706 books directly related to 20th century 📚

All 706 20th century books as recommended by authors and experts. Updated weekly.

Shah of Shahs

By Ryszard Kapuściński,

Book cover of Shah of Shahs

Why this book?

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.

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

By Hampton Sides,

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

Why this book?

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!)

U and I: A True Story

By Nicholson Baker,

Book cover of U and I: A True Story

Why this book?

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.

Origins: A Memoir

By Amin Maalouf,

Book cover of Origins: A Memoir

Why this book?

I read Maalouf's book many years ago and it remains one of the best books I have ever read about identity. It helps that he is a gifted writer and that Maalouf's story is so compelling.

The Akhmatova Journals: Volume 1, 1938-1941

By Lydia Chukovskaya, Milena Michalski, Sylva Rubashova

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

Why this book?

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.

Hope Against Hope: A Memoir

By Nadezhda Mandelstam, Max Hayward,

Book cover of Hope Against Hope: A Memoir

Why this book?

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.

The Mountains Sing

By Mai Phan Que Nguyen,

Book cover of The Mountains Sing

Why this book?

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 with America, describes her life in Hanoi in wartime, living under terrifying bombardments and deprivations, witnessing her mother and uncle returning from the battlefield traumatized and emotionally numbed, while also seeing how the war which split Vietnam against itself fractures her own family. At the same time, she listens to her Grandmother Dieu Lan tell the story of her life up to that time, through the Japanese occupation, the “Great Hunger” where millions of Vietnamese starved to death, the Land Reform period when forced collectivization in the North was the source of injustice and murder. The story of both these women, and their family, could be—and so represents—the story of millions of Vietnamese, but by concentrating on one family whom we get to know and care about, luminous descriptive language, and the creation of an engrossing plot, it becomes a story through which readers can find a Vietnam missing in so much of American—and in the case of Graham Greene—English fiction about the war. 

In Pharaoh's Army: Memories of the Lost War

By Tobias Wolff,

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

Why this book?

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.

Beautiful Revolutionary

By Laura Elizabeth Woollett,

Book cover of Beautiful Revolutionary

Why this book?

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.

The Outsider: My Life in Intrigue

By Frederick Forsyth,

Book cover of The Outsider: My Life in Intrigue

Why this book?

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. This is wrong. If I were lecturing at the spy school, I would say to my students: read Forsyth.

Experience: A Memoir

By Martin Amis,

Book cover of Experience: A Memoir

Why this book?

This is a magnificent autobiography, a work of intricate self-portraiture that takes in everything from the author’s dental troubles, through his relationship with his father, to his reaction to his cousin’s murder. Amis’s comic energy and stylistic brio are on sizzling display throughout, but so are qualities that aren’t often associated with his fiction: gentleness, generosity, emotional vulnerability…

Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

By Timothy Snyder,

Book cover of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

Why this book?

This is not an easy read by any stretch of the imagination, but it is an essential book for anyone seeking to understand recent eastern European history. Snyder has written a clear-sighted, impeccably-researched account of how, between them, the totalitarian regimes of Hitler and Stalin brutally murdered fourteen million people in the bloodlands of eastern Europe. A chilling read.

American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880 - 1964

By William Manchester,

Book cover of American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880 - 1964

Why this book?

Manchester’s biography of Douglas MacArthur provides a sympathetic but generally evenhanded characterization of MacArthur’s personality and life contributions.  He provides a detailed background of MacArthur’s military history and his capability of managing complex administrative duties in a complex world.  He acknowledged MacArthur’s skill and bravery in challenging circumstances.  In balance of his descriptions of MacArthur, he also noted complex circumstances in which he was difficult to deal with and sometimes suspicious and mistrustful of others. In his characterization of MacArthur as “Julius Caesar” he characterized MacArthur as having great intellect, brilliant strategic generalship, and political ambition as well as compassion. 

Adventures of a Bystander

By Peter F. Drucker,

Book cover of Adventures of a Bystander

Why this book?

Peter F. Drucker is the most famous and influential management thinker of the 20th century. He grew up in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which fell at the end of the First World War. His classic education, his knowledge of history, his broad horizons, his understanding of business processes make him unique among management thinkers. He outshines them all. And he is an outstanding, captivating writer. Anyone who wants to learn and understand about management must read this book. I have read it three times. I mourn this late friend.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays

By Joan Didion,

Book cover of Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays

Why this book?

I’ve lived in California and feel that this is the most eloquent book that describes the Golden State from the perspective of a transplanted New Yorker. Though written in the 1960s, many of her observations are still cogent and on the mark, yet, at the same time, they are also revealing about the author. In her essay, “Goodbye to All That,” she wrote, “For a lot of the time I was in New York, I used a perfume called Fleurs de Rocaille, and then L’Air du Temps, and not the trace of either can short-circuit my connections for the rest of the day.”

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

By Stephen King,

Book cover of On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Why this book?

When one of the world’s top-selling authors writes a book that validates many of your most deeply held views on writing and creativity, it’s hard not to recommend it! For example, when so many writers and writing instructors tout planning, plotting, and outlining as essential to creative success, it’s refreshing to come upon a brilliantly successful writer who confesses that he rarely does any of those things. Rather, he frees his stories to take charge of the process; to me, that’s the best way to conquer any writer’s block! Here’s one of my favorite quotes from the book: “I won’t try to convince you that I’ve never plotted any more than I’d try to convince you that I’ve never told a lie, but I do both as infrequently as possible.”  

Sometimes You Have to Lie: The Life and Times of Louise Fitzhugh, Renegade Author of Harriet the Spy

By Leslie Brody,

Book cover of Sometimes You Have to Lie: The Life and Times of Louise Fitzhugh, Renegade Author of Harriet the Spy

Why this book?

As a native New Yorker and lifelong fan of Harriet the Spy (one among legions) reading the product of Leslie Brody’s detective work into the life of her creator is a special pleasure. Born in 1928, Fitzhugh was the product of a high society Memphis marriage that ended in scandal. She went on to live a vibrant, turbulent life in the queer artist and writers scene in New York. It makes total sense that someone who straddled so many different worlds had such a deep understanding of the multiple lives we all lead, and such a keen ability to perceive other people, all of which she poured into her characters. I also recommend her other incredible YA novel, Nobody’s Family Is Going to Change, which tackles race, children’s rights, and the profound beauty of tap dancing.

Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder

By Caroline Fraser,

Book cover of Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder

Why this book?

Laura Ingalls Wilder maintains an avid fanbase in spite of reappraisals of her racial attitudes; and re-encountering her as an adult can be an exciting, disappointing, jarring, but fascinating experience. Caroline Fraser sorts through the semi-autobiographical sources, not least of which are their fictional writings, of Wilder and her collaborator daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, all of which they infused with their own nostalgia and libertarianism. The tortured landscape becomes almost another living figure, as well, since natural disasters set the scene for the novels and their writing. The books’ creation, their influences, and, in turn, their influence in the mythmaking of the American West, contemporary racism, and man-made climate change included, make Wilder more than just a little girl growing up in little houses. Readers might also find themselves wishing to revisit other figures from their youth.

Green Island

By Shawna Yang Ryan,

Book cover of Green Island

Why this book?

Both a family history and a political primer of Taiwan, spanning the years from 1947 to 2003, this is my go-to fiction recommendation. The title comes from the name of an island where many political prisoners were sent during the martial law era. Green Island opens with the birth of the female narrator as a revolt against oppressive Nationalist rule breaks out on the streets of Taipei. She is delivered by her father, a doctor who is arrested and sent to Green Island. A deserved popular and critical success, this is one of the few Taiwan works available as an audiobook.

Running with Scissors

By Augusten Burroughs,

Book cover of Running with Scissors

Why this book?

All of Augusten Burrough’s books are fantastic. He brings a frank, hilarious, and often dark take on his life. In Running with Scissors, he recounts his bizarre childhood. His mother sends him to live with a psychiatrist where he lives without boundaries. Several characters in the book have challenged Burrough’s recollection of their lives, though the author claims the memoir is accurate. 

The Eighty-Dollar Champion: Snowman, the Horse That Inspired a Nation

By Elizabeth Letts,

Book cover of The Eighty-Dollar Champion: Snowman, the Horse That Inspired a Nation

Why this book?

Snowman is an equine Cinderella Story, and who doesn’t love that? It’s the well-known tale of a savvy horseman who spotted a horse on a truck bound for slaughter and bought him, then turned the horse into an internationally famous show jumper. The story of the bond between the owner, Harry de Leyer, and this amazing horse is inspiring not only to horse lovers, but their relationship also captured the imagination of Cold War-era America. The author does infuse a lot of the history of the time into the book, which may not be every reader’s cup of tea, but as for myself, I enjoy the historical context. The horse, Snowman, almost becomes a symbol of triumph during one of the darkest periods of history. 

Olivia on the Record

By Ginny Z. Berson,

Book cover of Olivia on the Record

Why this book?

A wonderful overview of the early years of Olivia Records, this memoir from the social justice warrior of the original Olivia collective details how the first lesbian recording company was founded—and succeeded, despite all odds. Berson includes romantic insights on the artists’ passion for one another, as well as accounts of building a national audience. For two generations of women who came out with this music, the songs and albums remain critical anthems of female empowerment—and the only music that existed to affirm lesbians’ lives.

Censoring Racial Ridicule: Irish, Jewish, and African American Struggles over Race and Representation, 1890-1930

By M. Alison Kibler,

Book cover of Censoring Racial Ridicule: Irish, Jewish, and African American Struggles over Race and Representation, 1890-1930

Why this book?

A unique and insightful look at how three groups fought back against their widespread stereotyping in the media of the early 20th century, and how two of them largely succeeded in changing these portrayals. The reasons why African-Americans were much less successful than Irish and Jews in fighting stereotypes are complex and fascinating, and hold lessons for us today.

Anne Sexton: A Biography

By Diane Wood Middlebrook,

Book cover of Anne Sexton: A Biography

Why this book?

This poignant narrative of Anne Sexton’s life takes you inside the complicated emotions of a prize winning poet who began her career as a suburban housewife and mother. I especially loved but also envied the portrait of Sexton’s long friendship with poet Maxine Kumin with whom Sexton took her first steps in the writing of poetry. Famously, the two women kept a separate phone line open between their houses so that they could share and craft lines between domestic chores. Sadly, despite the pulls of friendship, the biography shows, even the most talented writer has demons that can’t be vanquished. Middlebrook reveals the psychic cost of creativity, especially for women artists in the years before feminism. 

An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination

By Elizabeth McCracken,

Book cover of An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination

Why this book?

This extraordinary book combines a lived experience with the powerful writing of an accomplished author.  Unexpectedly, in her mid-thirties, she finds a man to love and a baby is on the way. But then, the agony:  the baby dies in utero in the ninth month. She tackles head-on the deepest feelings and questions this brings. I like the way she unsparingly describes her experience and her grief, and then how she processes this and finds a way to move on. 

Western Women and Imperialism: Complicity and Resistance

By Nupur Chaudhuri (editor), Margaret Strobel (editor),

Book cover of Western Women and Imperialism: Complicity and Resistance

Why this book?

A collection of very short but incredibly interesting and illuminating essays, this book inaugurated the field of study we might call “feminism and empire.” Strobel and Chaudhuri gathered up the most important histories written to that date that explained how nineteenth and twentieth-century feminism emerged from colonialist contexts all over the world. Asking the question “what difference does gender make?” each author teases out the importance of gender for colonial travel and politics in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Reading this book made me want to contribute to that kind of historical understanding of gender, modeling for me what an “intersectional feminist” method of historical investigation might look like.

The Stories of John Cheever

By John Cheever,

Book cover of The Stories of John Cheever

Why this book?

Not only is Cheever’s "The Swimmer" part of the “canon” of literary works about swimming, it’s widely considered one of the greatest works of short fiction. He frames the journey as an Odyssey with all the classical echoes that suggests. The protagonist, Ned Merrill, decides to swim back to his home through the pools of his suburban neighbors, a journey that starts out as a lark and slowly turns into a descent into hell. In truth, the story is less about swimming than suburban life in the 1950s, but it packs a powerful punch.

Mosaic (Star Trek Voyager)

By Jeri Taylor,

Book cover of Mosaic (Star Trek Voyager)

Why this book?

Ah, Captain Kathryn Janeway of the Federation Starship Voyager. A fictional character from Star Trek: Voyager who has managed to become my (and many others) mentor in life, leadership, and careers. Mosaic tells the backstory of our beloved Captain, from her home life in Indiana to her time as a science officer and eventually becoming Captain of her own starship. This story by Jeri Taylor (who served as Executive Producer on Voyager for five seasons) captures Janeway in a way rarely seen outside of Kate Mulgrew herself. As a bonus, you can listen to an abridged version read by Kate as well!

They Didn't See Us Coming: The Hidden History of Feminism in the Nineties

By Lisa Levenstein,

Book cover of They Didn't See Us Coming: The Hidden History of Feminism in the Nineties

Why this book?

Levenstein’s subtitle says it all: we generally don’t think there was a ‘90s feminism. Her book pairs especially well with the others on this list, because it demonstrates how women of color took the lead in an intersectional feminism that focused on a huge range of issues at the end of the 20th century. It’s also a great read about the role of the early internet in 1990s feminist organizing. If you think social media was the first time computer technology shaped grassroots activism, her chapter on technology alone will blow your mind.

Paula: A Memoir

By Isabel Allende,

Book cover of Paula: A Memoir

Why this book?

In this heart-wrenching memoir, international best-selling author Isabel Allende interweaves her own extraordinary life journey and heritage, with her daughter Paula’s slow and torturous death. 

Driven out of Chile into exile herself, plus endangering her own life helping other refugees escape, Allende writes with deep psychological incite into the fate of the displaced. To being forced to leave one's home and country, to lose your tribe and nation, to survive the damage to your soul, and forever fearing not being safe.

Rhetorics of Literacy: The Cultivation of American Dialect Poetry

By Nadia Nurhussein,

Book cover of Rhetorics of Literacy: The Cultivation of American Dialect Poetry

Why this book?

Nadia Nurhussein’s book is critically important for understanding the role of dialect poetry in the African American poetic tradition. It is all too easy to dismiss the popularity of dialect poetry in America—including Black dialect—as an embarrassing phase in American taste and particularly problematic for poetry used in minstrelsy but Nurhussein argues for the importance of the craft of dialect poetry and the remarkable brilliance of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s work along with many other poets working in many other dialects.

Swan: Poems and Prose Poems

By Mary Oliver,

Book cover of Swan: Poems and Prose Poems

Why this book?

I would own this book for Mary Oliver’s poem “How I Go to the Woods” alone! Oliver’s love of nature, the way she notices the details of her surroundings, and the language she uses to describe her experiences are breathtaking. It’s easy to see why Mary Oliver won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.

Down Below

By Leonora Carrington,

Book cover of Down Below

Why this book?

This slender, 70-page memoir of a time in which both one woman and the world went mad is a beautifully-rendered portrait of psychosis. Written decades after the episode, Down Below describes the British-Mexican surrealist painter Leonora Carrington’s psychotic break in 1940, the circumstances of which were themselves aptly surreal. As a 19-year-old art student in London, she had fallen in love with the celebrated (and married) artist Max Ernst, and run scandalously away with him to a farmhouse in Provence. After Germany invaded France, the Jewish Ernst was arrested, leaving Carrington so intensely abandoned and shocked by unfolding history that she vomited repeatedly.

