The best books to make you rethink America

Andrew Altschul Author Of The Gringa
By Andrew Altschul

Who am I?

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. 

The books I picked & why

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The Book of Daniel

By E.L. Doctorow,

Book cover of The Book of Daniel

Why 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.


Beloved

By Toni Morrison,

Book cover of Beloved

Why 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.


Absalom, Absalom!

By William Faulkner,

Book cover of Absalom, Absalom!

Why 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.


I Hotel

By Karen Tei Yamashita,

Book cover of I Hotel

Why 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.


The Quiet American

By Graham Greene,

Book cover of The Quiet American

Why 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.


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