The best 20th century books

177 authors have picked their favorite books about 20th century and why they recommend each book.

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Shah of Shahs

By Ryszard Kapuściński,

Book cover of Shah of Shahs

Written in a powerful journalistic style, this short but compelling book tells of the last years of the Shah’s reign, focusing in painful detail on the brutality of Savak, his secret police force, his detachment from his subjects, and setting the scene for the inevitable revolution that would seal his downfall. The fear on the streets is palpable.

Who am I?

Lois Pryce is a British author who has travelled extensively in Iran. Her book, Revolutionary Ride tells the story of her 2013 solo motorcycle tour of the country and was shortlisted for the Edward Stanford ‘Adventure Book of the Year’ Award. Her travels have taken her to over fifty countries and her writing has featured in The New York Times, The Guardian, CNN, BBC, The Telegraph and The Independent.

I wrote...

Revolutionary Ride: On the Road to Shiraz, the Heart of Iran

By Lois Pryce,

Book cover of Revolutionary Ride: On the Road to Shiraz, the Heart of Iran

What is my book about?

Travel writer Lois Pryce sets off alone on a 3,000-mile motorcycle ride from Tabriz to Shiraz, to try to uncover the heart of this most complex and incongruous country. Along the way, she meets carpet sellers and drug addicts, war veterans and housewives, doctors and teachers - people living ordinary lives under the rule of an extraordinarily strict Islamic government.

On Desperate Ground

By Hampton Sides,

Book cover of On Desperate Ground: The Epic Story of Chosin Reservoir--The Greatest Battle of the Korean War

Another terrific job of research and forensic investigation by Hampton Sides brings to life the worst defeat suffered by the Allies during the Korean War. I was drawn to this on two fronts: First because of the way Hampton can bring together all of the threads that constitute a "moment in time" type of story. And secondly, because once again, my fiance's father was a key figure in the story. (He passed September 10, 2020, at the age of 96). He shared many of his first-hand remembrances of this and the "Great Raid" (the subject of Ghost Soldiers) that he'd participated in. Truly our greatest generation!)

Who am I?

I grew up without a TV in the home, so I read everything I could get my hands on. I believe the type of historical recreations I embraced had a lot to do with my writing style and "voice" that I employed in BAD KARMA: The True Story of a Mexico Trip from Hell. Although I hadn't written anything since junior high school, I put myself into the head of the authors above and endeavored to tell the story in a straight-forward and engaging way. My goal was to put the reader in the scene with me. My book is approaching 40,000 copies sold, an Amazon #1 for more than a year, and recently optioned for a movie, so I believe I have succeeded beyond my wildest expectations.

I wrote...

Bad Karma: The True Story of a Mexico Trip from Hell

By Paul Wilson,

Book cover of Bad Karma: The True Story of a Mexico Trip from Hell

What is my book about?

In the summer of 1978, twenty-one-year-old Paul Wilson jumps at the chance to join two local icons on a dream surf trip to mainland Mexico, unaware their ultimate destination lies in the heart of drug cartel country. Having no earthly idea of where he'll get the money to pay his share, and determined to prove his mettle, he does the only thing he can think of: He robs a supermarket. And, if karma didn't already have enough reason to doom the trip, he soon learns one of his companions is a convicted killer on the run, and the other an unscrupulous cad. Mishap and misfortune rule the days, and mere survival takes precedence over surfing.

U and I

By Nicholson Baker,

Book cover of U and I: A True Story

In U and I: A True Story, the death of Donald Barthelme inspires Nicholson Baker to write a book about his obsession with John Updike while his muse is still alive. Coining the term “memory criticism,” which he defines as “a form of commentary that relies entirely on what has survived in a reader’s mind from a particular writer over at least ten years of spotty perusal,” Baker embarks upon a wildly entertaining meditation that reveals as much about the writing process as it does about Updike (and Baker) himself.

Who am I?

In the wake of her father’s death, Katharine Smyth turned to her favorite novel, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, as a way of wrestling with his memory and understanding her own grief. Her book about the experience, All the Lives We Ever Lived: Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf, was published by Crown in 2019 and named a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. Smyth’s work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Paris Review, Elle, The New York Times, Literary Hub, Poets & Writers, and The Point.

I wrote...

All the Lives We Ever Lived: Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf

By Katharine Smyth,

Book cover of All the Lives We Ever Lived: Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf

What is my book about?

Katharine Smyth was a student at Oxford when she first read Virginia Woolf's modernist masterpiece To the Lighthouse in the comfort of an English sitting room, and in the companionable silence she shared with her father. After his death--a calamity that claimed her favorite person--she returned to that beloved novel as a way of wrestling with his memory and understanding her own grief.