She began to unravel as she wandered her way out of France, eventually entering Madrid, which she perceived “as the world’s stomach, and that I had been chosen for the task of restoring this digestive organ to health. I believed that all anguish had accumulated in me and would dissolve in the end.” Her time enduring brutal treatment in a Spanish asylum and her subsequent escape to Mexico where her career flourished speaks to her tremendous resilience.

The Left Hand of Darkness

By Ursula K. Le Guin,

Book cover of The Left Hand of Darkness

Why this book?

This story is a masterclass in worldbuilding, it has an intricate plot, it’s science fiction that also talks about hate and fear and the differences in culture, and oh yeah, it features a whole entire gender-fluid species. The book is both about gender and not about gender, and the main character of Genly goes through a period of self-reflection and realizing his shortcomings. If you haven’t read it, you should. It’s Ursula K. Le Guin, what more do I need to say?

Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era

By Elaine Tyler May,

Book cover of Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era

Why this book?

I am recommending this book because Elaine Tyler May offered one of the earliest analyses of gender and sex tied directly to the dictates and needs of political culture. She insightfully delineates “domestic containment,” a component of Cold War culture which paralleled the foreign policy initiative to contain communism and nuclear arms throughout the world. But in this case the sphere of influence was the home. By excavating Cold War culture (for example, Life Magazine’s coverage of a couple honeymooning in a bomb shelter) and some fascinating longitudinal data May demonstrates the way domestic containment sought to keep women and men in their proscribed domestic roles, and she reveals the difficulty many families had living up to the ideal.  Her history illuminates our long-lasting nostalgia for the “traditional” family and remains so relevant today.

A Theatre for Dreamers

By Polly Samson,

Book cover of A Theatre for Dreamers

Why this book?

Get lost on the Greek Isle of Hydra among an artistic commune of Bohemian proportion. The year is 1960. One of the characters in the book is real-life songwriter Leonard Cohen, who actually lived on the island at the time. Author Polly Samson and legendary songwriter/instrumentalist David Gilmour wrote the song Yes I Have Ghosts which is a line from the book. In an interview with American Songwriter, Samson said while she was writing the book, she wandered through a cemetery asking questions of her characters. She asked, “Do you believe in ghosts?” And one of her characters responded, “Yes I have ghosts. Not all of them are dead.”

Farewell to the Party of Lincoln: Black Politics in the Age of F.D.R

By Nancy Joan Weiss,

Book cover of Farewell to the Party of Lincoln: Black Politics in the Age of F.D.R

Why this book?

Nancy Weiss traces how Black Americans, who traditionally voted Republican, abandoned the Party of Lincoln for the Democrats during the Roosevelt era. By 1932, Black dissatisfaction with the GOP had surfaced and centered on Herbert Hoover’s mishandling of the Great Depression. Although Hoover still won Black votes, Black Americans crossed over to support FDR in key electoral districts. Roosevelt’s New Deal economic programs neglected to remedy Black poverty and inequality but the President’s progressive reputation made him popular with many in the Black community. Creative campaign strategies targeting the Black community increased Black support for FDR and solidified the Democratic party’s hold on Black votes in 1936 and 1940. This important transformation shaped the future of the America political landscape and increased Black voices in the American political process.

The Century of the Gene

By Evelyn Fox Keller,

Book cover of The Century of the Gene

Why this book?

Genes have variously been described as selfish and controlling—as providing a blueprint or a program for development—as even “the cell’s brain”. These descriptions of genes get in the way of our understanding of what genes actually do—and what they don’t (and cannot) do. Evelyn Fox Keller provides an antidote to the simplistic notions of genes that permeate our society and infect our scientific discourse. She carefully walks us through the history of the field and provides us with a much more realistic view of the intricacies of DNA. By the end of this marvelous book, you may not even think that genes are a thing at all.

The Lady with the Books: A Story Inspired by the Remarkable Work of Jella Lepman

By Kathy Stinson, Marie LaFrance (illustrator),

Book cover of The Lady with the Books: A Story Inspired by the Remarkable Work of Jella Lepman

Why this book?

In the dark era of post-World War II Germany, journalist, author, and translator Jella Lepman organized a traveling exhibit of over 2,000 books from 14 countries. The Lady with the Books is a fictionalized account of Lepman’s project, told through the eyes of siblings Annelise and Peter, who enter the exhibit hoping to find food and discover something even more sustaining—books, and the hope of better days to come.

A Writer's Diary: Being Extracts from the Diary of Virginia Woolf

By Virginia Woolf,

Book cover of A Writer's Diary: Being Extracts from the Diary of Virginia Woolf

Why this book?

This book became a kind of hymnal for me during the writing of Love and Fury. It was Virginia Woolf who in 1929 resurrected Mary Wollstonecraft’s reputation and legacy, buried for a century because a tell-all memoir written by her widower, William Godwin, scandalized the world. It seemed natural to turn to Woolf, who found inspiration in Wollstonecraft’s “experiments in living”. I read a section of the diary every day before I started to write. Woolf’s profound creative visions, her anguish, and passions, her voice, helped me locate Wollstonecraft and my own voice in hers. 

Simone de Beauvoir: A Biography

By Deirdre Bair,

Book cover of Simone de Beauvoir: A Biography

Why this book?

How does an American biographer write about a French philosopher and public intellectual who published copious memoirs of her own life, from girlhood to old age? The multi-talented Deirdre Bair succeeded in gaining access to the extraordinary Simone de Beauvoir and, supplemented by lengthy interviews over a five-year period and research in Beauvoir’s unpublished papers, produced a biography for the ages. In contrast to the biographies recommended above, the author had almost too much material to sift through, plus the challenge of writing about a living person. This is necessarily a fat book but one that is a “must-read.”

The Girl in the Flammable Skirt: Stories

By Aimee Bender,

Book cover of The Girl in the Flammable Skirt: Stories

Why this book?

My father’s neurologist described Alzheimer’s as “a real weird city.” It was as apt a description as I’ve found. This collection of magical, strange, and hilarious short stories kept me company as I navigated the shifting landscape of Dad’s illness. At that time, I could not have found a better reflection of my own stew of emotions than the “reverse evolution” chronicled in the first story in the book. “The Rememberer” saved me. Bender’s graceful tale of the acceptance of inevitable loss is suffused with love, and the way her writing lets imagination spring the bonds of reality encouraged me to respond with flexibility and curiosity as Dad loosened his grip on time, space, and identity.  

Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction

By J.D. Salinger,

Book cover of Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction

Why this book?

Okay. Fine. Maybe I only think this book is about loss because I know that, in later books, the same Glass family suffers losses and this sets the stage. But this is a story about a promise that is never realized and a relationship that is becoming progressively distant—and, in it, there is a sense of being lost if not having experienced a loss, specifically. In it, Buddy Glass takes Army leave to attend his brother’s wedding, but his brother never shows up. Somehow, Buddy winds up stuck in a limo with a group of disgruntled guests from whom he tries to hide his identity. In his sense of isolation, but also his awareness of the situation’s absurdity, we find humor and also sadness.

Snow Crash

By Neal Stephenson,

Book cover of Snow Crash

Why this book?

A futuristic cyberpunk indictment of capitalism and privatisation, Snow Crash is a wild ride from start to finish. Less dense and more accessible than some of other Stephenson’s novels, Snow Crash still pays homage to Stephenson’s love of linguistics, with the story centering on a digital language-based virus (disguised as a drug) that allows brain function to be programmed and controlled. But the real draw of this novel are the characters, the punk vibes, and the fun (almost satirical) story development: with mafia-employed, pizza deliverer, Hiro Protagonist navigating the metaverse, 21st Century Los Angeles, and Mr. Lee’s Greater Hong Kong with his skateboard-riding courier accomplice, Y.T. The perfect dystopian book to feed your rebellion against corporatisation. 

Mile Marker Zero: The Moveable Feast of Key West

By William McKeen,

Book cover of Mile Marker Zero: The Moveable Feast of Key West

Why this book?

William McKeen’s account of the evolution of 1960s–1970s Key West reads like a novel. Based largely on his interviews with Tom Corcoran (who was there then and knew everybody), McKeen tells the wild tales of some of Key West’s most eccentric and now famous characters from that era, like Tennessee Williams, Thomas McGuane, Margot Kidder, Jim Harrison, Hunter Thompson, and Jimmy Buffett.

Nine Stories

By J.D. Salinger,

Book cover of Nine Stories

Why this book?

I enjoyed "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" and "De Daumier-Smith's Blue Period," but the real gem here in Salinger's Nine Stories is "Teddy." "Teddy" is one of the most bizarre (yet thought-provoking) stories I have ever read. I loved reading and exploring all of the possible themes in this short compilation of tales. It seems like Salinger was truly able to portray mental struggles with his characters. 

All Among the Barley

By Melissa Harrison,

Book cover of All Among the Barley

Why this book?

Is this historical fiction or is it sublime nature writing?  Answer: it's both. Melissa Harrison completely immersed me into the rural Sussex world of Edie in 1933, a world unchanged for centuries. It is described in achingly beautiful, hypnotic, poetic language: the kind of prose I'd hoped I would write when I turned from poetry to fiction, but which has so far escaped me. I was utterly captivated by the multi-textured world she creates, and the shock of the ending, and the darkness which lies beneath. I loved the way she trusted the reader to understand what was going on, without spelling it out. Superbly controlled and crafted. I can only stand back and applaud.

The Bruce Trilogy: The Steps to the Empty Throne/The Path of the Hero King/The Price of the King's Peace

By Nigel Tranter,

Book cover of The Bruce Trilogy: The Steps to the Empty Throne/The Path of the Hero King/The Price of the King's Peace

Why this book?

Nigel Tranter’s Bruce Trilogy was the first historical fiction series I ever read. It fired a love of the genre that still drives my reading habits and writing today. The story of Robert the Bruce’s rise to the throne of Scotland and his fight to free Scotland from English domination can be found in history books, but Tranter made this hero of Scottish independence come alive like no straight history book could.

Lord of Scoundrels

By Loretta Chase,

Book cover of Lord of Scoundrels

Why this book?

Lord of Scoundrels regularly tops polls for the best romance ever written. I can see why – it’s got everything you want in a historical romance. It’s witty, sexy, and romantic, and it also tugs on the emotions. It’s one of those books where you laugh often, but you may also surprise yourself by shedding the occasional tear. One of my favorite tropes in historical romance is the marriage of convenience – divorce was almost impossible before the modern era, so when people married, they tended to stay that way. The marriage in Lord of Scoundrels is cobbled together out of scandal, although it’s perfectly clear that the big, bad Marquess of Dain and feisty Jessica Trent are made for each other. The fun for the reader is watching as Dain and Jessica eventually reach the same conclusion! 

The Writing Life

By Annie Dillard,

Book cover of The Writing Life

Why this book?

A frequent question I am asked is what my work, my day-to-day activities, as a writer are like. The answer is that it’s pretty mundane. Physically I sit at my desk for many hours without standing up. I can see it in my dog’s eyes that I am boring to watch. But inside my head, lots of trains, planes, and electric automobiles are flying around. Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Dillard puts into words, so eloquently, what writers are preoccupied about and how we manage to get our work done. Also, a slim book, clocking in at 111 pages of brilliance. 

Five Days of Fog

By Anna Freeman,

Book cover of Five Days of Fog

Why this book?

There aren’t many novels featuring professional female crooks, and Anna Freeman’s gripping story, set in London during the Great Smog of 1952, portrays a really believable all-female gang. Florrie Palmer is torn between her allegiance to the Cutters, led by her mother, and a desire to go straight. It’s a suspenseful, atmospheric read, and partly inspired by the real Forty Elephants.

The Widows of Malabar Hill

By Sujata Massey,

Book cover of The Widows of Malabar Hill

Why this book?

This book takes place from 1916-1921 in Bombay and Calcutta, following the protagonist in an alternating timeline. The story that is set in the past is my favorite part of the book, when you get to see how the protagonist, a young Parsi woman, became who she is. I loved watching her first fall in love, then grapple with gender roles and expectations until the past timeline eventually catches up with the present-day mystery. The setting itself is fascinating and unusual, and the protagonist’s journey is particularly compelling.

Kiss Kiss

By Roald Dahl,

Book cover of Kiss Kiss

Why this book?

Roald Dahl, who's mostly known for his writings of children’s literature, also wrote a plethora of brilliant adult short works of fiction. The author is relentlessly masterful in conjuring up bizzare, macabre stories. Subtle yet profound, these tales will be burrowed deep inside the reader's subconscious, lurking and writhing...

Once in Golconda: A True Drama of Wall Street 1920-1938

By John Brooks, Luke Crawford,

Book cover of Once in Golconda: A True Drama of Wall Street 1920-1938

Why this book?

And here we are, in the Roaring Twenties, the decade that showed a nation how much trouble an unruly Wall Street can cause the country! The late John Brooks of The New Yorker had a gift for romping through important financial history in the most entertaining way possible. I discovered this gem of his when I was new to covering Wall Street; I’ve turned to it countless times since, both for the facts and for the fun! 

Sold on a Monday

By Kristina McMorris,

Book cover of Sold on a Monday

Why this book?

This is a surprising backdrop for a romance, and I didn’t even buy the book for a romance read. The start is sad and intriguing – based on a true event – where a reported snapped a photo of a sign saying “children for sale” with the children in the background. The reporter is trying to build his career, and the photo was just a personal shot he took because he was shocked. But it ends up in the paper and causes a horrible cascade of events, which also brings him together with a woman who works at the same paper. This is such a different story and the romance is very sweet. 

A Girl from Yamhill: A Memoir

By Beverly Cleary,

Book cover of A Girl from Yamhill: A Memoir

Why this book?

Beverly Cleary's kid's books have been enjoyed by many generations of readers. I loved her true to life, tinged with humor books as a reader, teacher, and writer.

Like me, many readers wonder about the lives of people we admire and luckily Cleary has written a riveting, direct, and insightful memoir that helps us connect her fiction with her real-life experiences. Throughout Cleary comes across as someone we wish we knew.

The Ipcress File

By Len Deighton,

Book cover of The Ipcress File

Why this book?

When I asked fellow sci-fi authors what books should be cited as Top 5 “Spy-fi” contenders, only the Stainless Steel Rat books and 1990s The Borne Identity got multiple votes. Well, if you like brainwashing and mind-control as a “spy-fi” trope, you gotta go back to the titles listed above, Richard Condon’s 1959 The Manchurian Candidate, and Len Deighton’s The Ipcress File. Of those, Ipcress most deserves a place on this list. Deighton’s first Harry Palmer spy thriller pits the British secret agent against the CIA, his own people, and the Soviets in their various schemes to interfere with neutron bomb tests. Suspected of being a Soviet agent, at one point, he thinks he’s in Hungary where he is drugged and subjected to psychological and physical torture, and nearly cracks before eventually managing to escape—only to discover that he is in fact in London. Eventually, he uncovers the baddies are using a process called "Induction of Psycho-neuroses by Conditioned Reflex with Stress" (IPCRESS) to brainwash victims into loyalty to the Soviet Union.

