The best books on horrible years

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m the author of four books: The Lion and the Nightingale, Under the Shadow, An Istanbul Anthology, and Macera. The Economist called Under the Shadow a ‘refreshingly balanced’ book whose author ‘has announced himself as a voice to be listened to’. The Times Literary Supplement praised the way The Lion and the Nightingale ‘grounds Turkish current affairs in the context of the past couple of decades and explains the attraction of extreme politics to the country’s youth’. I contributed to the world’s leading journals and newspapers, including two front-page stories in The New York Times, cover stories in The New York Review of Books, Foreign Affairs, and The Times Literary Supplement.


I wrote...

The Lion and the Nightingale: A Journey Through Modern Turkey

By Kaya Genç,

Book cover of The Lion and the Nightingale: A Journey Through Modern Turkey

What is my book about?

In 2017 novelist and essayist Kaya Genç travelled around his country on a quest to find the places and people in whom the contrasts of Turkey's rich past meet. As suicide bombers attacked Istanbul, and journalists and teachers were imprisoned, he walked the streets of the famous Ottoman neighbourhoods, telling the stories of the ordinary Turks who lived among the contradictions and conflicts of Anatolia, one of the world's oldest civilizations.

The Lion and the Nightingale presents the spellbinding story of a country whose history has been split between violence and beauty - between the roar of the lion and the song of the nightingale. Weaving together a mixture of memoir, interview, and his own autobiography, Genç takes the reader on a contemporary journey through the contradictory soul of the Turkish nation.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of A Journal of the Plague Year

Kaya Genç Why did I love this book?

Paranoia, hatred of the Other, animosity toward all intellectuals, minorities, and dissidents — these sentiments spread like a disease in Turkey over 2017. In Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year the plague spreads with similar ruthlessness while the eyewitness account provides an anchor for readers. It’s an intense, focused, and yet detached chronicle. Defoe’s book was my template while writing The Lion and the Nightingale.

By Daniel Defoe,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked A Journal of the Plague Year as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The haunting cry of "Bring out your dead!" by a bell-ringing collector of 17th-century plague victims has filled readers across the centuries with cold terror. The chilling cry survives in historical consciousness largely as a result of this classic 1722 account of the epidemic of bubonic plague — known as the Black Death — that ravaged England in 1664–1665.
Actually written nearly 60 years later by Daniel Defoe, the Journal is narrated by a Londoner named "H. F.," who allegedly lived through the devastating effects of the pestilence and produced this eye witness account. Drawing on his considerable talents as…


Book cover of The Year of Magical Thinking

Kaya Genç Why did I love this book?

An episode in this magisterial book returned to me while writing The Lion and the Nightingale in late 2017. John Gregory Dunne, her husband of thirty-nine years, has died from a heart attack on December 30, 2003, and Joan Didion recalls refusing to give away his shoes, in the sad hope that he might return. The precision of Didion’s language, her analysis of grief, and navigation of uncharted territories after a great loss, inspired me. Sensible people in Turkey also fantasised about a return of their liberties in a year of ceaseless oppression. They had lost things dear to them: human rights, dignity, joy. By remaining muted they hoped to retrieve them. It didn’t work.

By Joan Didion,

Why should I read it?

14 authors picked The Year of Magical Thinking as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From one of America's iconic writers, a portrait of a marriage and a life - in good times and bad - that will speak to anyone who has ever loved a husband or wife or child. A stunning book of electric honesty and passion.

Several days before Christmas 2003, John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion saw their only daughter, Quintana, fall ill. At first they thought it was flu, then pneumonia, then complete sceptic shock. She was put into an induced coma and placed on life support. Days later - the night before New Year's Eve -the Dunnes were just…


Book cover of My Year of Rest and Relaxation

Kaya Genç Why did I love this book?

The year is 2000. Our narrator has lost her parents in her senior year to cancer and suicide. All she wants is to sleep. Her apathetic state is familiar to Turkey’s citizens. Throughout 2017, similar sentiments—resentment, cynicism, inaction—defined our psyche. Moshfegh‘s year ends with a terror attack. Ours started with one.