Smyth's story moves between the New England of her childhood and Woolf's Cornish shores and Bloomsbury squares, exploring universal questions about family, loss, and homecoming. Through her inventive, highly personal reading of To the Lighthouse, and her artful adaptation of its groundbreaking structure, Smyth guides us toward a new vision of Woolf's most demanding and rewarding novel--and crafts an elegant reminder of literature's ability to clarify and console.

Who am I?

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for the Middle East and Africa studies and director of the International Affairs Fellowship for Tenured International Relations Scholars at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). He is a columnist at Foreign Policy magazine and an expert on Arab and Turkish politics as well as U.S. Middle East policy. 

I wrote...

The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square

By Steven A. Cook,

Book cover of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square

What is my book about?

The Struggle for Egypt is a sweeping political history of Egypt that takes readers from the crystallization of Egyptian nationalism in the late 19th century up to the January 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak. The book underscores that Egypt was never as stable as commonly assumed and that the demonstrations that shook Egypt a decade were consistent with a long history during which Egyptians rebelled against their leaders. This accessible text, written from a "close to the ground" perspective, provides invaluable insight into the Middle East's largest and most influential country. It is for history buffs, policy geeks, and Middle East obsessives.

The Akhmatova Journals

By Lydia Chukovskaya, Milena Michalski, Sylva Rubashova

Book cover of The Akhmatova Journals: Volume 1, 1938-1941

Akhmatova was one of the most important poets in the city’s history, and here she is brought to life by an exceptionally talented diarist: elusive, but at times extremely frank, hesitant, vulnerable, while at the same time demanding. It is a riveting portrait. Chukovskaya also draws a fraught picture of Leningrad during the Stalinist Great Terror, as evoked in Akhmatova’s famous cycle of memorial poems, Requiem. Look out also for Chukovskaya’s novel about the Terror, Sofia Petrovna.

Who am I?

I particularly enjoyed writing this book about a city that I love and have visited many times (starting in the late 1970s, when I was a student), and whose history I know well too. Most books, by foreigners anyway, talk about the city from a distance; I wanted to write something visceral, about sounds and smells as well as sights, and above all, how locals themselves think about their city, the way in which its intense and in some respects oppressive past shapes St Petersburg’s life today – yet all the same, never gets taken too seriously. Readers seem to agree: as well as an appreciative letter from Jan Morris, whose travel writing I’ve always admired, I treasure an email message from someone who followed my advice and tramped far and wide – before ending up in the room for prisoners’ relatives to drop off parcels at Kresty (the main city prison) when he wrongly assumed he was using an entrance to the (in fact non-existent) museum.

I wrote...

St Petersburg: Shadows of the Past

By Catriona Kelly,

Book cover of St Petersburg: Shadows of the Past

What is my book about?

Fragile, gritty, and vital to an extraordinary degree, St. Petersburg is one of the world's most alluring cities--a place in which the past is at once ubiquitous and inescapably controversial. Yet outsiders are far more familiar with the city's pre-1917 and Second World War history than with its recent past. In this beautifully illustrated and highly original book, Catriona Kelly shows how creative engagement with the past has always been fundamental to St. Petersburg's residents. Weaving together oral history, personal observation, literary and artistic texts, journalism, and archival materials, she traces the at times paradoxical feelings of anxiety and pride that were inspired by living in the city, both when it was socialist Leningrad, and now. Ranging from rubbish dumps to promenades, from the city's glamorous center to its grimy outskirts, this ambitious book offers a compelling and always unexpected panorama of an extraordinary and elusive place.

Hope Against Hope

By Nadezhda Mandelstam, Max Hayward,

Book cover of Hope Against Hope: A Memoir

Written by the wife of Russia’s great poet, Osip Mandelstam, this book is one of the most important—and brilliant--memoirs of the Stalin years. Perhaps more than any other book, it captures the atmosphere of fear and terror that surrounded members of the creative intelligentsia under Stalin.

Who am I?

Lynne Viola is a University Professor of Russian history at the University of Toronto. Educated at Barnard and Princeton, she has carried out research in Russian and Ukrainian archives for over 30 years. Among her books, are two dealing with Stalinist repression: Stalinist Perpetrators on Trial: Scenes from the Great Terror in Soviet Ukraine and The Unknown Gulag: The Lost World of Stalin’s Special Settlements. Both are based on work in previously classified archives, including the archives of the political police.

I wrote...

Stalinist Perpetrators on Trial: Scenes from the Great Terror in Soviet Ukraine

By Lynne Viola,

Book cover of Stalinist Perpetrators on Trial: Scenes from the Great Terror in Soviet Ukraine

What is my book about?