The Ipcress process became a dramatic feature of the Michael Caine 1965 film version of the story and again in 2022 when the book was adapted into a six-part British miniseries. How’s that for longevity?

On Line: Drawing Through the Twentieth Century

By Connie Butler, Benjamin Buchloh,

Book cover of On Line: Drawing Through the Twentieth Century

Why this book?

As today’s artists are shifting boundaries of genres, creative debates are opened up and generate transformative methodologies. This book was instrumental for us, in instituting and revealing the relationship between drawing and performing, Butler, and de Zegher’s catalogue, demonstrates artworks at the forefront of the progressively vibrant and forward-thinking approach to art that contributes to the expanded field of drawing.

Books of Blood, Volume 1

By Clive Barker,

Book cover of Books of Blood, Volume 1

Why this book?

Clive Barker transcends the subgenre label of “splatterpunk,” infecting an array of lofty speculative traditions with mutilation and viscera. The author’s prose style is elegant, often gorgeous, and his depictions of violence connect to a provocative, career-long interest in the cosmic, glimpsed often by means of extreme physical experience. For my money, "The Midnight Meat Train" is one of the great horror stories of the late twentieth century.

The Wright Brothers

By David McCullough,

Book cover of The Wright Brothers

Why this book?

Every time I get on an airplane, I’m still blown away by our ability to fly like a bird. I had known little about the two brothers from Dayton, Ohio, who – despite no formal educations, money, and connections -- allowed us to soar. Particularly enjoyable were engaging stories of Wilbur and Orville’s childhood and family, their studies of birds, and their early work on bicycles and toy helicopters.

The London Restoration

By Rachel McMillan,

Book cover of The London Restoration

Why this book?

A love letter to London, this novel takes place immediately after the war, as a newlywed couple tries to pick up the pieces and fall in love again. But she’s keeping secrets from him—she must, having served as a codebreaker at Bletchley Park. And he’s struggling with nightmares from his service as an army medic. When her former boss ropes her in to help bring down a Soviet spy ring somehow connected to her beloved Christopher Wren churches, the secrets and nightmares could very well defeat them. A beautiful tale with literary depth.

The Kiss: A Memoir

By Kathryn Harrison,

Book cover of The Kiss: A Memoir

Why this book?

You would be forgiven for finding this memoir creepy and cringe-worthy. It is also bold and brave in its brash, brutally honest depiction of a sexual relationship between a woman in her twenties and her father. (I refuse to call it “love”.) The story is a raw example of how predators push through the permeable walls between right and wrong for their own gain. You may not agree with the young woman’s choices and you may not feel satisfied in the end, but you will accept her anguish and enter a world you hate to know exists.

In the Beginning, She Was

By Luce Irigaray,

Book cover of In the Beginning, She Was

Why this book?

Luce Irigaray’s book includes her powerful interpretation of Antigone but also brings a mature account of her on the role of the feminine within Western thought. In the Beginning, She Was, Irigaray guides us back to the Presocratics in order to reinstate the Goddess which was absent in the Western philosophical and religious discourses until the 20th century.       

King Kong Theory

By Virginie Despentes, Frank Wynne (translator),

Book cover of King Kong Theory

Why this book?

A hard-hitting work of theory that hinges heavily on Despentes’ personal experience in the worlds of punk and sex work, the French writer and filmmaker goes further than most in her demands for feminist solidarity. Brilliant, fun, and captivating, King Kong Theory sits alongside Paolo Freire, James C. Scott, and Emma Goldman in my personal pantheon of thinkers.

Behind the Mystery

By Laurie Roberts,

Book cover of Behind the Mystery

Why this book?

Here is a rare treat: a chance to see inside the homes and workplaces of seventeen great American authors and hear them questioned about their beginnings as writers and their work habits. It’s both a picture book and a series of dialogues. I have been fortunate enough to know and visit several of them personally - Sue Grafton, Evan Hunter, Sara Paretsky, and Donald Westlake - and it’s a joy to see and hear them again explaining their ways of writing a mystery. You soon realize how many different approaches are possible.   

John Stewart Bell and Twentieth Century Physics: Vision and Integrity

By Andrew Whitaker,

Book cover of John Stewart Bell and Twentieth Century Physics: Vision and Integrity

Why this book?

John Steward Bell is one of the giants of the twentieth-century sciences, sitting beside Einstein, Bohr, Shannon. I don’t hesitate to predict that history will set him at the firmament of all sciences, thanks to his revolutionary discovery of quantum non-locality. This biography is a must for everyone willing to understand the personality of John Bell, the father of what became after his sudden death the second quantum revolution.

Charlie's Promise

By Annemarie Allan,

Book cover of Charlie's Promise

Why this book?

Would you break the rules or break your promise? On the outskirts of Edinburgh, just before the outbreak of WW2, Charlie finds a starving German boy called Josef hiding in the woods near his home. Josef can’t speak English and is desperately afraid, especially of anyone in uniform. Charlie promises to help Josef find his Jewish relatives in the city. It’s a journey that will force them to face their fears, testing their new-found friendship, and Charlie’s promise, to the limit

This is a beautiful story full of heart and empathy, and a welcome reminder of the kindness of strangers and the innocence of childhood.

What Comes Next and How to Like It: A Memoir

By Abigail Thomas,

Book cover of What Comes Next and How to Like It: A Memoir

Why this book?

Unorthodox ways of living and loving appeal to me… in literature and in life. When I found Abigail Thomas in the year following my husband’s death, I felt I’d found a new friend. Thomas’s husband’s brain damage following an accident must have been a nightmare. Living for years with his rage and cognitive lapses must have taken every bit of her courage and resilience. When he died, Thomas was forced, as I was, to pick up and carry on with her life. Is there to be pleasure again? Or has this lifetime’s allotment of joy been used up? These were questions she and I shared. Thomas begins to find her way back via the little joys found with dogs, friends, and cooking (to name a few). Her humor and quirkiness blended with honesty helped me lift myself off the couch, and slowly, gently move forward into my new life.

The Bride

By Julie Garwood,

Book cover of The Bride

Why this book?

I must have a Julie Garwood novel on my list—and this is one of my favorites in the Scottish medieval romance category. In my opinion, Garwood writes great romance novels, with strong, attractive, and likable characters. This novel offers a determined hero and an equally headstrong heroine, combined with murder and intrigue. You’ll also have a few smiles with this one. I always enjoy a little humor in romance novels.

Vancouver Noir: 1930-1960

By Diane Purvey, John Belshaw,

Book cover of Vancouver Noir: 1930-1960

Why this book?

Purvey and Belshaw are a husband-and-wife team of academics who know how to spin a great story for a general audience. Their book is an account of the “noir era” in the city, roughly 1930 to 1960. It is inspired by the black and white photographs of crime scenes and shadowy streetscapes that appeared in the daily press of the period. Reading it is like revelling in an old gangster movie. Amply illustrated.

The Age of Reform

By Richard Hofstadter,

Book cover of The Age of Reform

Why this book?

A classic book by one of our country’s most eminent historians, The Age of Reform traces the interplay between American politics and the clashing forces within American society from the time of Jefferson to the time of Franklin Roosevelt. In between, the great social movements – pro-and anti-slavery, populism, progressivism, the New Deal – all play out on a vast canvas. Religion is not the centerpiece of Hofstadter’s narrative, but it’s there throughout, sometimes on stage and at other times in the background. I’ve been recommending this book to my students for years.

Horses in Society: A Story of Animal Breeding and Marketing Culture, 1800-1920

By Margaret E. Derry,

Book cover of Horses in Society: A Story of Animal Breeding and Marketing Culture, 1800-1920

Why this book?

This book traces the connections between horse breeding, biological science, international commerce, and foreign relations in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Derry focuses on three large topics: the breeding of large draft horses, international military horse markets, and government breeding programs. The horse market was essentially a warhorse market. I love how this book shows that looking at something like horse breeding leads to a better understanding of things like political economy and foreign relations. Breeding beliefs and practices reveal a lot about society and culture, and the military material is fascinating. I also recommend the chapter on horse culture that looks at literature and painting (the author is herself an accomplished painter).

Becoming Mary Sully: Toward an American Indian Abstract

By Philip J. Deloria,

Book cover of Becoming Mary Sully: Toward an American Indian Abstract

Why this book?

Before reading this book, I had never heard of Mary Sully. I’m thrilled that I now know about her stunning “personality prints,” abstract designs arranged in horizontal triptychs. Sully, who was born on the Standing Rock reservation in 1896, was largely a self-taught artist who never achieved wide recognition. Philip Deloria, a professor of history and a relative of Sully’s, delves into the complexities of what it meant to be a Dakota Sioux woman artist working with an innovative style of abstract art that didn’t fit into neat categories. This mirrors, Deloria says, the “scramble for survival” that an “Indian” woman had to navigate in a “difficult world.” That difficult world is still with us today, making this story a throughline to the present and a must-read.

New and Selected Poems, Volume One

By Mary Oliver,

Book cover of New and Selected Poems, Volume One

Why this book?

Like nature itself, poetry allows quiet reflection and a deep peace into our lives. Like Mary Oliver, I too, find an almost divine rapture in the sheer glory of Nature’s elemental wildness. In this collection, Oliver's mystical connection to nature combined with her simple language and clear imagery create poems that are profoundly beautiful. During these past years of the global pandemic lockdown, I was unable to restore my soul by visiting the South African wilderness that is so close to the city I live in. Instead, through contemplation of Oliver’s poetry and writing my own, I was able to re-connect with the bliss and strength that the natural world so generously offers us.

The City of To-morrow and Its Planning

By Le Corbusier, Frederick Etchells (translator),

Book cover of The City of To-morrow and Its Planning

Why this book?

Read this book if you care about cities. True, you may want to throw it across the room at times (I did),  but it is one of the most influential books of the 20th century and you should know your enemies. Written shortly after World War I when automobiles were beginning to clog streets, its author Le Corbusier had good intentions. He thought narrow crowded streets should be replaced by apartment towers set on green lawns. He used concrete boldly, opened up the interiors of buildings so light could flood in, and insisted that residences be far away from industry and commerce. But while the model can work for luxury housing, it doesn't work when neighborhoods are destroyed to build these high-rise blocks, and separating work from home by automobile-only roads means urban sprawl. 

Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith

By Andrew Wilson,

Book cover of Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith

Why this book?

This book about the ultimate rebel woman Patricia Highsmith explores in depth the many ways Highsmith rejected social expectations of her time in terms of her gender, sexuality, and writing material. The biography does not shy away from presenting Highsmith in all her glorious complexity – equal parts humorous, wry, loathsome, disturbing. This was one of the first biographies that I read where I realized the power of archives, what they can reveal, and how enlightening they can be when used so brilliantly, as Andrew Wilson does here. 

The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova

By Anna Akhmatova, Judith Hemschemeyer (translator),

Book cover of The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova

Why this book?

I love Akhmatova for her talent and her immense courage. Considered to be the ‘Soul of the Silver Age,’ the greatest modernist Russian woman poet, Akhmatova was a brilliant master of conveying raw emotion in her portrayals of everyday situations. She began to write poetry at age eleven and was first published in her late teens. Her father considered this to be an unsuitable and even shameful occupation and forbade her to write using the family name so she chose the surname of her great-grandmother, Akhmatova. Her works range from short lyric love poetry to longer, more complex poems, such as Requiem, a tragic depiction of the Stalinist terror, and written as a testament to the hardship and suffering of the people during this time, particularly women whose husbands and sons were imprisoned and executed. 

Break It Down

By Lydia Davis,

Book cover of Break It Down

Why this book?

It’s time I was reading Lydia Davis’s own stories, I tell myself, which are said to be remarkable, and I find that they are just that. She is nothing new to readers of serious literary fiction, having been writing her curious short stories since the late seventies. Her constructions are precise and elegant. Although plainspoken, her language is stylized and restrained in its effects. She is very much in control of her fictional creations. In some instances, they seem like exercises in logic, however Kafkaesque. Unlike Snijders’ stories, hers are more formal in tone and presentation. They have a satisfying shape and a sense of an ending that is not arbitrary.

Davis’s theater is that of consciousness. Personages in her small dramas of “the mind working” are exceptionally alert, sometimes painfully so; often they have trouble falling asleep. Their dreams have the solidity of objects. Dither and nervousness characterize her world, which reminds me of Russell Edson’s, a poet whom she readily admits as having been an influence on her radical redefining of the short story. Her pieces can be read as glosses on modern life, which is shown to be in a constant state of dread and waiting. Her characters are perplexed, distracted, and dissatisfied with how their lives have been arranged. In writing as she does, I am all the more amazed by her translation of Flaubert’s highly wrought surfaces. 

Native Speaker

By Chang-Rae Lee,

Book cover of Native Speaker

Why this book?

I feel Chang-Rae Lee broke out of the mold of Asian American books that always dealt with immigration or stories set in Old Asia. A young man, Henry Park, is hired to infiltrate the campaign of a Korean American running for mayor in New York City. Yes, this delves into the issues of assimilation and alienation, but the novel is about so much more. It’s lyrical and poignant and universal in its explorations of familial and marital love. 

Life & Times of Michael K

By J.M. Coetzee,

Book cover of Life & Times of Michael K

Why this book?

It was a shock to read this book. So unlike anything I’d read before in the literature of South Africa. A strange almost dreamlike novel about a mostly mute man’s wanderings and sufferings through the societies and landscapes that make up South Africa. Allegorical, subversive, challenging, philosophical, yet ultimately life-affirming. 

Still valid, in our present age of wandering peoples, in its depiction of a failed Eden.

I paid homage to the book by introducing a minor character named Michael in my own novel.

This Thing of Darkness

By K.V. Turley, Fiorella De Maria,

Book cover of This Thing of Darkness

Why this book?

After Bram Stoker and Vlad the Impaler, the real person most closely associated with vampires has to be Bela Lugosi—so why not write a horror novel with him as the villain? This book underscores the important role that unsettling and dramatic occurrences can play in shaking us out of our own accustomed vices, as well as the difficulty we often face when trying to discern the difference between the works of evil and the truly mundane. After all, Bela Lugosi is nothing more than a tired, sad old man still pining for his glory days on the silver screen—isn’t he?

The Pull of the Stars

By Emma Donoghue,

Book cover of The Pull of the Stars

Why this book?

Dublin 1918, Nurse Julia Power works in an understaffed maternity hospital in the city centre at the time of the Spanish Flu. In the dark intensity of this ward, Julia battles the pandemic trying to save the lives of those women and babies under her care alongside a young volunteer helper, Bridie Sweeney. There is inevitable loss, with the worlds of those left behind irrevocably changed. In this tender book that features a cameo appearance of one of Ireland’s greatest heroes, Doctor Kathleen Lynn, Donoghue produces a story that is both tragic and uplifting in a period of social and political upheaval during Ireland’s struggle for freedom.

A Girl's Story

By Annie Ernaux, Alison L. Strayer (translator),

Book cover of A Girl's Story

Why this book?

In A Girl’s Story Annie Ernaux – the author of many memoirs about her parents, her lower-class background, and her sexual life – revisits the summer when she was 18 and a summer camp counselor. For the first time away from home, she was so eager for love that she ended up pursuing a man who dumped and humiliated her. Ernaux has a unique way to find lost time again. She scrutinizes the past with such a precise scalpel that it allows us to identify with the lost young girl and to share her confusion and shame. 

Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love

By Dani Shapiro,

Book cover of Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love

Why this book?

Like DNA, I can’t keep a secret…until I picked up Inheritance, I had never read a memoir. I learned about the book from a friend in my DNA support group who raved about it. The author took a DNA test on a whim and suddenly found the bottom falling out of her world as she knew it. She became a detective as she followed clues and uncovered a long-kept sperm donor family secret. The author writes candidly about her struggles, questions the DNA test results raised, and meeting her biological father. Written in lyrical prose, Dani Shapiro invites you on her rollercoaster DNA journey. Take a seat and get ready for a beautiful and compassionate telling.

Why Horror Seduces

By Mathias Clasen,

Book cover of Why Horror Seduces

Why this book?

If you love horror, or are even mildly interested in it, you will find this book a real treat. Clasen is one of the world’s leading scholars of horror. Like Gottschall, he has the knack for engaging, personable writing, with witty turns that will make you laugh, even while the hair is standing up on the back of your neck at the horror scenarios he relishes describing. Clasen is absolutely convincing about the ways in which horror taps into our inherited ancestral fears and disgusts.

Beautiful Agitation: Modern Painting and Politics in Syria

By Anneka Lenssen,

Book cover of Beautiful Agitation: Modern Painting and Politics in Syria

Why this book?

This is a truly remarkable work. I was expecting a straightforward book of art but discovered a wonderful portrait of Syria in the 20th century. It is an original, creative, and deeply contextualized lens into the modern political history of Greater Syria. It successfully brings natural Syria, Bilad al Sham, into our frame of reference through the work of three main artists: Khalil Gibran, Adham Ismail, and Fateh al Moudarres. In its early chapters, it skillfully describes and analyses Syria’s interface with the late Ottoman period. The Interwar Mandate period is particularly well researched and articulated in drawing Syrian plastic arts into view, as France and other European diplomats, philosophers, and anthropologists’ influenced individual Syrian poets, and philosophers either during their sojourns in Europe or at home in Syria. Beautiful Agitation is an enchanting read, scholarly and lively, making sense for the first time of important Syrian artists’ lives in the context of an era that saw dramatic political, social, and economic change over a period of fifty years in the  20th century.  

Republic of Detours: How the New Deal Paid Broke Writers to Rediscover America

By Scott Borchert,

Book cover of Republic of Detours: How the New Deal Paid Broke Writers to Rediscover America

Why this book?

Several books focused on the Works Progress Administration (WPA), or discreet parts of it, had been published before Borchert’s was released but this is the best of them. I doubt that any other book will ever tell the story of the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) quite so well. On one level, it lays out the project’s scope and walks readers through the politics involved with its creation and continued operation. And on another, it explains what the project meant for the writers it employed and how it influenced their work. Every other book on this list was written by an author employed by the project or another part of the WPA; this book will help you understand them as part of a coherent literary moment in American history.     

Difference and Repetition

By Gilles Deleuze, Paul Patton (translator),

Book cover of Difference and Repetition

Why this book?

In my opinion, Gilles Deleuze was the greatest French philosopher of the 20th century, and that century was loaded with amazing French philosophers. Deleuze wrote a large number of excellent books. However, his doctoral dissertation, Difference and Repetition, is quite special. On the one hand, it is – from a philosophical point of view – very enjoyable to read. Though, some may find its style too layered and allusive. On the other hand, Difference and Repetition is also consistently listed as one of the three greatest works in philosophy written in the 20th century. Ultimately, in regard to Kant’s science of metaphysics, Deleuze’s book is a work in transcendental philosophy. More specifically, Deleuze’s book addresses all three divisions by treating cosmological metaphysics as the point of origin for theological and psychological metaphysics.

One last thing to mention here is that Difference and Repetition is the most difficult to read of all the books on this list. However, when you come to understand how he meant “difference” and “repetition” as metaphysical concepts, the gestalt-shift that it brings about in the reader’s mind is well worth the effort to understand it. In that regard, it is very much like the experience a reader has when they come to understand “the moment of vision” in Heidegger’s work.

Libyan Sands: Travel in a Dead World

By Ralph A. Bagnold,

Book cover of Libyan Sands: Travel in a Dead World

Why this book?

A unique work, Libyan Sands is the first book to describe the thrills and pitfalls of exploring the Sahara by car: it also inspired me to explore the desert, albeit with camels, not cars. Bagnold writes with verve and passion about his pioneering journeys, in the 1920s and 1930s, driving with colleagues across hundreds of miles of uncharted desert, in tiny Ford Model-T cars, the first people to do so. As he writes, “The fact is we were a little afraid of the desert.” With good reason! During WWII he formed the Long Range Desert Group, which carried out missions hundreds of miles behind enemy lines, and the adventures of Bagnold and his fellow European enthusiasts would later inspire Michael Ondaatje’s 1992 novel The English Patient

The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life

By John Le Carré,

Book cover of The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life

Why this book?

British spy novelist John Le Carre writes a rare non-fiction piece involving 38 tales of searching for the “human spark” – the reason we get up in the morning – and overcoming betrayal and disappointment. Le Carre meets spies, heads of state, celebrities, politicians, along his life’s journey but it always gets back to the heart, the humor, the “moral ambiguity” he finds in each individual that he transfers to his fictional characters in novels such as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. I loved this book because I travelled to locations and met people that will never be part of my personal experience. Le Carre despite his fame is a humble, obedient servant to the word and shares his innermost feelings about the success and failure of human beings.

The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 1: 1931-1934

By Anaïs Nin,

Book cover of The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 1: 1931-1934

Why this book?

Volume 1 of Nin’s series is my rainy day read when I don’t want to leave the house but still want to feel connected to humanity. It’s sleepy. There’s no real plot. What drama occurs takes place primarily within the author’s mind as she reflects upon what it is to be an ambitious writer (specifically, an ambitious female writer) in 1930s bohemian Paris. There is plenty of Eros in it—most famously her relationship with Henry and June Miller. But, again, this remains primarily within the author’s mind, acting as further fodder in her quest to uncover her truest emotional core. 

**What exactly is the difference between a “memoir” and a “diary”? Please write to me via my website if you have thoughts on this.

The Woman Lit by Fireflies

By Jim Harrison,

Book cover of The Woman Lit by Fireflies

Why this book?

Master of the novella (Legends of the Fall; Revenge; The Man Who Changed His Name), screenwriter, poet (The Theory and Practice of Rivers), and short story writer, Jim Harrison is unafraid to write with the kind of masculine energy that fills the world with a desire for life, freedom, autonomy, and intimacy. His powerful novella, The Woman Lit by Fireflies, the final movement in this collection, gathers the feminine and the masculine in a form of nonbinary exchange that results in deeper hope, and greater love. 

Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life

By J.M. Coetzee,

Book cover of Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life

Why this book?

Some would claim Coetzee’s Boyhood is an autobiographical novel, and others would insist it is a fictionalized memoir. In any case, it is a powerful depiction of a child’s experience of being raised in the harsh, racist culture of Afrikaners in apartheid South Africa. Maybe because the author decided to tell the story from the 3rd person perspective—as if standing outside of himself—the bleakness of his home and community presses home twice as hard. One senses, behind the cruelty and callousness, the buried ugliness of entrenched bigotry. I lived in a kinder missionary community, learning to admire the people I encountered in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Sudan, but over time I had to recognize subtler prejudices that went with that evangelistic expatriate culture. Boyhood spoke to me in a necessary, truth-telling way that was not comfortable but very important.

In a Far-Off Land

By Stephanie Landsem,

Book cover of In a Far-Off Land

Why this book?

Biblical allegory is hard to do well. Bible stories themselves have infinite depths, but their allegories are often didactic, especially when author parallels the original story too closely. Stephanie Landem’s In a Far-Off Land is anything but didactic. Set in 1930s Hollywood, the novel is equal parts Prodigal Son retelling, romance, and murder mystery. By allowing the story to take on a life of its own, Landsem avoids the Sunday School vibe, and in the end, I understood the Prodigal Son archetypal characters better.

Moments of Being

By Virginia Woolf,

Book cover of Moments of Being

Why this book?

Virginia Woolf is one of my favorite writers, not that I write like her, (I wish I had more of her style, for sure) but for her courage and creative will that stretched her work beyond the boundaries of what existed at the time. Along the way, you can pick out the raw material of her life that she transmuted into fiction. What great fortune to hear directly from Virginia about her philosophy of life and her vision of art.

Boy and Going Solo: Tales of Childhood

By Roald Dahl, Quentin Blake (illustrator),

Book cover of Boy and Going Solo: Tales of Childhood

Why this book?

Like so many people of my generation, I have the writing of Roald Dahl in my blood. I learned to read with his children’s classics then, as an older child, watched his disturbing yet rivetingly spooky Tales of the Unexpected on television. The stories from his life in these two volumes are often more incredible than his fiction, and certainly equally outlandish. The people he encountered can certainly be traced to the characters he created in his career as an author. This is one of the few books I can re-read. 

The Complete Chronicles of the Jerusalem Man

By David Gemmell,

Book cover of The Complete Chronicles of the Jerusalem Man

Why this book?

This is my bible, the book I’ve read more times than any other. It’s three books in oneWolf in Shadow, The Last Guardian, and Bloodstone. There’s clearly some direct inspiration here in relation to the mystical power source that keeps cropping up (no spoilers). Some things just get in your head and reintroduce themselves when you least expect it. Jon Shannow is my favourite literary creation, Gemmell my favourite author. Overall, heroic and epic fantasy has had the most influence on my writing style, but I’ve merged it with contemporary language and the vision of large-scale sci-fi. I learned a lot from reading Gemmell, and The Jerusalem Man’s post-apocalyptic setting sees the sharp-shooting anti-hero face darkly religious demagogues, mutated creatures, and insidious megalomaniacs. Shannow is a troubled soul trying to be good in a world of relentless evil, but Gemmell’s writing is sharper, less abstruse, and captivates you as the protagonist pushes back desperately against the nihilistic bent of his environment.

James Baldwin: A Biography

By David Leeming,

Book cover of James Baldwin: A Biography

Why this book?

This is still the most comprehensive and detailed account of the writer’s life and works. Leeming worked closely with Baldwin as an assistant and secretary after first meeting him in Istanbul. 

I love this book, for it was my introduction to Baldwin and his life as an exile and one of the most powerful social and cultural critics of twentieth-century America. It’s written accessibly—the life-story narrative flows easily and one feels the author’s compassion for and understanding of the writer’s evolution, process, as well as his specific works. 

It has taught me that the best biographies both reveal and conceal their authors’ personal investment in their subject and their own life stories. And that the best biographers must skillfully and passionately play with both.

Years ago when I first read it, it was helpful in overcoming my initial terror as an immigrant from the Other Europe, the terror that I could never write well about an author whose nationality, mother tongue, race, gender, and class I didn’t share. My award-winning books have proven me wrong!

The White Album

By Joan Didion,

Book cover of The White Album

Why this book?

Didion’s 1979 collection of essays, including the essay highlighted in the book’s title, offers a candid, first-person, “I was there” account of counterculture Los Angeles, featuring a diverse cast of characters: industry players, Black Panthers, rock stars (she has a thing for Doors’ frontman Jim Morrison), and mass murderers (Charles Manson and one of his acolytes, Linda Kasabian, whom Didion befriended). Didion expertly mixes and matches personal experience and keen observation; The White Album is The New Journalism (embraced by Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson as well) par excellence, a style and form well suited for a new counterculture America.

Imagining the Balkans

By Maria N. Todorova,

Book cover of Imagining the Balkans

Why this book?

This is an extraordinary book that gives a broad understanding of the Balkan region in its cultural and historical contexts. The book explores the concept of the Balkans and its changing meaning which far surpasses its geographical connotations, becoming some kind of a concept-container capable of containing all sorts of fantasies and political aspirations. The book does an excellent job of depicting how various imperialisms managed to determine, to a very significant extent, the fate of peoples in the Balkans, while creating a certain image of the region whose significance extends far beyond its physical boundaries.

The Californios: A Novel

By Louis L'Amour,

Book cover of The Californios: A Novel

Why this book?

In this novel, L’Amour explores the ancient spirituality of Native Americans in a tangential way while adhering to his tried and true formula of adventure, lovely women in distress, and brave young heroes.  Finding his mother in despair following the death of his father, and with financial loss looming, Sean and his mother pursue a rumor of treasure buried deep in the mountains beyond his Malibu home. L’Amour paints the mystic “Old Ones” into his story with a movement of bushes here, and a mysterious wind-borne cry there, all within an ambiance of dusky, trembling stillness. Masterful!

A Man Without a Country

By Kurt Vonnegut,

Book cover of A Man Without a Country

Why this book?

The only non-fiction book on my list, though you could put any of Vonnegut’s fiction titles on a list about cultivating empathy in humor. However, this late-career non-fiction work from one of, if not my favorite author(s), had a dramatic impact on me. To read the thoughts, often so close to despair, of a man so skilled at telling jokes… Vonnegut directly expressed so many human insights and emotions in this book that I felt a kinship to him on another level, only heightening my appreciation for his works of fiction.

The Climate of Treason: Five who Spied for Russia

By Andrew Boyle,

Book cover of The Climate of Treason: Five who Spied for Russia

Why this book?

A landmark espionage book about the Cambridge Spies, which has stood up surprisingly well though published almost forty years ago and before the release of Russian and British archives, and first  made me  interested in ‘The Climate of Treason’.  It not only gives the historical background to their recruitment during the 1930s but, drawing on a deathbed confession from Goronwy Rees, named two new spies ‘Maurice’ and ‘Basil’. After leaks to the satirical magazine Private Eye , Margaret Thatcher confirmed that ‘Maurice’ was the Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures  Sir Anthony Blunt who had been granted immunity sixteen years earlier. ‘Basil’ was identified as an atomic scientist, serving in the Washington Embassy alongside Kim Philby and Guy Burgess, called Wilfrid Mann. Mann fended off the accusations at the time and the story died but subsequent research for my book has proved Mann was a spy.

Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence

By Geoff Dyer,

Book cover of Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence

Why this book?

In the middle of writing Love and Fury, feeling slightly stuck and unsure, I stumbled on this deliciously funny, self-deprecating, and exhilarating portrait of the artist struggling to write a book. Dyer recounts his somewhat desperate attempt, and failure, to “locate” the elusive D. H. Lawrence, but he ends up instead writing a kind of anti-biography and memoir that illuminates both writer and subject. We writers are always looking for other writers to commiserate with on how hard writing is. I’m not sure how that magic works, but it can be just the push to keep going.

Chasing Portraits: A Great-Granddaughter's Quest for Her Lost Art Legacy

By Elizabeth Rynecki,

Book cover of Chasing Portraits: A Great-Granddaughter's Quest for Her Lost Art Legacy

Why this book?

Rynecki’s great-grandfather, Moshe, was a painter who documented moments of Jewish life in the interwar years: women sewing, children playing, wedding celebrations, men in prayer. When WWII broke out Moshe’s paintings were hidden, and afterward only a fraction were recovered. In this book, Rynecki recounted her decades-long quest to locate and archive the lost artwork. It’s a memoir about the lengths one will go to to ensure a lost family legacy will never be forgotten.

