The Best of 2021, to Read and to Watch

From a semi-fictionalized account of the Netanyahus to a meditation on ancient Rome’s stabbiness, here are the best book and film reviews Foreign Policy published this year.

By , an assistant editor at Foreign Policy.
good-girls-ordinary-killing-india-sonia-faleiro-hanna-hbarczyk_illustration-lead
good-girls-ordinary-killing-india-sonia-faleiro-hanna-hbarczyk_illustration-lead
Hanna Barczyk illustration for Foreign Policy

2021

A semi-fictionalized rendering of “a minor and ultimately even negligible episode” of the Netanyahu family. A humanizing—and alienating—account of the “extreme stabbiness of Roman politics.” We reviewed many books, films, and television shows from around the world in 2021; read on for five of our favorites.


1. No Country for Good Girls

by Yashica Dutt, Oct. 1

In 2014, two girls were found hanging from a mango tree in Katra Sadatganj, a remote hamlet in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. When their family refused to take the bodies down, forming a human chain around the tree, India’s media outlets flocked to cover the gruesome incident. In contrast to these mostly sensationalized accounts, Sonia Faleiro sought to reconstruct the case in The Good Girls through forensic reports, hundreds of interviews, and a careful rendering of important scenes surrounding the incident.

A semi-fictionalized rendering of “a minor and ultimately even negligible episode” of the Netanyahu family. A humanizing—and alienating—account of the “extreme stabbiness of Roman politics.” We reviewed many books, films, and television shows from around the world in 2021; read on for five of our favorites.


1. No Country for Good Girls

by Yashica Dutt, Oct. 1

In 2014, two girls were found hanging from a mango tree in Katra Sadatganj, a remote hamlet in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. When their family refused to take the bodies down, forming a human chain around the tree, India’s media outlets flocked to cover the gruesome incident. In contrast to these mostly sensationalized accounts, Sonia Faleiro sought to reconstruct the case in The Good Girls through forensic reports, hundreds of interviews, and a careful rendering of important scenes surrounding the incident.

Faleiro’s book, released in February, is, as Yashica Dutt writes, “both a riveting crime narrative and an insightful commentary on the chasm between urban and rural India.” At the heart of the book, Dutt writes, “Faleiro rightly positions the two doomed girls, whose lives were cut short by a society that ultimately cared more about its so-called honor than it did about them and their happiness.”


2. How the Netanyahus Explain the World

by Jessi Jezewska Stevens, June 19

Benjamin Netanyahu with an unidentified friend at the entrance to his family home in Jerusalem in 1967, and his father, Benzion Netanyahu, when he was a professor at the University of Denver in 1968.

Benjamin Netanyahu with an unidentified friend at the entrance to his family home in Jerusalem in 1967, and his father, Benzion Netanyahu, when he was a professor at the University of Denver in 1968.Foreign Policy illustration/Israeli Government Press Office/getty images; Denver post via getty images/historical archive photos

Joshua Cohen’s The Netanyahus, released in June, falls into that category of genre-bending books—not quite historical fiction, not quite nonfiction—that is currently rising in popularity. Set in the 1950s, the book follows what its subtitle calls “a minor and ultimately even negligible episode in the history of a very famous family”—when Benzion Netanyahu, the father of Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, visited a New York college with his family in tow. The novel is both very funny and very serious, novelist Jessi Jezewska Stevens writes—and “part of the game of The Netanyahus is guessing which parts are true.”

Somehow, Stevens writes, the novel is simultaneously a lark, a polemic, and a study of nationalism and hegemony, and its success in “shoehorning the major issues of the Trump years—nativism, nationalism, and national borders—into the framework of a hilarious suburban family drama” can hardly be denied.


3. Why Was Roman Politics So Stabby?

by James Palmer, March 21

In A Fatal Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum: Murder in Ancient Rome, which came out in March, Emma Southon contends that one major legacy of the Romans is liberty-as-violence. In Southon’s book, “the extreme stabbiness of Roman politics,” as Foreign Policy Deputy Editor James Palmer puts it, was part and parcel of the Roman idea of liberty—a lineage that can be followed to the antebellum South and even contemporary Western societies. But the genius of the book, Palmer writes, is that it “simultaneously humanizes the Romans and alienates us from them, portraying a society that’s at once a familiar ancestor and a rabid monster.”


4. The Dictator’s Ghost

by Nicole Cliffe, Feb. 14

La Llorona, Jayro Bustamante’s 2019 Guatemalan film that was shortlisted for best international film at the 2021 Academy Awards, follows two well-worn horror tropes: that of a disgraced aristocratic family in a rotting mansion, and the weeping woman (“La Llorona”) whose children have died.

But Bustamante’s film, Nicole Cliffe writes, also centers on a strong sense of specificity and place. “Ever-present in Bustamante’s La Llorona is the memory of historical violence committed against Indigenous Mayans,” Cliffe writes. The 36-year Guatemalan Civil War looms over the characters: a former dictator who avoids punishment for his role in the Guatemalan genocide of the 1980s, his family, and their Mayan staff. And, as those characters learn, that past can’t be laid to rest.


5. The Dark Side of Rwanda’s Rebirth

by Mvemba Phezo Dizolele, May 29

“The recent history of Africa’s Great Lakes region has in many ways been a dialogue between the living and the dead,” writes foreign-policy analyst Mvemba Phezo Dizolele. “And when the living fail in their obligations to honor the dead—and go so far as to deny the crimes that caused so many deaths—they perpetuate the cycle of conflict in the region.”

That dialogue, Dizolele writes, consumes Michela Wrong’s Do Not Disturb: The Story of Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad, a book released in March that documents the political forces and figures that have combined to create modern Rwanda, a country seemingly trapped in a ceaseless cycle of violence and denial. Centering on figures such as Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Ugandan President Gen. Yoweri Museveni, Wrong chronicles how the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the world’s first refugee insurgency, came to exert authoritarian control.

Chloe Hadavas is an assistant editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @Hadavas

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