Between the summer of 1937 and November 1938, the Stalinist regime arrested over 1.5 million people for "counterrevolutionary" and "anti-Soviet" activity and either summarily executed or exiled them to the Gulag. While we now know a great deal about the experience of victims of the Great Terror, we know almost nothing about the lower- and middle-level Narodnyi Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del (NKVD), or secret police, cadres who carried out Stalin's murderous policies. Unlike the postwar, public trials of Nazi war criminals, NKVD operatives were tried secretly. And what exactly happened in those courtrooms was unknown until now.

The Mountains Sing

By Mai Phan Que Nguyen,

Book cover of The Mountains Sing

Although it is the most recently published of this group, The Mountains Sing has already been widely read, reviewed, and translated and is justifiably on its way to becoming a mainstay in the literature of the Vietnam War. The novel serves as a welcome counterpoint to Graham Greene’s Phuong and much other fiction about the war and Vietnam; what the writer wants to—and powerfully succeeds in doing—is to present non-Vietnamese readers not only with female central characters who break the Madame Butterfly/Miss Saigon/Quiet American stereotypes, but whose voices take us into the heart of the country itself, the painful history of the nation as personalized through the story of the Tran family as they survive, overcome, and finally thrive. The novel moves from the Second World War to the present and is told in alternating chapters: Huong, a teenager whose mother and father have both gone to fight the war…

Who am I?

Wayne Karlin is the author of eight novels and three works of non-fiction. His books have been published in translation in Denmark, Sweden, Italy, and Vietnam. Karlin, who served in the United States Marine Corps in Vietnam, co-edited the first anthology of veterans’ fiction from the Vietnam War, and was the editor of the Curbstone Press Voices from Vietnam series, publishing Vietnamese writers in translation. He has received five State of Maryland Individual Artist Awards in Fiction, two Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (1994 and 2004), the Paterson Prize in Fiction for 1999, the Vietnam Veterans of American Excellence in the Arts Award in 2005, and the Juniper Prize for Fiction for 2019 for his novel of the War of 1812, A Wolf by the Ears.

I wrote...

Wandering Souls: Journeys with the Dead and the Living in Vietnam

By Wayne Karlin,

Book cover of Wandering Souls: Journeys with the Dead and the Living in Vietnam

What is my book about?

Wandering Souls is the poignant story of how an American veteran helped a Vietnamese family find peace, and in turn, found peace with himself. First Lieutenant Homer Steedly, Jr. and Sergeant-medic Hoang Ngoc Dam became inextricably bound when they met accidentally on a jungle path in Viet Nam and Homer shot and killed Dam. Nearly forty years later, Homer returned to Viet Nam to bring the journal he took from Dam’s body to his family, and to help them find and bring Dam’s remains to his home village.

Wandering Souls brings to light the grace and courage of a soldier who took onto himself the rendering grief of his former enemy’s family. It is also the story of the grace and mercy of a family – and an entire village – who took that soldier to their hearts and allowed their gratitude at the ending he brought to their story to outweigh their need to hate him for the death that began it.

In Pharaoh's Army

By Tobias Wolff,

Book cover of In Pharaoh's Army: Memories of the Lost War

Tobias Wolff is a short-story writer I admire very much, and I enjoyed his first memoir This Boy's Life, so I was very excited to read what he had to say about his experience in the Army and his tour of duty in Vietnam in the late 1960s. This book captures much of the confusing stew of boyish patriotism, confusion, disillusionment, and disgust that I heard expressed by many others in those days.

Who am I?

Alice K. Boatwright has lived in the US, England, France, and India – and her career as a writer about public health, education, and the arts has taken her around the world. She began writing short stories when she was young and holds an MFA in Writing Fiction from Columbia University. Her award-winning book about the Vietnam War era, Collateral Damage, was inspired by her own experiences during the war years in the US and the time she spent working on a project in Vietnam in 1993 and 1997. She is also the author of a short story chapbook, Sea, Sky, Islands; numerous stories published in journals, such as Calyx, Mississippi Review Online, America West, Penumbra, Stone Canoe, and Amarillo Bay; and the popular Ellie Kent mysteries, based on her experiences as an ex-pat living in an English village.

I wrote...

Collateral Damage

By Alice K. Boatwright,

Book cover of Collateral Damage

What is my book about?

How many years does it take for a war to end? Collateral Damage is three linked novellas about the Vietnam War era from the perspectives of those who fought, those who resisted, and the family and friends caught between them. Now in a new edition with an introduction about the 50th anniversary of the war and discussion questions for classes and book clubs.

