same exploitative mindset and we need bold approaches to face and deal with both.

David Beck, Head of Culture, Swiss Embassy London

Favourite Book 2021

The Vanishing Half by Britt Bennett

Britt Bennett’s The Vanishing Half tells the story of twin sisters, born into a light-skinned black community in Louisiana of the 1950s, which takes great pride in its pursuit of whiteness. The two women break free from the oppression of their hometown, a place trapped between its citizens’ rejection of their own identity and the brutality of a racist America. Whilst one sister returns soon after, the other embarks on a path as a white woman. Bennett’s novel has the weight of a family saga, whilst retaining the intimacy of a chamber play, and its clever construction takes the reader across several decades yet never loses sight of each individual’s journey. This book is a tender inspection of family and belonging; race and identity; and the delusion of the American dream, which will resonate with readers for a long time to come.

New Books in German Top Tip 2021

Losing Skin by Regina DĂĽrig

Regina Dürig’s verse novel Losing Skin dissects its female protagonist’s life, episodically, from early childhood to present day. In sparse prose the woman’s story is traced and the author leaves space with the unsaid for the reader to add texture, making it a unique reading experience. This book is a profound insight into contemporary womanhood, circling the often impalpable yet systemic harm women experience in our society and whilst never being explicit, it is language that cuts deep.

Jamie Bulloch, translator

Favourite Book 2021

Throw Me to the Wolves by Patrick McGuiness

My book of 2021, though it was published in 2019, is Patrick McGuinness’s Throw Me to the Wolves. The book adopts the structure of a crime novel, with a middle-aged detective and his sidekick investigating the murder of a young woman. The chief suspect happens to be a teacher from his old boarding school, and much of the haunting narrative is played out in that cold, unwelcoming institution. Clear parallels are drawn between the arbitrary brutality of 1970s’ public-school life and the culture of mob justice in the present day, which – it is suggested – has been exacerbated by Brexit. The book is also beautifully written; I’ve rarely read a novel of such stylistic finesse.

There were two other strong contenders, both by Irish writers and both featuring German subjects. Hugo Hamilton’s The Pages ingeniously has a novel as its narrator: Joseph Roth’s Rebellion. Saved by a professor from the book burnings in 1933, the novel recounts the story of its survival and documents the lives of those people into whose hands it has passed in the century since. I particularly enjoyed the interplay between the characters and Roth’s story. Colm Tóibín’s fictionalised biography of Thomas Mann, The Magician, is more conventional in approach and structure, but no less accomplished. What comes to the fore are the tensions in Mann’s life that influenced his writing: the patrician upbringing in Lübeck vs the artistic spirit; family life vs sexual feelings for men; the pressure to speak out politically vs the desire to be left alone to write. A well-researched, eloquent novel that has made me want to read more of Mann’s work.

Turning to a German author, I enjoyed Daniela Krien’s Der Brand, which features a couple in their late forties with grown-up children whose marriage has turned stale. When a fire upsets their summer holiday plans, they decide to spend a few weeks looking after the farm of a family friend. During their time away, freed from their normal routines, the couple can’t help but confront the state of their relationship and wonder whether it has a future. As with Love in Five Acts, Daniela Krien shows herself to be a virtuoso of spare prose, beneath which the emotion of the characters simmers.

Maxine Hart, NBG intern

Favourite Book 2021

Gewittertiere by Svealena Kutschke

It is such a detail-rich novel, filled with intricacies and annoyances from life which make it very real and very relatable. Kutschke deals with serious issues – suicide, recovery of the DDR, racism, sexual identity, fear of nuclear power – while always keeping the characters central and with enough humour to make this a real page turner.

New Books in German Top Tip 2021

Dunkelblum by Eva Menasse

I’ve heard so much praise for Eva Menasse’s Dunkelblum that it is definitely on my to read list for 2022.

Markus Hoffman, Regal Hoffmann & Associates LLC, New York

Favourite Book 2021

Un Verdor Terrible / When We Cease to Understand the World by BenjamĂ­n Labatut, translated by Adrian Nathan West

A book entirely in a category of its own: part novel, part history of ideas and science, part moral treatise, part biography, this is a book about the thrill of scientific discovery and the inhuman uses we so often put our knowledge to. Totally blew me away.

New Books in German 2021 Top Tip

Adas Raum by Sharon Dodua Otoo

A breathtaking journey through time and space about the continuities of injustice (especially against women and against people of colour) that shape our societies to this day, but also a celebration of imaginative resistance and, like Labatut’s book, an intoxicating example of how great storytelling will always force us to question our own assumptions about the world.

