The best books to make you rethink America

Why am I passionate about this?

Growing up in a comfortable suburb, I was never encouraged to examine my privilege or to ask questions about our country’s social and economic arrangements. I knew shockingly little about U.S. history beyond the triumphalist narratives of great men and military victories; the dark side of that history usually came in footnotes, and always with the implication that our country’s sins are mere aberrations from its good intentions. I had to learn the most important truths about our history from literature, which shows us the impact that events have on individuals, painting a fuller picture of how America became the country it is, and the terrible price so many people have had to pay.


I wrote...

The Gringa

By Andrew Altschul,

Book cover of The Gringa

What is my book about?

Leonora Gelb came to Peru to make a difference. A passionate and idealistic Stanford graduate, she left a life of privilege to fight poverty and oppression, but her beliefs are tested when she falls in with violent revolutionaries. While death squads and informants roam the streets of Lima, and suspicion festers among the comrades, Leonora plans a decisive act of protest—until her capture in a bloody government raid, and a sham trial that sends her to prison for life.

Inspired by the real-life story of Lori Berenson, who spent fifteen years in a military prison following her conviction on terrorist charges, The Gringa maps the blurred boundaries between fact and fiction, author and text, resistance and extremism. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Book of Daniel

Andrew Altschul Why did I love this book?

In 1953, a working-class Jewish couple from Brooklyn was executed for allegedly selling nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. Their two young children were orphaned. E. L. Doctorow’s novel about the Rosenbergs is an excruciating examination of these events from the fictionalized perspective of one of those children. Daniel’s point of view—naïve, angry, traumatizedbrilliantly illustrates the absurdity and cruelty of American culture when it turns against those who, for reasons of class, race, or religion, have never been fully included in it. I’ve read it a dozen times and still find myself sobbing at the realization of how all the country’s history, all its dreams and delusions about itself and its destiny, were stacked up against this poor pair of nobodies. Their real crime lay in demanding that the United States live up to its ideals, something it has never been able to do.

By E.L. Doctorow,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Book of Daniel as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Based on the trial and execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, convicted of delivering information about the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union E.L. Doctorow's The Book of Daniel includes a new introduction by Jonathan Freedland in Penguin Modern Classics.

As Cold War hysteria inflames America, FBI agents pay a surprise visit to a Communist man and his wife in their New York apartment. After a trial that divides the country, the couple are sent to the electric chair for treason. Decades later, in 1967, their son Daniel struggles to understand the tragedy of their lives. But while he is…


Book cover of Beloved

Andrew Altschul Why did I love this book?

We all know about slavery. Which is to say, we know there used to be slavery in the United States and that it ended when Abraham Lincoln and the enlightened North won the Civil War against the evil South. This brief historywhich is all that most schoolchildren are taughtbarely even hints at the enormity of this centuries-long crime or its unfathomable viciousness, the obscene violence that Americans inflicted on the bodies and minds of millions of human beings. Morrison’s masterpiece brings home the reality of slavery in the gut-wrenching story of an escaped slave who kills her own child rather than let her be taken back by slavecatchers: because death is preferable. As a white American, this may be the closest I will ever come to understanding the agony and terror that Black Americans felt and continue to feel. I can hardly breathe, reading it.

By Toni Morrison,

Why should I read it?

36 authors picked Beloved as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Toni Morrison was a giant of her times and ours... Beloved is a heart-breaking testimony to the ongoing ravages of slavery, and should be read by all' Margaret Atwood, New York Times

Discover this beautiful gift edition of Toni Morrison's prize-winning contemporary classic Beloved

It is the mid-1800s and as slavery looks to be coming to an end, Sethe is haunted by the violent trauma it wrought on her former enslaved life at Sweet Home, Kentucky. Her dead baby daughter, whose tombstone bears the single word, Beloved, returns as a spectre to punish her mother, but also to elicit her…


Book cover of Absalom, Absalom!

Andrew Altschul Why did I love this book?

Faulkner’s greatest novel is less about slavery per se than about how thoroughly racism has warped America—its culture, its politics, its families—from the very beginning. It takes the quintessential American story—of a (white) man with a dream and determination, who pulls himself up by his bootstraps to become wealthy and powerful—and turns it upside down, little by little revealing how he has fundamentally misunderstood himself, his society, and even his own family. Thomas Sutpen’s ignorance around race is his—and, by extension, all of America’s—downfall, leading inexorably to violence and grief. It’s a dense, challenging read, full of point-of-view shifts, interlocking timelines, and frequent use of the N-word—but it is so worth it.

By William Faulkner,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Absalom, Absalom! as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This postbellum Greek tragedy is the perfect introduction to Faulkner's elaborate descriptive syntax.