Beautiful Revolutionary

By Laura Elizabeth Woollett,

Book cover of Beautiful Revolutionary

Woollett’s novel is based on much research on Peoples Temple and Jonestown. She came to the US from Australia for interviews with many survivors and others—including Ron Cabral and me because of our knowledge of the teenagers in the Temple. It’s a great read and adds much to the understanding of those who joined the Temple. Evelyn Lyndon (all the characters have fictional names except Jim Jones) is the “Beautiful Revolutionary” who, with her idealistic husband, joins the Temple and eventually becomes one of Jones’s mistresses. I recognize many of the book’s characters, sometimes two people rolled into one. Only in a novel could Woollett be in the minds of the characters she follows in this story, who are all believable and vividly drawn.

Who am I?

I taught English and creative writing for 37 years in San Francisco, California. In 2018, Ron Cabral and I published And Then They Were Gone, which tells the story of the People’s Temple teenagers we taught. Many of them never returned after the Jonestown massacre and died there. We hope this story about our young students—their hopes, their poetry, their efforts to help make a better world—will bring some light to the dark story of Jonestown.

I wrote...

And Then They Were Gone: Teenagers of Peoples Temple from High School to Jonestown

By Judy Bebelaar, Ron Cabral,

Book cover of And Then They Were Gone: Teenagers of Peoples Temple from High School to Jonestown

What is my book about?

Of the 918 Americans who died in the shocking murder-suicides of November 18, 1978, in the tiny South American country of Guyana, a third were under eighteen. More than half were in their twenties or younger. And Then They Were Gone: Teenagers of Peoples Temple from High School to Jonestown begins in San Francisco at the small school where Reverend Jim Jones enrolled the teens of his Peoples Temple church in 1976. Within a year, most had been sent to join Jones and other congregants in what Jones promised was a tropical paradise based on egalitarian values, but which turned out to be a deadly prison camp. Set against the turbulent backdrop of the late 1970s, And Then They Were Gone draws from interviews, books, and articles. Many of these powerful stories are told here for the first time.

The Outsider

By Frederick Forsyth,

Book cover of The Outsider: My Life in Intrigue

In 2015 Forsyth published his autobiography entitled The Outsider: My Life in Intrigue. This is another excellent book written in his usual style - full of intrigue and adventures, only this time the author himself is the main protagonist. Besides, all that Forsyth describes in this book is either true or at least very close to the truth including his admitting that for a certain period of time and in certain countries he had been acting as an agent of Her Majesty’s Secret Service. That doesn’t mean, of course, that Forsyth had ever been a spy, but he is certainly writing his spy novels as an insider.

All his books are extremely well written and must be studied by all intelligence professionals as textbooks. Usually, intelligence officers do not like reading because they think their life is so interesting and full of adventures that nothing can be more fascinating.…

Who am I?

Boris B. Volodarsky is a former intelligence officer, captain of the GRU Spetsnaz, Russian special forces. With the first raising of the Iron Curtain, Boris legally left the Soviet Union with his family. After living in the West for over 30 years, he became a British academic writing books and other academic works on the subject he knew best of all – the history of intelligence. Dr. Volodarsky earned a history degree at the London School of Economics under Professor Sir Paul Preston defending his doctoral thesis there with flying colours. He is contributing articles to the leading newspapers and is often interviewed by television and radio channels in Britain and the USA.

I wrote...

Assassins: The KGB's Poison Factory Ten Years on

By Boris Volodarsky,

Book cover of Assassins: The KGB's Poison Factory Ten Years on

What is my book about?

This book is the second volume of my The KGB’s Poison Factory, first published in 2009 after the infamous poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in London by radioactive Polonium-210. It had several reprints in both UK and the USA and was translated into other languages. I was one of the consultants to the British investigation carried out by SO-15 of the Metropolitan police. I also knew both Sasha Litvinenko and his patron, Boris Berezovsky, personally. In the new book I add ten new cases where it was proved without doubt that Russian agents poisoned Kremlin’s opponents in various parts of the world. It covers the time span of several decades.

Why this book is so special? First of all, it presents the Litvinenko case in an entirely new light showing many flaws of the investigation and the following inquest, which made wrong conclusions based on insufficient or manipulated evidence. Another chapter, ‘The Oligarch’, seeks to prove that Boris Berezovsky, a Russian business tycoon who had resided in London for 13 years, did not commit suicide, as the Thames Valley Police investigation wanted to demonstrate, but was murdered by Russian intelligence. My conclusion is supported by Professor Bern Brinkmann, an internationally renowned medico-legal expert and forensic scientist who was employed by members of Berezovsky’s family. Other cases include the murder of the Soviet defector Nikolai Artamonov in Vienna, the poisoning of Sergey Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, and so on, all presented differently from what one can read in popular media.

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