Tanja Howarth, Tanja Howarth Literary Agency

One to Watch 2022

The Silent Angel by Heinrich Böll

The book I am most excited about at the moment is Heinrich Böll’s first novel The Silent Angel (Der Engel Schwieg), which was first published in Germany in 1992. He wrote it between 1949-51, when he returned to his native Cologne after six years as an infantryman for defeated Germany. No publisher at the time was prepared to take the book on, fearing the true-to-life descriptions of a war-torn city were too harrowing for the German public to cope with.
Similar to Böll himself, the novel’s hero, Hans Schnitzler returns after the war to his ravaged city, homeless, impoverished and emotionally drained. He finds a world where identities are bought and sold and human kindness has drowned in a well of cynicism and self-interest.
Yet, he finds a glimmer of hope in the overworked doctors, nuns and priests trying to feed the hungry and in the dark, devastated home of a young war widow, love still has the power to bloom.
Heinrich Böll won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972 and sadly died before seeing The Silent Angel in print.
It was first published in English by Andre Deutsch Ltd. In 1994 and will be re-published by Orion Paperbacks in 2022.

Steph Morris, writer, translator and NBG book assessor

Favourite Book 2021

Women in Concrete Poetry 1959-1979, ed. Alex Balgiu and MĂłnica de la Torre

A long overdue celebration of the women active in visual and concrete poetry in its seminal years across the globe, it includes German-born practitioners Ilse Garnier, Annalies Klophaus, Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt, Irma Blank and Rosmarie Waldrop, and Swiss poet Mira Schendel as well as ground-breaking artists such as Liliane Lijn and Susan Howe and Betty Radin. An inspiring catalogue of inventiveness.

New Books in German 2021 Top Tip

Die Verlassenen by Matthias JĂĽgler

A compulsive, disturbing narrative of secrets and revelations circling around the void left after the protagonist’s mother dies and father disappears, set in the last years of the GDR and its aftermath.

Helen Nurse, NBG intern

Favourite Book 2021

The Magician by Colm TĂłibĂ­n

I was completely absorbed by the lives of Thomas Mann and his truly extraordinary family, as their stable, comfortable existence is thrown into upheaval in the 1930s and they are scattered throughout Europe and the US. Although his inner turmoil was immense, Mann was cushioned from some of the material effects of exile by his wealth and standing as a writer.

New Books in German 2021 Top Tip

Schwitters by Ulrike Draesner

Whilst my favourite NBG recommendation spans a similar time period as The Magician and also involves the theme of exile, the experience is very different. Schwitters by Ulrike Draesner is a beautiful, fictionalised account of the life of Merz artist, poet and polymath Kurt Schwitters. Like Thomas Mann, he was born into comfort and stability. Unlike Mann, he experienced exile as a heart-rending separation from his wife and his home language, with which he had enjoyed such a playful relationship.  He spent many years in transit from Norway through Scotland, to the Isle of Man and London, ending in abject poverty in the Lake District with much of his life’s work destroyed and his standing in the art world reduced. Lyrical, quirky and deeply moving, I was touched by Kurt’s good-natured charm and profound sense of dislocation.

John Owen, bookseller and translator

Favourite Book 2021

Free by Lea Ypi

I was very, very close to picking Chris Power’s “A Lonely Man” which is not a German book but is a superb debut novel set in Germany, which I have enjoyed recommending to people all year (it is about the only book I have ever come across which should appeal to hardcore fans of Rachel Cusk/Ben Lerner and John Le CarrĂ© ). As the year neared its end though I read Lea Ypi’s ‘Free’ and I honestly cannot remember being as gripped by a memoir ever – it’s an in-depth look at what political systems mean on an everyday lesson and a reminder to historians to look for both continuity and difference after big moments. At the same time though (and it is its great skill to be both) it is a warm and occasionally very funny memoir of family.

New Books in German Top Tip 2021

Dunkelblum by Eva Menasse

For pure readerly enjoyment, I might have gone for Linus Reichlin’s “Señor Herreras blĂĽhende Intuition” – a laugh-out-loud and highly satisfying story of a writer’s stay in a convent in Spain. Great fun though it is, it can’t match the achievement of Eva Menasse’s “Dunkelblum”, a novelistic look at Holocaust guilt in small town Austria. It’s an all encompassing novel but which pulls together an ambitious array of strands so brilliantly, I still find it very hard to accept that it did not make the shortlist for the Deutscher Buchpreis!

Barbara Perlmutter, ex scout and agent

Favourite Book 2021

The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani

Leila Slimani is the first Moroccan woman to win France’s most prestigious literary prize, the Goncourt, which she won for The Perfect Nanny (2018). It’s a menacing story about a mother going back to work and deciding to hire a nanny. She’s a perfect nanny, until disaster strikes. The tension between employer and hired help and the danger of crossing the many fine lines are described with a sharp and honest eye. I felt it was a compulsive read.