Great Hostesses

By Brian Masters,

Book cover of Great Hostesses

Why this book?

Who are the great hosts and hostesses of our day? We don’t know; nobody ever talks about them. Celebrities and socialites, instead, have stolen the spotlight. But, great hostesses of the past were not only prominent, but powerfully influential, subtly steering the fate of society this way and that. Masters provides portraits here of some of the most celebrated hostesses of days gone by, including Emerald Cunard and Mrs. Vanderbilt. A book to inspire a new generation of “inviters.”

Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right

By Lisa McGirr,

Book cover of Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right

Why this book?

This is a field-defining work. First published in 2001, McGirr’s book prompted a generation of historians to reexamine the rise and evolution of modern American conservatism. Focused on the suburbs of Orange County, California, Suburban Warriors explored how grassroots conservative activists mobilized to reshape the politics of the nation. Through the stories of ordinary people--housewives and defense workers, evangelical worshippers, and anti-communist activists--we learn how the modern American right evolved from a fringe movement into arguably the most powerful political force in the United States.

Finks: How the C.I.A. Tricked the World's Best Writers

By Joel Whitney,

Book cover of Finks: How the C.I.A. Tricked the World's Best Writers

Why this book?

Whitney gives a literary coda to World War II cloak-and-dagger, showing how its nests of spies and agencies pivoted and metastasised in the years afterward into the Cold War. The CIA took up where the OSS left off. Where Graham Greene and Kim Philby had run the haunts of Lisbon, then-young writers George Plimpton and Peter Matthiessen were cajoled to produce cultural propaganda in Paris and start the Paris Review. The CIA's literary operations continued into the 1960s when it launched a whispering campaign to prevent Pablo Neruda from receiving a Nobel prize, and launched Mundo Nuevo to engage Spanish-language readers.

Charles James: Portrait of an Unreasonable Man: Fame, Fashion, Art

By Michele Gerber Klein,

Book cover of Charles James: Portrait of an Unreasonable Man: Fame, Fashion, Art

Why this book?

Like any art form, fashion has its share of tortured geniuses. Perhaps none combined genius and torture with as much panache as Charles James, who dressed celebrities and socialites only to die in poverty. Vogue editor Bettina Ballard remembered that “he was constantly cutting and perfecting” his toiles, “which he turned, very occasionally, into actual dresses.” A personality as complex and demanding as his sculptural evening gowns, James knew everybody and got along with nobody—and you’ll understand why after reading Klein’s biography, which draws on recently discovered, unfiltered tapes James made for a planned autobiography that, like so many of his creations, he never he finished.

Travels with Charley in Search of America

By John Steinbeck,

Book cover of Travels with Charley in Search of America

Why this book?

My most formative moments in life came about when I was traveling. I have always had a passion for exploring new and fascinating places. My curiosity has not always worked to my benefit, as a stint in the Foreign Legion proved, but I still live my life with a wanderlust and a mild addiction to adventure. My passion for travel and adventure stemmed from my reading habits. The best travel books open the window to novel perspectives on life, people, and attitudes. Join me. 

To hear the voice of the real USA, to smell the grass and the trees, to see the colors and the light—these were John Steinbeck's goals as he set out, at the age of fifty-eight, to rediscover the country he had been writing about for so many years. Along the way, he reflects on the American character, racial hostility, the particular form of American loneliness he finds almost everywhere, and the unexpected kindness of strangers.

Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam

By H R McMaster,

Book cover of Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam

Why this book?

This book started as a master’s Thesis by then Major McMaster, who was attending the U. S. Army War College, it became an extremely important history book that exposes the Johnson Administration’s early miscalculations and failures in this war. Specifically, it addresses “Johnson, McNamara and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. and the Lies that led to Vietnam”. Any American who has not studied the war will be shocked to realize what took place leading up to the combat phase of the war, and their actions and inactions that ensured the negative outcome of the war. Herbert Raymond McMaster (born July 24, 1962) is a retired United States Army Lieutenant General who served as the 26th United States National Security Advisor from 2017 to 2018. He is also known for his roles in the Gulf War, Operation Enduring Freedom, and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Letters to a Young Poet

By Rainer Maria Rilke, MD Herter Norton,

Book cover of Letters to a Young Poet

Why this book?

There’s nothing in Letters to a Young Poet about craft, writer’s block, or any of the recognizable challenges faced by twenty-first-century writers. Yet this slender volume published more than a century ago speaks to writers everywhere and in every era, who so often work in isolation and, if they are to be true to their art and authentic within themselves, must rip open their souls and spill the contents onto the page without regard for others’ judgment and criticism. In fact, it speaks to anyone, non-writer as well as writer, whose sensitivity and feelings of not belonging make it sometimes feel impossible to express themselves out in the world. In the end, isn’t that what writer’s block is all about. It certainly was for me!

Placeless People: Writings, Rights, and Refugees

By Lyndsey Stonebridge,

Book cover of Placeless People: Writings, Rights, and Refugees

Why this book?

My final choice is a scintillating work of scholarship by Lyndsey Stonebridge, Professor of Humanities and Human Rights at the University of Birmingham. Entitled Placeless People: Writing, Rights, and Refugees, it draws upon a range of reportage, political theory, poetry, and other texts to ask challenging questions about the stance that modern states and citizens in Western societies adopt towards refugees who are sometimes described as distant strangers. By engaging with authors who are relatively well known, such as George Orwell, W.H. Auden, Simone Weil, Samuel Beckett, and the political philosopher Hannah Arendt, and with those who may be less familiar, such as the American journalist Dorothy Thompson (1893-1961) and the contemporary Palestinian Lebanese-born poet Yousif M. Qasmiyeh, Stonebridge insists that it is essential to portray refugees as deserving and demanding something other than charity or humanitarian concern no matter how well-intentioned. Instead, the appropriate response is to demand that refugees should be accorded human rights, although the powers vested in the territorialised sovereign nation state make these rights difficult to enforce. This bald summary makes Placeless People sound like a dry text, but on the contrary it is lively and passionate, and full of fundamental insights about the legal and existential “placelessness” that refugees inhabit, the separation they regularly endure, and the responsibilities that non-refugees have towards people who are simultaneously “visible and invisible”.

The Vanishing Half

By Brit Bennett,

Book cover of The Vanishing Half

Why this book?

This is one of the most unusual and memorable books about sisters I’ve ever read. It’s the story of Black twins, Desiree and Stella, who are separated in early adulthood in the 1950s, one returning to her hometown in the South after escaping an abusive marriage, the other passing as White in the White world she’s chosen to inhabit. The choices Desiree and Stella make that cause their paths to diverge haunt the sisters, each in her own way. But what never changes is the deep bond that exists between them even in absentia. I loved this book. Read it, then call your sister. 

Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter

By Beauvoir Simone De, James Kirkup (translator),

Book cover of Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter

Why this book?

Simone de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter is a classic. First published in France in 1958, it’s the opening volume of an autobiographical trilogy. This exploration of the childhood and young womanhood that created the world-famous writer and intellectual is compendious, descriptive – and alert at every turn, as befits the mother of existentialism, to how the emerging psyche understands the world around it.

Christ Stopped at Eboli: The Story of a Year

By Carlo Levi, Frances Frenaye (translator),

Book cover of Christ Stopped at Eboli: The Story of a Year

Why this book?

This book does not take place in Sicily however, the plights of the inhabitants of a small southern town in Luncania are the same as those Italians in parts of Sicily where even in the ’60s, many families lived in caves. Carlo Levi, a doctor, painter, and writer is sent to Eboli because of his opposition to Mussolini and Italy’s Fascist government. Levi’s book is about the harsh life of its citizens who continued to live according to the traditions and beliefs of their ancestors, including healing by natural methods and black magic and superstitions.   

Dog Years: A Memoir

By Mark Doty,

Book cover of Dog Years: A Memoir

Why this book?

No matter how dark and hopeless we sometimes feel, dogs are always there to lick away our tears. This poignant memoir highlights the salutary power in a dog's unconditional love, offering heartfelt insights into why dogs, of all the animals, have so much to teach, and so much to give, even when all seems lost.

It's What I Do: A Photographer's Life of Love and War

By Lynsey Addario,

Book cover of It's What I Do: A Photographer's Life of Love and War

Why this book?

It's What I Do: A Photographer's Life of Love and War is the memoir of Lynsey Addario, a photojournalist who is called to cover multiple wars in the Middle East and Africa. This book not only spans Addario’s professional journey to capture the utter devastation of life in the midst of war, but also her struggles to find a reasonable balance between her dangerous yet fulfilling career and the personal relationships in her life - something many women face! If you want an absorbing read and to be inspired, I cannot recommend this book enough.

A Military History of Modern South Africa

By Ian van der Waag,

Book cover of A Military History of Modern South Africa

Why this book?

The first of its kind, this book provides an overview of South African military history from 1899 (1900) to 2000. It focuses on campaigns and battles, evolving military policy, and the development of the South African military. The century started with a brief, but total war, the Anglo-Boer War (more appropriately now called The South African War) 1899-1902, then only 10 years later, it moves to the unlikely establishment of a  Union of South Africa, consisting of the two former Boer republics, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State and the two English colonies, Natal and the Cape Province. As the century wore on, the military was involved in different ways with the rise of Afrikaner (basically Boer) nationalism, industrial disputes, and uprisings by disenfranchised black South Africans. The century ended as it started with another war, but this was a limited war, a flashpoint of the Cold War, which embraced more than just the subcontinent.

The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America

By David Hajdu,

Book cover of The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America

Why this book?

David’s book came out while I was still searching for the truth about Uncle Lev, and it provided a useful and entertaining overview of the effort to censor comic books—catching Lev directly in its cross-hairs—and the industry code that was implemented as a result. Ultimately, David argues, “the generation of comic-book creators whose work died with the Comics Code helped give birth to the popular culture of the postwar era.”

Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America

By Bradford W. Wright,

Book cover of Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America

Why this book?

Another readable academic work, Bradford’s book helped me situate the history of comics within the broader narrative of post-war America’s emerging youth, pop, and consumer cultures.

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics

By Carlo Rovelli,

Book cover of Seven Brief Lessons on Physics

Why this book?

If you struggled with physics in high school – or even if you didn’t – this is the book for you. Rovelli, an Italian physicist, manages to take the most difficult concepts in physics, from relativity and quantum mechanics to the nature of space and time, and explain them in straightforward, everyday language. He spells out not only what these idea are, but why they matter. Thanks to Rovelli’s easy-going style, after a few pages you’ll forget that you’re even reading a physics book. It is, in a word, delightful.

Always Crashing in the Same Car: On Art, Crisis, and Los Angeles, California

By Matthew Specktor,

Book cover of Always Crashing in the Same Car: On Art, Crisis, and Los Angeles, California

Why this book?

This is a memoir about being a writer—and failing. With scholarly rigor and tenderhearted sympathy, Specktor excavates the lives of artists forgotten (Carol Eastman, Eleanor Perry), underappreciated (Thomas McGuane, Hal Ashby), and notorious (Warren Zevon, Michael Cimino), while always circling back to his own benighted Hollywood upbringing, complete with a lovely tribute to his mother, a failed screenwriter. This is an angry, sad, but always somehow joyful book about not hitting it big, and I've never read anything quite like it.

Borrowed Finery: A Memoir

By Paula Fox,

Book cover of Borrowed Finery: A Memoir

Why this book?

Paula Fox, the late great novelist and revered children’s book author, wrote a wonderful memoir of effectively not having parents. Oh, Fox’s parents were around, but they were drunk, careless, and inattentive, often shuffling young Paula to and from locales as varied as Hollywood and pre-Revolutionary Cuba. Her parents are depicted in this memoir as both monstrous and sympathetic, providing aspiring memoirists with a model of artful ambivalence. The book is also filled with extraordinary walk-ons by Orson Welles, James Cagney, Stella Adler, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s a beautiful book by one of the most effortlessly commanding writers this country has ever produced. (Full disclosure: As a twenty-eight-year-old greenhorn editor, I had the pleasure of line-editing this book, which wasn’t editing so much as polishing silver.)

Paris in the Fifties

By Stanley Karnow,

Book cover of Paris in the Fifties

Why this book?

While not strictly a book on fashion in Paris, it is a wonderful exploration of all things French after World War II, and one of those things was the Christian Dior couture house. Karnow arrived in Paris in 1947 to study, and soon landed a gig writing for Time magazine. One of his assignments was a cover story on Christian Dior, whose company, in less than a decade, had become so successful it was known as the General Motors of Fashion. In the Dior chapter, Karnow beautifully evokes the mechanisms and machinations of a French couture house, and shows how fashion and Paris were deeply intertwined at the time. The rest of the book is a rollicking good read, too.

Germans Into Nazis

By Peter Fritzsche,

Book cover of Germans Into Nazis

Why this book?

Fritzsche shows here how, from 1914 to 1933, middle class Germans were welded into the political block that supported Hitler. Another spellbindingly original book – among other things, Fritzsche shows very persuasively that the Great Depression had little to do with the rise of Hitler – the Nazis’ recipe of egalitarian but nationalist politics was already doing its work before 1929.

From a Cause to a Style: Modernist Architecture's Encounter with the American City

By Nathan Glazer,

Book cover of From a Cause to a Style: Modernist Architecture's Encounter with the American City

Why this book?

If you’ve ever wondered why modern buildings look the way they do—and look so different from say, the buildings of our grandparents’ generation—you cannot do better than read this collection of essays that examines the current state of modern architecture. Glazer, a sociologist who was a noted public intellectual, brings a down-to-earth intelligence and a sharp eye to his subject.

The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America

By Daniel J. Boorstin,

Book cover of The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America

Why this book?

Boorstin’s political perspective is conservative, but as a media critic he introduced one of the most significant concepts for understanding, not only our media-saturated culture in general, but the abuses of right-wing television, such as FOX. His concept of the ‘pseudo-event’ is one that I have found incredibly useful in teaching and thinking over the years. A pseudo-event is something that acquires its reality and power not because it is based on fact, but simply because the media has reported it, repeated it, exaggerated it, re-played it, made a mantra of it. Ring a bell? “Email Scandal”? “No Collusion, No Obstruction”? Boorstin also talks about the human pseudo-event, which is essentially the creation of celebrities whose fame is due neither to talent or any other special quality but simply to the fact that they become well-known. Boorstin published these insights in 1960!  I think he’d feel both intellectually validated and aghast at how prescient they’ve turned out.

Sons and Soldiers: The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned with the U.S. Army to Fight Hitler

By Bruce Henderson,

Book cover of Sons and Soldiers: The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned with the U.S. Army to Fight Hitler

Why this book?

Sons and Soldiers tells the stories of the Ritchie Boys, a special military intelligence unit of the US Army in World War II trained in Camp Ritchie, Maryland and made up of German-Austrian men, often German Jews who had fled Nazi persecution. These men had everything to lose: if they were captured and identified behind enemy lines, they would be killed on the spot. However, they also knew that their special knowledge of the German language and German culture gave them an advantage against Hitler’s army. The Ritchie Boys were critical to the Allied victory. Not surprisingly, those who survived went on to become leaders in American society, great heroes who understood that there are some things worth dying for. 


