The best works of fiction that clarify the real challenges our world now faces

Alan Weisman Author Of The World Without Us
By Alan Weisman

The Books I Picked & Why

The Overstory

By Richard Powers

Book cover of The Overstory

Why this book?

For most of us writers, it’s hard enough to make people come to life on the page. In this Pulitzer Prize-winner, Powers manages to turn trees into memorable characters. A literary tour-de-force, The Overstory exemplifies why nonfiction authors like me, charged with conveying critical information to readers, study the story-telling alchemy of novelists. Recalling Picasso’s observation that art is a lie that gives us the truth, this deeply researched work of fiction reminds us that failing to respect our biological companions on this Earth, as our early ancestors did, risks not only losing them, but ourselves. Even though I’ve written about the environment for decades, after reading it, I’ll never again feel the same about forests and trees again. The Overstory doesn’t merely inform, it transforms.

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The Ministry for the Future

By Kim Stanley Robinson

Book cover of The Ministry for the Future

Why this book?

In a century that often feels so unreal, it’s fitting that one of the best novelists of our times is a science fiction author. For decades, Kim Stanley Robinson has been writing otherworldly parables, but this book stays right here on Earth, offering a brilliant and detailed blueprint for how to literally turn down the heat before it’s too late. A vast thinker and consummate researcher who seems to overlook nothing, this immensely readable yarn makes you — and me — believe there’s a chance, after all. The Ministry for the Future may well be the defining book of the 21st century. Let’s hope so. 

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Sea of Poppies

By Amitav Ghosh

Book cover of Sea of Poppies

Why this book?

In his impossible-to-put-down Ibis Trilogy (Sea of Poppies, River of Smoke, Flood of Fire) Amitav Ghosh uses an obscure historical event most of us have barely heard of, the Opium Wars, to explain the rise — and maybe inevitable fall — of global capitalism. Ghosh both exploded and expanded my appreciation of English’s richness with characters speaking in multiple dialects, yet written with such lucidity that I never had to tear myself away from the mesmerizing plot to consult the glossary (itself fascinating). By the end, the Ibis Trilogy’s vast pageantry turned out to be about far more than I realized. Reading it provides one of those aha! moments when you suddenly realize how the world works — and you’ll wish everyone else would read it, too. Everybody thanks me for recommending it.

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The Trees

By Percival L. Everett

Book cover of The Trees

Why this book?

I hesitate to describe The Trees — in fact, I recommend you avoid reading any reviews, or even the back cover, because the book is so full of surprises that it would be a sin to spoil any of them. I’ll only say that of all the recent books dealing with the intractable shame of racial struggles, this is my favorite, hands-down. Prepare yourself to be alternately sick with laughter or sick with horror — which is exactly the experience of the protagonists, and of their real-life compatriots. Afterward, like me, you’ll want to read everything else Percival Everett has written.

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The President's Gardens

By Muhsin Al-Ramli, Luke Leafgren

Book cover of The President's Gardens

Why this book?

I’ve just returned from a research trip to Iraq (one of many settings for my next book: stay tuned). I took along two Iraqi novels, The President's Gardens and Daughter of the Tigris (they’re really just one; the first literally ends with the words to be continued) and I was as stirred by reading them as by what I saw there. While we protest Russia’s outrageous rape of Ukraine, we forget the hideous mess that America’s unjustifiable invasion left in Iraq. Even under Saddam Hussein, Iraq was considered the flower of Arab culture, a land overflowing with poetry, music, and art. Today much of it is rubble. Masterfully, Al-Ramli describes the latter with all the breathtaking beauty of the former. This ranks among my most moving reading experiences ever.

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