By Ottessa Moshfegh,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked My Year of Rest and Relaxation as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Named a Best Book of the Year by The Washington Post, Time, NPR, Amazon,Vice, Bustle, The New York Times, The Guardian, Kirkus Reviews, Entertainment Weekly, The AV Club, & Audible

A New York Times Bestseller

"One of the most compelling protagonists modern fiction has offered in years: a loopy, quietly furious pillhead whose Ambien ramblings and Xanaxed b*tcheries somehow wend their way through sad and funny and strange toward something genuinely profound." - Entertainment Weekly

"Darkly hilarious . . . [Moshfegh's] the kind of provocateur who makes you laugh out loud while drawing blood." -Vogue

From one of our boldest,…


Book cover of Darkness at Noon

Kaya Genç Why did I love this book?

Set during Moscow Show Trials in 1938, this chilling novel by Arthur Koestler chronicles the purging of intellectuals and politicians in the Communist Party. Stalin used these trials to strengthen his one-man role, setting a pattern for future autocrats. 

By Arthur Koestler,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked Darkness at Noon as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The newly discovered lost text of Arthur Koestler’s modern masterpiece, Darkness at Noon—the haunting portrait of a revolutionary, imprisoned and tortured under totalitarian rule—is now restored and in a completely new translation.

Editor Michael Scammell and translator Philip Boehm bring us a brilliant novel, a remarkable discovery, and a new translation of an international classic.

In print continually since 1940, Darkness at Noon has been translated into over 30 languages and is both a stirring novel and a classic anti-fascist text. What makes its popularity and tenacity even more remarkable is that all existing versions of Darkness at Noon are…


Book cover of One of Us: The Story of a Massacre in Norway — And Its Aftermath

Kaya Genç Why did I love this book?

2011 was the most violent year in Norway’s history. A bomb, detonated in central Oslo, killed eight people; a massacre on the island of Utøya a few hours later killed sixty-nine more. This book tells that day’s horrors by interweaving sociology, history, and psychology, looking at the weeks and months that surrounded the tragedy. One of Us was an inspiration behind the opening chapter of The Lion and the Nightingale where I tried to recreate the movements of the mass murderer during the Reina nightclub attack on January 1, 2017.

By Åsne Seierstad, Sarah Death (translator),

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked One of Us as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On 22 July 2011 Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 of his fellow Norwegians in a terrorist atrocity that shocked the world. Many were teenagers, just beginning their adult lives. In the devastating aftermath, the inevitable questions began. How could this happen? Why did it happen? And who was Anders Breivik? Asne Seierstad was uniquely placed to explore these questions. An award-winning foreign correspondent, she had spent years writing about people caught up in violent conflict. Now, for the first time, she was being asked to write about her home country. Based on extensive testimonies and interviews, One of Us is…


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Shahrazad's Gift

By Gretchen McCullough,

Book cover of Shahrazad's Gift

Gretchen McCullough Author Of Shahrazad's Gift

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I am a fiction writer and currently live in Cairo, where I have lived for over twenty years. I noticed that the way I started telling stories was influenced by learning Arabic and by listening to the stories of the people in the city. My interest in Arabic also led me to read Arabic literature, like A Thousand and One Nights.   

Gretchen's book list on books influenced by Thousand and One Nights

What is my book about?

Shahrazad’s Gift is a collection of linked short stories set in contemporary Cairo — magical, absurd, and humorous.

The author focuses on the off-beat, little-known stories, far from CNN news: a Swedish belly dancer who taps into the Oriental fantasies of her clientele; a Japanese woman studying Arabic, driven mad by the noise and chaos of the city; a frustrated Egyptian housewife who becomes obsessed by the activities of her Western gay neighbor; an American journalist who covered the civil war in Beirut who finds friendship with her Egyptian dentist. We also meet the two protagonists of McCullough's Confessions of a Knight Errant, before their escapades in that story.

These stories are told in the tradition of A Thousand and One Nights.

Shahrazad's Gift

By Gretchen McCullough,

What is this book about?

Shahrazad's Gift is a collection of linked short stories set in contemporary Cairo-magical, absurd and humorous. The author focuses on the off-beat, little-known stories, far from CNN news: a Swedish belly dancer who taps into the Oriental fantasies of her clientele; a Japanese woman studying Arabic, driven mad by the noise and chaos of the city; a frustrated Egyptian housewife who becomes obsessed by the activities of her Western gay neighbor; an American journalist who covered the civil war in Beirut who finds friendship with her Egyptian dentist. We also meet the two protagonists of McCullough's Confessions of a Knight…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in grief, Manhattan, and plagues?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about grief, Manhattan, and plagues.

Grief Explore 77 books about grief
Manhattan Explore 123 books about Manhattan
Plagues Explore 47 books about plagues