By J.T. Rogers,

Book cover of Oslo

Why this book?

Oslo is a theatrical rendering of the behind-the-scenes negotiations that led to the Oslo Accords in 1993. This Tony-Award-winning play takes a perhaps unreasonably optimistic view of potential peace. Nor will reading (or better yet, seeing) this play satisfy a serious researcher’s desire for historic detail. But it lays out the emotional stakes with humanity and humor, not qualities one usually dares to associate with the conflict in the Middle East.

The Journey That Saved Curious George: The True Wartime Escape of Margret and H.A. Rey

By Louise Borden, Allan Drummond (illustrator),

Book cover of The Journey That Saved Curious George: The True Wartime Escape of Margret and H.A. Rey

Why this book?

When Paris was taken over by the Nazis in 1940, Hans and Margret Rey were forced to flee. The author and illustrator of beloved children’s book classic Curious George headed out on their bicycles, taking with them their most precious possessions, notably the manuscripts and illustrations for their books. This delightful picture book traces their journey by bike, train, and boat from France to Spain to Portugal to Brazil and then, finally, to New York.

Presented in a scrapbook style, Drummond’s energetic illustrations work well alongside the many photos, documents, and excerpts from some of the original manuscripts and artwork. All the visual elements blend beautifully to accompany the upbeat, free verse text.

One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society

By Herbert Marcuse,

Book cover of One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society

Why this book?

This is the one classic text on my list. Marcuse’s book was like a bible to protesting students in the 1960s, and its critique of the psychic levelling that occurs under capitalism remains just as germane today, if not more so. This is the most successful marriage of Freud and Marx that emerged from the famous Frankfurt School, which was a group of cultural Marxist invested in psychoanalysis. Marcuse grasps how capitalism employs technology to ensure its psychic dominance. 

Red Saxony: Election Battles and the Spectre of Democracy in Germany, 1860-1918

By James Retallack,

Book cover of Red Saxony: Election Battles and the Spectre of Democracy in Germany, 1860-1918

Why this book?

In this profound, masterfully conceived, and beautifully written study of authoritarianism and democracy in the state of Saxony, James Retallack reminds us of the political power of Imperial Germany’s anti-democratic forces. We see authoritarian elements intimidating, cajoling, and constraining the social-democratic opposition. We see them clipping voting rights where possible, bullying opponents when they could, and subverting democratic institutions when it suited their interests. Sound familiar?

In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose

By Alice Walker,

Book cover of In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose

Why this book?

This anthology of some of Walker’s most powerful works with a focus on discovering ourselves through studying those who came before us is both incredibly informative and emotional. It explores motherhood not only through the biological role but also in a sense of community mothering and foremothers. There is much to learn about our present by examining lessons laid out for us by generations past.

Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited

By Vladimir Nabokov,

Book cover of Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited

Why this book?

Out of all Vladimir Nabokov’s books, Speak Memory -- this rebellion “against the two eternities of darkness which bookend a human life” -- is the one I return to most often.  Exiled and dispossessed by the Russian Revolution of 1917, Nabokov manages to escape the snares of nostalgia. He does not grieve the lost past, but revisits the very heart of his Russia, the people, the sites, the tastes of his childhood and adolescence. Speak Memory does not end with exile. Nabokov chronicles the lives of the Russian emigres in Berlin and Paris, the necessary adjustments and transformations of transplanted lives. When the book ends, in 1940, the author, accompanied by his wife and son, leaves Europe for America where he will write his best and most enduring novels.

The Snow Leopard

By Peter Matthiessen,

Book cover of The Snow Leopard

Why this book?

How far must you travel to discover your true inner self? Pretty far, for Peter Matthiessen—all the way to the slopes of Annapurna in Nepal, in search of blue sheep, the Lama of Crystal Mountain, the elusive snow leopard, and most of all, spiritual enlightenment—very big in the ’70s (trust me, I was there). It’s a journal, a travelogue, a nature study, a daredevil escapade in a setting of such unworldly grandeur that makes you long to be there, at the top of the world, where the clouds dance and the mountains sing. Lots of self-reflection, but absolutely worth signing on for the trek.

The 12-year Reich: A Social History Of Nazi Germany 1933-1945

By Richard Grunberger,

Book cover of The 12-year Reich: A Social History Of Nazi Germany 1933-1945

Why this book?

No one can understand the German Resistance to Hitler without first understanding Nazi Germany — its ideology, its institutions, and its psychology. Grunberger’s concise but comprehensive study of Nazi Germany organized topically provides essential insight into the society in which those who opposed Hitler lived. This book is more valuable than any chronological history of Nazi Germany and exposes just how pervasive and insidious the National Socialist corruption was.

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek

By Kim Michele Richardson,

Book cover of The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek

Why this book?

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson speaks to intense research and reveals unsung superheroes: librarians who carried enlightenment into dark hollers on a pack mule. Richardson’s rich characters are armed with the plucky determination required of our pioneers, but they reach beyond the necessary to survive and tap into the will to thrive thanks to the power of books. 

Portrait of a Turkish Family

By Irfan Orga,

Book cover of Portrait of a Turkish Family

Why this book?

Orga’s memoir begins with scenes from his idyllic childhood as the son of a great beauty, adored by his autocratic grandmother and indulged by all. His was a prosperous family, their future secure under the Ottoman sultans until the First World War broke out and everything changed. They went from enjoying elaborate dinner parties, going to the hamam and sleeping on soft sheets, to living in poverty, waking in dank rooms, and never knowing if there’d be enough to eat. Orga writes without sentiment of the impact of the war on his upper-class family, and the complete reconstruction of society under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the modern Turkish republic. Orga lived and observed the tensions and struggles around sacred and secular life, the divide between rich and poor, and the importance of family to all. Despite the passing of the years, many of the events and consequences he recounts still play out in Turkey today.

First Women: The Grace and Power of America's Modern First Ladies

By Kate Andersen Brower,

Book cover of First Women: The Grace and Power of America's Modern First Ladies

Why this book?

The First Lady of the United States is a challenging role that has been navigated by an incredibly wide array of women over the years. Brower has interviewed many of them, and the insights she gives readers into their day-to-day lives—at turns uplifting and heartbreaking—make for an incredibly relatable and inspiring book. This is as behind-the-White House-scenes as you can get. From Jaqueline Kennedy to Michelle Obama, Brower offers an incredibly intimate look at this often misunderstood role in American politics.

Notes from a Small Island

By Bill Bryson,

Book cover of Notes from a Small Island

Why this book?

Bryson is an American who has settled in England and is an inveterate walker. He spends much of his time wandering around the various counties of the UK and exploring little-known historical sites and buildings. He infinitely prefers the British way of life to the American, for which he gets my vote for a start. He appreciates all the quirks and subtleties of provincial existence probably better than the British do themselves, who take them for granted. But what makes him so hugely popular is his sense of humour. He can wring irony and laughter from the most ordinary of incidents and the most unexceptional of locations. In this he can be compared with Peter Mayle (A Year In Provence) or the long deceased Jerome K. Jerome (Three Men In A Boat). All the best writers have that sense of the ridiculous or the ironic, even whilst creating the darkest of thrillers or tragedies. Just read you Dickens or Jane Austen.

The Screwtape Letters

By C.S. Lewis,

Book cover of The Screwtape Letters

Why this book?

Despite a very different voice and style, this work mirrors Lamott’s messaging. Perhaps more familiar as the author of the Narnia books, here Jack Lewis offers a devil’s view of how humans get tempted to evil. The book is made up of imaginary letters from a senior devil Screwtape to a junior and incompetent. This book is as witty as it is truthful; particularly about how much suffering arises from self-deception. And we highly recommend listening to the audio version perfectly read by John Cleese!

Paris to the Moon

By Adam Gopnick,

Book cover of Paris to the Moon

Why this book?

New Yorker Adam Gopnick’s memoir about life in Paris with his family is a great reminder of why we all became so enchanted with France, and the French, in the first place. The experiences are relatable, but the insights erudite enough to make you feel smart, and want to dig deeper. It’s a dreamy, vicarious immersion in the life of a sophisticated expatriate who grapples with all the quirks and paradoxes of the French capital and its inhabitants.

The Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry, 11: Culture, Politics, and the Formation of a Modern Diaspora

By Joel Beinin,

Book cover of The Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry, 11: Culture, Politics, and the Formation of a Modern Diaspora

Why this book?

Until two decades ago, the historiographical school of Jewish pasts in the Middle East was broadly aligned with what we call the neo-lachrymose approach. This approach usually examines the Jewish communities in the MENA region as if they lived in isolation from the non-Jewish majority society. Beinin’s book paved the way to profoundly different directions in studying the Jewish communities of Egypt and the region. Beinin analyzed the various Jewish communities that existed in Egypt (primarily prior to 1956), placed them in the context of global, regional, and Egyptian national history. Moreover, he forever dismantled the notion that we can essentialize the life, experience, and narratives of almost 1 million MENA Jews and have one simple account in the output.

New Babylonians: A History of Jews in Modern Iraq

By Orit Bashkin,

Book cover of New Babylonians: A History of Jews in Modern Iraq

Why this book?

Iraq was home to about 150,000 Jews until 1948-1951. Baghdad was a very much Jewish city. Iraqi Jews were very assimilated, but there was very little known about the political and social history of Iraqi Jews beyond the Zionist story. While many of the Iraqi Jews did indeed view Zionism as a viable solution for them, overlooking Jewish involvement in Iraqi national and communist organizations misses several of the most fascinating transformations of any Jewish community in the world. In this book, Bashkin analyzed the social, cultural, and national participation of Iraqi Jews from within the perspective of Iraqi society. Interestingly, many of the patterns continued even after their migration to Israel.

Shanghai Style: Art and Design Between the Wars

By Lynn Pan,

Book cover of Shanghai Style: Art and Design Between the Wars

Why this book?

Lynn Pan, who was born in Shanghai before 1949 and then returned to live there early in the twenty-first century after spending time in many other parts of the world, is in many ways my single favorite Shanghainese writer. So, when I put together a list like this, the question is not whether a work by her will be on it, but rather which one of several excellent ones by her will make the cut. This volume is a beautifully produced one that complements Champions Day nicely, focusing on similar themes but coming at them via a focus on architecture and creativity. It is a book for those fascinated by Shanghai, for obvious reasons, but like a lot of books on the city’s past, it is also intriguing to read by those who have been fascinated by Hong Kong’s cultural and creative vibrancy and have been following the news about the way it is now being threatened. That city, which was one where Pan spent time between her two periods living in Shanghai, is also one where the mixing of cultural traditions led to the emergence of a very special style—a style that could only flourish for a time but has left a complex lasting legacy.

Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year

By Anne Lamott,

Book cover of Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year

Why this book?

My son was born around a time of great tragedy and upheaval. I was never so uncertain or nervous or worried or perplexed about my role as a father in the months and weeks before his arrival. I was certain and cautious and uplifted by this coming change. Then he slid onto the birthing room floor and I bawled endlessly. To chronicle a child’s first year, I would soon learn, is not an easy task. But witnessing it, hand-in-hand, is a beautiful and immensely enriching experience. For those who want children, for those who don’t want children, and those who want to reminisce and laugh and cry.

The Rice Sprout Song

By Eileen Chang,

Book cover of The Rice Sprout Song

Why this book?

This is a heart-wrenching novel about hunger and starvation in the early 1950s in a Southern China village. The book title implies the joy of harvest, which has a rhetorical effect as it runs counter to the book theme. Its metaphor for hunger is watery gruel that the rural poor eat for every meal as they slowly starve. The story is about the impending great famine after the Communist Party introduces the land reform policies and how villagers suffer in silence atrocious government abuse. 

This novel is a must-read if you want to understand what starvation feels like.

Don't Make Me Pull Over!: An Informal History of the Family Road Trip

By Richard Ratay,

Book cover of Don't Make Me Pull Over!: An Informal History of the Family Road Trip

Why this book?

It’s one thing to take a road trip alone or with a partner or friend. It’s quite another to take the family, especially younger kids. Richard Ratay, an advertising copywriter, details the history of the family road trip in an entertaining and vivid manner. His anecdotes from years on the road with his family are at times comical, heart-warming, and awkward. Ratay puts the love-hate relationship many have with such adventures on full display, lending more clues why these journeys are perhaps best recalled from the perspective of time.

Road to Divorce: England, 1530-1987

By Lawrence Stone,

Book cover of Road to Divorce: England, 1530-1987

Why this book?

The leading authority on the history of divorce in England, Lawrence Stone’s brilliantly researched books are scholarly and highly readable. Road to Divorce is a frank and intimate account of the changing moral views of the past. It is utterly engrossing, full of drama, and leads readers to appreciate what a shocking prison marriage proved to be for hundreds of thousands of couples who, until 1857, needed an Act of Parliament to escape a bad marriage. Wives found it far harder than husbands to get a divorce as the legal obstacles were greater.

Manchukuo Perspectives: Transnational Approaches to Literary Production

By Annika A. Culver (editor), Norman Smith (editor),

Book cover of Manchukuo Perspectives: Transnational Approaches to Literary Production

Why this book?

In this edited volume with contributions from scholars from China, Japan, Korea, and North America, we investigate the intellectual climate of Manchukuo and interrogate how writers found both opportunity and peril in this new state under Japanese control. This study approaches Manchukuo literature from a transnational perspective, and most importantly, not all of the scholars in our collection agree with each other! We contest the "collaboration-resistance" binary that had been so persistent in much scholarship related to China under Japanese occupation by illuminating the complex choices made by cultural producers during their careers. One of our chapters features an essay by one of Manchukuo's last living writers.

Zelda: A Biography

By Nancy Milford,

Book cover of Zelda: A Biography

Why this book?

This is the book that introduced me to astonishing research and the art of life writing when I was in high school. Milford’s vivid and deeply researched biography of Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald is unsurpassed; she found letters presumed lost and assembled her own archive. Milford’s feminist reading of Zelda’s life is subtle and convincing, suggesting that some of Zelda’s madness may have been induced by her frustration at never becoming a creative artist in her own right. Also possibly a contributing factor: Scott’s theft of many details of her life and letters to fuel his own writing!

The Rings of Saturn

By W.G. Sebald, Michael Hulse (translator),

Book cover of The Rings of Saturn

Why this book?

What makes a great novel? One that will be read forever? Top critics and commentators such as Harold Bloom and Nicholas Royle say the greatest fiction is written in a foreign language that somehow or other we understand. It is strange, unusual, uncanny, yet tells us profound truths about the human condition. The Rings of Saturn did even more for me; I thought it was miraculous. On the face of it, the narrator simply hikes through East Anglia. But he blends reportage, history, philosophy, mental ruminations, and much else in a melancholic commentary on life. Even translated from German, Sebald’s writing is mesmeric. Rings is a text that shapes your thinking in new ways. Sebald and his four peculiar ‘prose fictions’ would surely have won a Nobel prize had he not died in a car accident in 2001.

Travels on my Elephant

By Mark Shand,

Book cover of Travels on my Elephant

Why this book?