New Books in German Top Tip 2021

Adas Raum by Sharon Dodua Otoo

Sharon Dodua Otoo’s novel Ada’s Realm (Adas Raum) immediately attracted my attention. In fact, there was a certain disbelief that a writer could straddle the cultures and languages of Ghana, London and Berlin and write a novel in German. Her story about women, in eras and places so diverse, they seem to break through boundaries, finds ways to link their lives, sometimes with the help of a necklace. Otoo writes with such lively imagination and uses such playful language.

Annie Rutherford, writer, translator, Assistant Festival Director and New Books in German’s inhouse writer

Favourite Book 2021

The Wandering by Intan Paramaditha, translated by Stephen J Epstein

I recently read The Wandering by Indonesian author Paramaditha – or at least, read one version of it. Beginning with a sort of Faustian pact – a gift of red shoes with the promise of travel and adventure in exchange for a sense of home – the novel asks the reader to choose their own adventure in a playful odyssey, in which different storylines lead through New York, Antwerp, Berlin, Lima – and even into outer space…

Riky Stock, Managing Director, NorthSouth Books

Favourite Book 2021

Einstein – The Fantastic Journey of a Mouse Through Space and Time by Torben Kuhlmann

This truly is my favourite book of the year, such a fantastic story with the most beautiful illustrations.

Anne Vial, Anne Vial Literary Scouting

Favourite Book 2021

Faultiere Ein Portrait by Tobias Keiling, Heidi Liedke, Judith Schalansky

Great sofa-read for the holidays: An illustrated cultural history of the sloth, from the gorgeous Matthes & Seitz Naturkunden series. One to keep on my shelf!

New Books in German Top Tip 2021

Dunkelblum by Eva Menasse

Should have been (at least) short-listed for both German & Austrian Buchpreis 2022. Bestselling literary author Eva Menasse has written her masterpiece. A brutal, sharp-tongued and yet elegant reckoning with the past; beneath every surface, horrors lurk… As any good book, it left me feeling partly in awe, partly bereft and shaken up – it took me days to gather the courage to write my thoughts about it. Dunkelblum would make an intricate, dark and brilliant theatre play as well as TV series. I hope it will find many readers in the countries it has already sold to: UK (Scribe), France (Eds Stock), Italy (Bompiani), Netherlands (Atlas), Norway (Forlaget), Finland (Siltala), Croatia.

Alexandra Wachek, Music, Theatre & Literature Project Manager, Austrian Cultural Forum London

Favourite Book 2021

The Lost Cafe Schindler by Meriel Schindler

Meriel Schindler tells a story through the prism of the famous Innsbruck Café Schindler, weaving together memoir, family history and the untold story of Austria-Hungary’s Jewish population. It explores the restorative power of writing, and offers readers a profound reflection on memory, truth, trauma and the importance of cake. Analysing the stories her father Kurt has told her about the families history, Meriel Schindler reconnected with family members scattered by feuding and war. An extraordinary story that is definitely worth a read.

New Books in German Top Tip 2021

Der zweite Jakob by Norbert Gstrein

Norbert Gstrein’s novel revolves around a father-daughter relationship between Jakob, a thrice -divorced actor and his twenty-two year old daughter Luzie. Upon the question if her father regrets anything in his life, he tells the story of how he was a passenger in a vehicle which hit and killed a young woman. This confession drives the mentally ill Luzie to self-harm, which leads to her hospitalization. Jakob, angry at himself, Luzie’s boyfriend who seemingly exploits her vulnerable state, and his biographer, who similarly seems to use their fragile relationship against Jakob. Gstrein’s masterful command of language in his precision and his eye for detail remind of the writing of Thomas Mann. The story of Jakob, an contradictory character with an unconventional and troubled life, makes for a compelling reading experience.

Caroline Waight, translator and NBG book assessor

Favourite Book 2021

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (In Which Four Dead Russians Give Us a Masterclass in Writing and Life) by George Saunders

Written in Saunders’ inimitably hilarious and perceptive style, it explores seven short stories by four Russian authors: Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Gogol. In each essay, Saunders examines how the story’s narrative functions, what keeps the reader engrossed, and ultimately what makes these classic works of literature such extraordinary writing.

New Books in German Top Tip 2021

Die Erfindung des Ungehorsams by Martina Clavadetscher 

Without doubt my pick of the litter this year is Martina Clavadetscher’s The Invention of Disobedience, winner of the Swiss Book Prize. I can never resist good literary genre fiction, and this is neo-Gothic sci-fi at its best: clever, intriguingly written and infinitely enigmatic. 

Dean Whiteside, Library and Information Project Manager, Goethe-Institut New York

Favourite Book 2021

Verzeichnis einiger Verluste by Judith Schalansky 

It is such a poignant and fantastical blending of the real and the imaginary, and Schalansky’s language is so expressive and densely woven.

New Books in German Top Tip 2021

Sterben im Sommer by Zsuzsa Bánk 

The emotional rawness of Bank’s storytelling really gets under one’s skin.

Photo credit: Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

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