Quentin Compson and Shreve, his Harvard roommate, are obsessed with the tragic rise and fall of Thomas Sutpen. As a poor white boy, Sutpen was turned away from a plantation owner's mansion by a black butler. From then on, he was determined to force his way into the upper echelons of Southern society. His relentless will ensures his ambitions are soon realised; land, marriage, children, his own troop to fight in the Civil War... but Sutpen returns from the conflict to find his estate in ruins and…


Book cover of I Hotel

Andrew Altschul Why did I love this book?

I moved to San Francisco in 2002 and stayed for almost 15 years, but I knew almost nothing about the Asian American community that has made the city their home for more than a century. I was never taught Asian American history; I never learned about the importation of Chinese labor in the 19th century, or the Chinese Exclusion Act, or the forced relocation of Japanese-Americans during World War II. I’d never really thought of Asian Americans as part of the Civil Rights struggle or understood the constant racism they’ve faced. I learned about all of these things from Yamashita’s rich doorstopper of a novel, which brings the San Francisco of the 1960s and 1970s to life more dynamically and inclusively than I’d imagined it before. It’s a wild, kaleidoscopic experience; reading it is like watching history take place in real-time.

By Karen Tei Yamashita,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked I Hotel as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Dazzling and ambitious, this multivoiced fusion of prose, playwriting, graphic art, and philosophy spins an epic tale of America's struggle for civil rights as it played out in San Francisco near the end of the 1960s. As Karen Tei Yamashita's motley cast of students, laborers, artists, revolutionaries, and provocateurs make their way through the history of the day, they become caught in a riptide of politics and passion, clashing ideologies, and personal turmoil.

The tenth anniversary edition of this National Book Award finalist brings the joys and struggles of the I Hotel to a whole new generation of readers, historians,…


Book cover of The Quiet American

Andrew Altschul Why did I love this book?

I was born during the Vietnam War. I have a dim memory of watching the evacuation of Saigon on TV. Some of my friends had older brothers, or uncles, or fathers who fought. We all knew the war was a mistake, a terrible miscalculation by “warmongers” and “imperialists.” What Graham Greene’s sad, gripping novel shows is how that mistakewhich killed at least 1.3 million Vietnamesewasn’t made despite America’s good intentions but because of them. The unshakable belief that America is a force for good in the world leads directly to the arrogance that got us into the war and refused to let us get out. The entire novel takes place before the war really started, so you watch events unfold with a new and personal appreciation of how it happened, and the sinking feeling of not being able to stop the inevitable.

By Graham Greene,

Why should I read it?

10 authors picked The Quiet American as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Graham Greene's classic exploration of love, innocence, and morality in Vietnam

"I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused," Graham Greene's narrator Fowler remarks of Alden Pyle, the eponymous "Quiet American" of what is perhaps the most controversial novel of his career. Pyle is the brash young idealist sent out by Washington on a mysterious mission to Saigon, where the French Army struggles against the Vietminh guerrillas.

As young Pyle's well-intentioned policies blunder into bloodshed, Fowler, a seasoned and cynical British reporter, finds it impossible to stand safely aside as an observer. But…


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Down a Bad Road

By Regina Buttner,

Book cover of Down a Bad Road

Regina Buttner Author Of Down a Bad Road

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I have a close girlfriend who was once involved with a man she wanted to marry. The trouble was, the guy was always hanging out with this other woman who he’d known since childhood. Just friends, he said. Nothing going on. Ha! The shenanigans they got up to were unbelievable, and extremely upsetting to my girlfriend, who eventually broke up with the cad. Her unlucky experience got me interested in the psychology of the love triangle, and why some people remain mired in these dead-end relationships. My reading jam is anything twisty and suspenseful, and what’s more fraught than a three-way competition for someone’s affections.

Regina's book list on love triangles that turn deadly

What is my book about?

Jealousy can be deadly.

Ron Burley has a rule against messing around with married women, but lovely Lavender has convinced him to break it. Their steamy affair sets someone off, but it isn’t Lavender’s clueless husband—it’s Marta, Burley’s clingy childhood friend and ex-lover. 

Hoping to win Burley back, Marta dangles a lucrative job offer. Though he’s sorely tempted, Burley’s afraid to trust her due to the sketchy circumstances surrounding their bitter breakup years ago; but this might be his only chance to get back at her for what she did. Meanwhile, Lavender has become suspicious of Burley’s romantic history, and…

Down a Bad Road

By Regina Buttner,

What is this book about?

"Gripping and unforgettable suspense-think North Country, New York noir laced with dark humor. Don't plan on setting this fast-paced thriller down until you read the last page!" –Cam Torrens, author of Stable

Jealousy can be deadly.

Longtime bachelor Ron Burley has a rule against messing around with married women in his rural upstate New York town, but sassy, lovely Lavender has convinced him to break it. Their steamy affair sets someone off, but it isn't Lavender's clueless husband-it's Marta, Burley's clingy childhood friend and ex-lover.

Marta knows Burley is on the verge of going broke, so she secretly tries to…


5 book lists we think you will like!

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