As much a love story as a traveller’s tale, the wonderful book is more about the relationship between Mark Shand and his trusty elephant, Tara, as it is about India. A truly heart-warming adventure sees the author buy Tara and ride her 600 miles across dusty back roads, through jungle paths, and along state highways, to the world’s biggest elephant fair in Sonepur. Tara, who found a home at Kipling Camp in Madhya Pradesh is still alive today, which is more than can be said for the poor author, Mark, who died in a freak accident stepping off a sidewalk in New York a few years ago. How strange life can be.

Tequila Oil

By Hugh Thomson,

Book cover of Tequila Oil

Why this book?

Recently divorced and looking for meaning in middle age, this endearing traveller retraces the journey he made as a wide-eyed 19-year-old that saw him drive a car from California into the heart of Mexico in the hope of making a quick buck. The naivety and optimism of adolescence, beautifully juxtaposed against the reality of age, this is a poignant tale of lost youth and unfulfilled dreams that ultimately leads the author to a peaceful conclusion.

Crazy '08: How a Cast of Cranks, Rogues, Boneheads, and Magnates Created the Greatest Year in Baseball History

By Cait N. Murphy,

Book cover of Crazy '08: How a Cast of Cranks, Rogues, Boneheads, and Magnates Created the Greatest Year in Baseball History

Why this book?

We move into the twentieth century with Murphy’s book, a chronicle of a strange and thrilling season smack in the heart of the Deadball Era, when the two leagues we know today—the National and American—had solidified, their champions meeting each autumn in the still-new World Series. Crazy ’08 focuses on the pennant races that year, especially the National League race, between the Chicago Cubs, New York Giants, and Pittsburgh Pirates, which reached its fevered crescendo with a game that featured what’s known as “Merkle’s Boner.” But the book’s broader concern is the atmosphere of political corruption, racial strife, crime, and social upheaval which surrounded baseball. Murphy’s research is deep, but the book reads like journalism because she’s got a storyteller’s heart.

The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron

By Howard Bryant,

Book cover of The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron

Why this book?

Henry Aaron’s career spanned the Negro Leagues, the Civil Rights movement, baseball’s expansion era, the turbulent ’60s, and the freaky ’70s, all while dealing with intractable racism, especially as he neared Babe Ruth’s home run record. Aaron’s autobiography, I Had a Hammer, is certainly worth reading, but author and NPR correspondent Howard Bryant is the right man to put Aaron’s life and career in historical perspective. The Last Hero is an intelligent and incisive social history of the second half of the twentieth century, as well as a stirring account of a heroic baseball life. Incidentally, Bryant’s next book is a biography of Rickey Henderson, which promises more of this goodness. I can’t wait.

The Spectacular Modern Woman: Feminine Visibility in the 1920s

By Liz Conor,

Book cover of The Spectacular Modern Woman: Feminine Visibility in the 1920s

Why this book?

This might be my favorite history book, period. Conor explains how “modern womanhood” in Australia came into being and was marked by the successful managing of one’s (sexualized and objectified) public appearance, including the way “primitive woman” (aboriginal or black) was constructed as a colonialist foil for the modern (white) Australian woman—whether she was a “screen-struck” movie fan, beauty contestant, or flapper. This book makes clear how women, as the principal focus of a newly visual mass media, came to define their “liberation” in sexual as well as racial and nationalist terms.

The Important Thing about Margaret Wise Brown

By Mac Barnett, Sarah Jacoby (illustrator),

Book cover of The Important Thing about Margaret Wise Brown

Why this book?

I love this subversive, touching, and weird picture book biography about the author of Goodnight, Moon (and more than 100 other books). In 42 pages, Mac has managed to question the whole concept of biography and traditional notions about what children’s books (and all books) should be like—both sentiments reflected in Margaret life and work—while at the same time providing a perfect portrait of the aspects of the author’s life most relevant to her writing, and probing questions of censorship and tastemaking. Among other things, Mac shows young creators how to live in a celebratory manner even if the world seems to have turned its back on their work. He does all this while keeping the reader curious (there’s tension!), engaged (there’s storytelling!), and happy (it’s funny!)—but not too happy (the ending is tragic and philosophical!). This might be my favorite picture book biography of all time.

Jump at the Sun: The True Life Tale of Unstoppable Storycatcher Zora Neale Hurston

By Alicia Williams, Jacqueline Alcántara (illustrator),

Book cover of Jump at the Sun: The True Life Tale of Unstoppable Storycatcher Zora Neale Hurston

Why this book?

The life of Zora Neale Hurston, the extraordinary novelist and first female African-American anthropologist, was bigger than words. But this picture book catches the uncatchable. The words are gorgeous. And the illustrations further illuminate the portrait, including delightful hats on the endpapers (a hat-tip to Ms. Hurston’s “HATitude”).

Gilded Age and Progressive Era

By William A. Link, Susannah J. Link,

Book cover of Gilded Age and Progressive Era

Why this book?

If you’re tired of historians spoon-feeding you their interpretations of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, this great selection of the period’s documents provides an unfiltered look at what people were thinking and doing at the time in their own words. The documents are arranged thematically with four or five per section: The New South; The New West; Native Americans; Big Business; Gilded Age Society; Working People, Immigrants in the Industrial Age; Populism; The Coming of Jim Crow; Labor Protest Rebuilding American Institutions; The Political System; Imperialism and Anti-imperialism, and the Debate about World War I. This is a user-friendly collection that doesn’t go too deep into any one person or event, yet introduces the key issues of the period.

Living for the Revolution: Black Feminist Organizations, 1968-1980

By Kimberly Springer,

Book cover of Living for the Revolution: Black Feminist Organizations, 1968-1980

Why this book?

Springer’s book was one of the first to outline the multiple Black women’s feminist organizations that developed in the late 1960s and 1970s. Situating now fairly well-known groups like the Combahee River Collective alongside lesser-known organizations like the Third World Women’s Alliance, Springer’s brief book is a fabulous primer to Black women’s feminism in an era when many people still think such a thing didn’t exist.


By Catherynne M. Valente,

Book cover of Deathless

Why this book?

Set in Russia during World War II, this is a retelling of The Death of Koschei the Deathless. I was absolutely ensnared by the lush prose and the heart-tugging plight of a girl whose youth was stolen by war and hunger and strife. Though we live in very different times and places, in Marya Morevna I saw myself, a girl who reads Pushkin and feels more comfortable among the impossible creatures that dwell within the walls of her house than with the other kids at school. A girl whose childhood is both magical and frightening, who is one day rescued—or kidnapped?—from her stifling overcrowded home by an immortal being straight out of a fairy tale, a girl who suddenly learns that the world is far more wondrous and terrible than she could ever have imagined. At times baffling, challenging, beautiful, and deeply resonant, Deathless is one of my absolute favorite books, and perfect to read with a hot cup of tea as the snow falls silently on the other side of a half-fogged window.

Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams: A Social History of Modern Florida

By Gary R. Mormino,

Book cover of Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams: A Social History of Modern Florida

Why this book?

Gary Mormino ranges far and wide across the landscape and boundaries of a place that is at once America's southernmost state and the northernmost outpost of the Caribbean. From the capital, Tallahassee--a day's walk from the Georgia border--to Miami--a city distant but tantalizingly close to Cuba and Haiti--Mormino traces the themes of Florida's transformation: the echoes of old Dixie and a vanishing Florida; land booms and tourist empires; revolutions in agriculture, technology, and demographics; the seductions of the beach and the dynamics of a graying population; and the enduring but changing meanings of a dream state.

Faith & Joy: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Priest

By Fernando Cardenal,

Book cover of Faith & Joy: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Priest

Why this book?

What led a priest to join the Sandinista revolution?

In sharing his story, Nicaraguan Jesuit Fernando Cardenal details how his views regarding what it means to serve the poor and his understanding of sin as societal placed him on a collision course with both the government and many in the church. For a time, Cardenal was expelled from the Jesuits because he refused to resign his post in the Nicaraguan government. He also recounts what led him to later break with the Sandinista party.

The Country Under My Skin: A Memoir of Love and War

By Gioconda Belli,

Book cover of The Country Under My Skin: A Memoir of Love and War

Why this book?

What prompted an upper-class, Catholic mother to become an armed revolutionary in Nicaragua?

The poet and writer Gioconda Belli shares her journey, including her time living in exile and her later break with the Sandinistas. She details how her experiences differed from her comrades because of her status as a woman and a mother and how they often underestimated and mistreated her because of her gender. Although Belli does not center faith as her primary motivation, she often references her Catholic upbringing and schooling.

The Experiment: Georgia's Forgotten Revolution 1918-1921

By Eric Lee,

Book cover of The Experiment: Georgia's Forgotten Revolution 1918-1921

Why this book?

Lee explores the 1918 Revolution in Georgia, where the Social Democrats (Mensheviks), led by Noe Zhordania remained committed to a democratic and inclusive revolution, which stands as a counterpoint to the Bolshevik notions of a strict, disciplined party and a limited, undemocratic but participatory system of government. When the Bolsheviks seized power in 1918, the Georgian Social Democrats reluctantly broke away from Russia and sought to navigate the charged political waters, trying to stave off invasion from Turkey and Denikin's White forces with alliances with first Germany and then Britain. They also tried to apply classic Marxist principles, creating not socialism but a bourgeois industrial revolution and a corresponding democratic regime.

This new democratically elected Menshevik government tried to solve issues of pressing concern, carrying out land reform and encouraging judicial reform, and encouraging industrial development, while trying to maintain the sovereignty and territorial integrity of their new nation. Eventually, due to Georgia's size and geopolitical location, this revolution failed, but Lee provides a fascinating account of what the country briefly looked like under Menshevik rule and how this compared to the regime established by Georgia's most famous son, Stalin.

China in Ten Words

By Yu Hua, Allan H. Barr (translator),

Book cover of China in Ten Words

Why this book?

Culture is how we group ourselves. Culture is how we see. To make ourselves understood by people of other cultures, we have to lend them our eyes. That’s hard, but Yu Hua meets that challenge for me. His book China in Ten Words offers ten essays about China, each with a one-word title: Revolution. Reading. Copycat. Words like that. Each essay surrounds its title-word with content until one understands what the word means, not to oneself, but to Hua. The essays work like a fusion of memoir and history. They draw the reader into one man’s experience; and at the same time they illuminate a broad patch of history—Maoist and post-Maoist China.

Petticoat Whalers: Whaling Wives at Sea, 1820–1920

By Joan Druett,

Book cover of Petticoat Whalers: Whaling Wives at Sea, 1820–1920

Why this book?

Virtually every book on America’s whaling history focuses on men—the owners of ships and the crewmen who sailed on them. However, in the nineteenth century, women, and more specifically the captain’s wives, began appearing on whaleships in increasing numbers. Incredibly, by 1850, roughly one-sixth of all American whaling ships had these so-called “petticoat whalers” on board. Druett tells the fascinating stories of many of them, mixed in with more general whaling history.

The Deaf Way II Anthology: A Literary Collection by Deaf and Hard of Hearing Writers

By Tonya M. Stremlau,

Book cover of The Deaf Way II Anthology: A Literary Collection by Deaf and Hard of Hearing Writers

Why this book?

This has poetry, essays, short stories, and a play, all by internationally acclaimed deaf writers.  These give you a starting point. From there, you need to take a sign language course and start watching videos of deaf poems, stories, and jokes. What a grand world of wonder awaits you!

All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity

By Marshall Berman,

Book cover of All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity

Why this book?

A modern classic! A fascinating analysis of arts, culture, literature, and social and urban change. A breathtaking read of Goethe’s Faust to Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground and a sharp analysis of what Hausmann’s Parisian boulevards have to do with the prospects of pre-revolutionary St. Petersburg and the highways of mid-century New York. Fantastic chapters on Karl Marx (from whom the title of the book is borrowed) and Charles Baudelaire. Written with poetic perfection!

The Great Alone

By Kristin Hannah,

Book cover of The Great Alone

Why this book?

Wild has many definitions, and while the setting for this disturbing story, in a remote Alaskan village, might seem like this book’s main qualification, The Great Alone explores the wilderness of the mind as well — or rather, how a wild man can create a more terrifying reality than the most demanding landscape. That beautiful, harsh landscape shapes the story’s heroes as well, forcing them to find their strength, build that strength, and lend each other strength when the going gets rough … which it does, in a big Alaskan way.

Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood's Creative Artists Agency

By James Andrew Miller,

Book cover of Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood's Creative Artists Agency

Why this book?

Since I work in talent representation, I’m always curious how my colleagues and competitors conduct business. CAA is, and has been, the top agency in Hollywood since I first started in this industry. I was anxious to read about the history of the company and how it has managed to not only survive, but thrive, throughout the decades. Filled with tantalizing stories of insider secrets, this is an eye opening account of one of Hollywood’s most powerful companies and the uber successful men and women who have worked there.

Red Banners, Books and Beer Mugs: The Mental World of German Social Democrats, 1863-1914

By Andrea G. Bonnell,

Book cover of Red Banners, Books and Beer Mugs: The Mental World of German Social Democrats, 1863-1914

Why this book?

In the nineteenth century, no class culture was more prominent than the one by German Social Democracy. The German Social Democratic Party topped one million individual members before the outbreak of the First World War and about one-third of the electorate in Imperial Germany vote for its programme of revolution and democratization. This book is about the mental world of the party’s rank and file, their fears, wishes and desires, their dreams, and their beliefs. It talks powerfully about leadership cults, the tensions between nationalism and internationalism, working-class reading habits, and the ideals of republicanism. It is a powerful recreation of a constructed class identity with huge repercussions on politics in Germany.

You Don't Have to Say You Love Me: A Memoir

By Sherman Alexie,

Book cover of You Don't Have to Say You Love Me: A Memoir

Why this book?

Sherman Alexie gives it everything he’s got in this sprawling, messy, brilliant memoir. Using his mother’s funeral as a jumping-off point, he investigates her chaotic life in an effort to understand the enigma of her personality and the nature of his complicated relationship with her. The contradictions he uncovers, the bits and pieces of information he’s able to glean, and the incongruities in the stories he discovers are stitched together in a narrative he likens to a patchwork quilt: disparate parts brought together that somehow make a whole.

I love the rawness of this memoir, the humor, the mixed genres, and especially the way that Alexie doesn’t spare himself in his examination of how things turned out as they did. He emerges as a not altogether likable player in the vast tragic comedy of his family. In unraveling his relationship with his mother, he uncovers his own demons, the secrets he has kept hidden from himself.

The Storyteller's Daughter: One Woman's Return to Her Lost Homeland

By Saira Shah,

Book cover of The Storyteller's Daughter: One Woman's Return to Her Lost Homeland

Why this book?

An extraordinary book by an extraordinary woman. Saira Shah recounts her journeys in Pakistan and Afghanistan, in the context of her upbringing in a family with deep roots in the region. She is on the ground during the rise of the Taliban and the fight against the Russian occupation, and the story is hair-raising, enlightening, revelatory, informed, and insightfully detailed. Ms. Shah went on to make the celebrated documentary Beneath the Veil, risking her life daily to shoot video during the first phase of Taliban control. Unforgettable, and indispensable for understanding Afghanistan.

The Paranoid Style in American Politics

By Richard Hofstadter,

Book cover of The Paranoid Style in American Politics

Why this book?

The most influential book on conspiracy theories, by any measure, published in 1966. Its title shouts Hofstadter’s thesis: A longstanding strain in American politics is marginal, dangerous, and a manifestation of political paranoia. Although countless op-ed writers have reduced his thesis to equate conspiracy theory to a paranoid mind, Hofstadter offers in the book’s first half more than simple social psychological analysis of the far right of the 1950s and 1960s, which included Joe McCarthy, Barry Goldwater, and the John Birch Society.

One of the preeminent mid-twentieth century U.S. historians, Hofstadter wrote wonderfully, engaged in big ideas, and if his work ultimately needs updating and deserves critique, Paranoid Style set the terms for a debate that continues today about conspiracy theories’ role in our political order.

Fashion History from the 18th to the 20th Century

By Taschen,

Book cover of Fashion History from the 18th to the 20th Century

Why this book?

Fashion is, of course, a visual medium. It’s also one with a very long history. If you want to get familiar with what people have been wearing for the last few centuries, this is the book. All the garments are taken from the Kyoto Costume Institute, a place I hope to visit one day. I’ve read this book cover to cover several times (even accidentally purchasing it more than once!), and I consider it an essential volume in my research library.

1939: The Making of Six Great Films from Hollywood's Greatest Year

By Charles F. Adams,

Book cover of 1939: The Making of Six Great Films from Hollywood's Greatest Year

Why this book?

Because this book concentrates on only six 1939 movies – Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Adams is able to go into much more detail about the making of each film and the critical reaction each received. I'd be hard-pressed to pick only six movies from that eventful year and movie fans will disagree with Vieira's choices somewhere down the line. But once you get past that, this book is filled with important information and plenty of trivial details that it is a great read.

The Blue Hen's Chick: An Autobiography

By A.B. Guthrie, Jr.,

Book cover of The Blue Hen's Chick: An Autobiography

Why this book?

Guthie’s autobiography describes the wild, western United States from his perspective as a 64-year-old westerner. Born in 1901, Guthrie provides a compelling account of the rugged beauty of the West. Guthrie’s writing is lucid and compelling. I had read most of his books by the time I turned 30.

Modern Chinese Warfare, 1795-1989

By Bruce A. Elleman,

Book cover of Modern Chinese Warfare, 1795-1989

Why this book?

Outsiders do not grasp the frequency let alone the magnitude of the civil and foreign wars that ravaged China well into the Maoist era. Sometimes China was the aggressor and sometimes the victim and, in its many civil wars, the Chinese government was always brutal. Concise chapters describe each conflict.

Last Night at the Telegraph Club

By Malinda Lo,

Book cover of Last Night at the Telegraph Club

Why this book?

Set in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1954 at the height of the Red Scare, this quietly powerful coming-of-age novel by Malinda Lo is guaranteed to astound. A confused and questioning Lily Hu is torn between her commitment to family, a new friendship that blossoms in unexpected ways, and her discovery of a tantalizing queer nightclub in her own neighborhood. This sapphic historical romance is full of beautiful prose, striking images, and a tenuous exploration of forbidden love.

American Photography (Oxford History of Art)

By Miles Orvell,

Book cover of American Photography (Oxford History of Art)

Why this book?

This book is a lively, questioning, and comprehensive survey of American photography, from its beginnings to the present. It analyzes achievements in each of the genres, from portraiture, through landscape, to documentary, fashion, etc. It treats individual photographic artists, from Avedon to Weegee, from the views of New York taken by Berenice Abbott to J.T. Zealy’s likenesses of enslaved Africans. American Photography is always concerned to underscore what photographs have to tell us about major aspects of American culture: race and ethnicity, gender and identity, business and technology, religion, and region. It also has numerous well-reproduced images; illuminating sidebars and boxes on such topics as the daguerreotype or picture magazines; a helpful timeline; and notes on further reading and viewing. The book was expanded and retitled as Photography in America in 2015, but the first edition still holds up. 

The Ottomans 1700-1923: An Empire Besieged

By Virginia Aksan,

Book cover of The Ottomans 1700-1923: An Empire Besieged

Why this book?

Hot off the press, and building on the success of Aksan's earlier volume on the later Ottoman empire, this book charts the transformation of this once-formidable state into a colonial client of Britain, France, Germany, and Russia. It traces the lives of friends and foes of the Ottomans who witnessed the rise and fall of a constitutional experiment in an era of shrinking borders, global consciousness, ethno-religious nationalism, and revolutionary fervour. The narrative's primary focus is on those who negotiated with, fought for, defended, and finally challenged the sultan and the system in its final days just prior to WWI, resulting in a legacy of international relations and communal violence that continues into the present.   

Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built a Movement

By Premilla Nadasen,

Book cover of Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built a Movement

Why this book?

Domestic and agricultural laborers were expressly excluded from the job protections and workplace regulations of the New Deal, including unemployment insurance, disability benefits, and Social Security. This had disproportionate effects on Black people who predominated in those sectors, compounded effects that continue to shape the exploitative and precarious conditions of domestic work today. Nadasen traces the history of Black women’s organizing for higher wages, better conditions, and recognition of the necessity and dignity of domestic workers from the 1950s to the current organizing of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA).

While centering the stories of Black women, Nadasen is attentive to the racially and nationally diverse historical and contemporary landscapes of household laborers in the United States, including cleaners, nannies, elder care providers, and home health care workers.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

By Mary Ann Shaffer, Annie Barrows,

Book cover of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Why this book?

Confession one: I saw this book around for months before I read it, and I thought the title was the worst thing I’d ever seen. No way was I going to read a book with that title. Then it was a selection in my book club, so...anyway, I fell in love. It’s charming, terrifying, heartbreaking, and a bit romantic. And so, so funny. Ironic that I would include it in this list, since the protagonist literally starts the book writing about how she’s tired of trying to make people laugh to cope with World War II, and yearns to write something more meaningful. She finds lots more meaningful to write about, and a wealth of new friends besides. The book is full of poignant stories of resistance, fortitude, and the laugh-and-cry at the same time kind of humor, like a 4-year-old war orphan whose favorite game is called Dead Bride. 

Confession two: this book could have had no other title. I see that now.

American Missionaries and the Middle East: Foundational Encounters

By Mehmet Ali Dogan (editor), Heather J. Sharkey (editor),

Book cover of American Missionaries and the Middle East: Foundational Encounters

Why this book?

This edited volume features some of the world’s leading scholars on the experiences of American missionaries in lands ruled by the Ottoman Empire during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Covering the efforts of Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, Mormons, and more, this book illuminates the messy interplay of religion, science, politics, and nationalism in the interactions between these missionaries and the native inhabitants they encountered. It dispels common myths that shroud this topic and shines a light on understudied issues such as the challenges of textual translation in cross-cultural contexts, the role of gender in evangelism, and competing visions of social change at work in education.

America's Great Game: The CIA's Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East

By Hugh Wilford,

Book cover of America's Great Game: The CIA's Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East

Why this book?

A deeply interesting dive into the world of espionage and the early days of the CIA, this accessible book by Hugh Wilford provides an excellent entry point into the exciting movements, people, and ideologies that crosscut the Middle East in the years after World War II. Focusing especially on personalities like Kim Roosevelt and Miles Copeland, this book shows why many Arabs even today suspect the CIA may be behind far more than it lets on. For American audiences, this book will provide an intriguing journey into a world that is unfamiliar to most and fascinating to all, illuminating the role U.S. spy agencies played in creating the modern Middle East.

The Oil Kings: How the U.S., Iran, and Saudi Arabia Changed the Balance of Power in the Middle East

By Andrew Scott Cooper,

Book cover of The Oil Kings: How the U.S., Iran, and Saudi Arabia Changed the Balance of Power in the Middle East

Why this book?

A highly readable tome, Cooper’s account of how the oil politics of the 1970s revolutionized U.S. foreign policy and the Persian Gulf is a must-read for anyone who wants to know more about the political landscape of the Middle East. Cooper traces the personal interactions among the Shah of Iran, Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, Gerald Ford, and the House of Saud in the midst of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, the consequent oil embargo, the formation of OPEC, and the early stirrings of revolution in Iran. Perhaps most helpful, this book dispels many misperceptions about Iran under the Shah while also showing how the United States played an integral role in weakening his regime prior to the 1979 revolution.

Running from Safety: An Adventure of the Spirit

By Richard Bach,

Book cover of Running from Safety: An Adventure of the Spirit

Why this book?

Hang-gliding is a literal leap of faith. You jump from terra firma and hope that the wind rises beneath your airfoil. Running from Safety is the author’s leap of faith, and, by extension, the readers. “Have you ever met anybody…like the people in your books?”  This is the cryptic question that begins this life exploration. 

As a writer myself, I know that every character in my books is me. Bach knows this, too. But do we really learn from the collection of stuff we hold inside, stuff that is our history? The book begins when Bach is confronted by Dickie, his child-self. The boy asks for one thing: He wants his adult self to sign off on the meaning of life contained in his eight-year-old vision of maturity. Bach is appalled at his simple naiveté. What should you tell your younger self? 

Cross Creek

By Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings,

Book cover of Cross Creek

Why this book?

Marjorie Rawlings is best known for The Yearling, but her autobiographical Cross Creek paints a vivid picture of rural north/central Florida in the 1920s and 1930s. It describes both her hard-scrabble life and her endearing connections to the people who live in the quiet back-woods hamlet of Cross Creek. Remarkably, even today this area is sparsely populated. Rawlings’ circa-1890 home and the surrounding property are now the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings State Historic Site.

A Life Made by Hand: The Story of Ruth Asawa

By Andrea D'Aquino,

Book cover of A Life Made by Hand: The Story of Ruth Asawa

Why this book?

This book tells the fascinating story of Ruth Asawa’s journey to becoming a sculptor and passing on these ideals to the next generation through her work as an advocate for arts education The illustrations are beautifully rendered and colorful. Inspirational for budding artists everywhere, the book also contains teaching tools and an art activity.

Around Harvard Square

By Christopher John Farley,

Book cover of Around Harvard Square

Why this book?

Speaking of outsiders, Around Harvard Square follows a superstar student-athlete from small-town USA who assumes he’s made it big when he’s admitted to Harvard University. However, as a young, Black man, Tosh Livingston soon discovers the ways in which he does not belong and finds that admissions committees aren’t the only gatekeepers. This novel really digs deep into issues of race and class, insiders and outsiders. And while the topics feel timely, they are also timeless—not only in the world at large but also in that microcosm, the campus. There have always been those who are kept out and always those with special access, such as legacies and athletes. The protagonist in this novel also comes up against a secret society, an underground facet of campus life and the epitome of exclusivity, which really set my own creative juices in motion. Funny and fast-paced, this novel epitomizes a protagonist’s struggle to learn the secret handshake.  

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

By Gertrude Stein,

Book cover of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

Why this book?

Toklas was Stein’s life partner—their relationship lasted nearly four decades and ended with Stein’s death in 1946. As the book shows, Toklas led a remarkable life, fleeing the devastation of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to move to Paris, where she met Stein and became a centrepiece of the avant-garde art scene that included Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, Picasso, and Matisse, to name just a few. Although she was viewed as a sort of background figure (it seems she was quite shy), she worked as Stein’s caretaker, editor, critic, confidante, lover, and cook. She finally got the recognition she deserved when Stein published this book, which became her best-known work.

The Ways of White Folks

By Langston Hughes,

Book cover of The Ways of White Folks

Why this book?

The most famous short story in this collection is about Cora, whose whole life is spent in drudgery first to her own family, and then to the locally prominent Studevants. In her own life, Cora is somewhat unconventional—she feels no shame for having an illegitimate child at a time when that was frowned upon, to say the least—but she’s quietly obedient to her difficult employers. Until, that is, one of them causes a tragedy, and Cora feels compelled to speak up very publicly. And, oh, when she does it is immensely satisfying! (TW: racially charged language and abortion)

The Savage Freud and Other Essays on Possible and Retrievable Selves

By Ashis Nandy,

Book cover of The Savage Freud and Other Essays on Possible and Retrievable Selves

Why this book?

Those who know the field of religious violence may find my choice of Ashis Nandy’s book of essays to be a peculiar one since it deals with a variety of issues besides religious violence. But one of his essays, “The Discrete Charms of Indian Terrorists,” is worth the price of the book. In it, Nandy describes the remarkably civil behavior of young Sikh activists who hijacked an Indian plane in the 1980s. He then goes on to disagree with Gandhi that terrorism necessarily absolutizes a conflict, and he rejects the common perspective, especially in the West, that terrorism is always evil. Though Nandy’s analysis does not fit all, or perhaps most, instances of religion-related terrorism it makes us reconsider our assumptions about the use of violence in certain situations.

Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America

By Ari Berman,

Book cover of Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America

Why this book?

Ari Berman picks up the voting rights story in 1965, with the Voting Rights Act’s transformative impact on Black electoral participation and office-holding, especially in the South. Designed to enforce the 15th Amendment, the Voting Rights Act removed barriers to voter registration, like literacy tests, and required states and localities with histories of racial disenfranchisement to seek “preclearance” for changes to their voting and election laws. These and other measures succeeded in greatly expanding American democracy. 

Yet, as Berman documents, opposing forces sought to return to the states the power to restrict access to the ballot, and their own success came with Shelby v. Holder (2013), which ended preclearance. A raft of restrictive regulations immediately rolled out and have intensified today. In this book, since, and joined now by many others, Berman warns that American democracy is at great risk, a warning I deeply feel we need to heed.

Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People

By Monica Brown, Julie Paschkis (illustrator),

Book cover of Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People

Why this book?

Monica Brown’s picture book biography of Pablo Neruda is a wonderfully written account of his life and the creation of his beautiful writing and poems that sing, even under the weight of tremendous struggles. The lyrical text soars on the page while Julie Paschkis’ colorful illustrations capture the heart and soul of the poet of the people. This is a must-read!

Unequal Freedom: How Race and Gender Shaped American Citizenship and Labor

By Evelyn Nakano Glenn,

Book cover of Unequal Freedom: How Race and Gender Shaped American Citizenship and Labor

Why this book?

In Unequal Freedom, Nakano Glenn provides a brilliant analysis of how the multiple axes of power relations, including race, gender, and labor, have shaped the terms of citizenship in the United States. In the process, Glenn unpacks how the history of the concept of citizenship is a powerful tool for understanding the various ways power dynamics have influenced the terms of belonging to a national community. Glenn’s book is an inspiring study that has pushed me to think more deeply about the notion of citizenship and to understand that the concept of citizenship involves more than just indicating one’s nationality status. As Glenn shows, citizenship denotes a system of deeply entrenched boundaries that have determined not only who is allowed to be a member of a certain community, but also who is allowed to be an active participant in governing that community. 

Dead Dead Girls

By Nekesa Afia,

Book cover of Dead Dead Girls

Why this book?

The reason I’m flinging this debut historical mystery at everyone who reads books is because of its main character, Louise Lloyd. Lou is a tiny, determined, fierce Black lesbian who lives in 1920s Jazz-Age Harlem and really does not want to keep solving crimes, but crimes keep happening and who else is going to solve them? If you like your heroines ferociously competent, your murder mysteries fast-paced, and your stories to be equal parts harsh tragedy and unstoppable joy, this one’s for you. Plus, it’s the first in a series!