A good book can save us, trouble us, inform us, inspire us, entertain us, and if we’re really lucky, remake us. Here are the books I read in 2021 – fiction first, then nonfiction. Hope you’ll find some good reading choices here.
Admit This to No One by Leslie Pietryzk
Loved this collection of connected and beautifully crafted short stories, all based in and around Washington DC, about a male Speaker of the House and the various women who relate or fail to relate to him, as staff and family members. An insightful, incisive, and often funny examination of power and its tentacles. When you get to the line, “She wanted nothing less,” see if your heart doesn’t beat faster—if not from the meaning of the sentence, then from the sheer, tympanic rhythm of the paragraph.
The Alice Network by Kate Quinn
In 1947 a pregnant American college student named Charlie goes to France for an abortion, but instead decides to search for her beloved cousin Rose, who hasn’t been heard from since before the war ended. She joins forces with Eve, an unfriendly alcoholic eccentric who, it turns out, was part of the “Alice network” of spies in WWI and may be able to help Charlie find Rose among sea of post-war refugees swamping Europe. Entertaining historical fiction that you read for the ride, not the language.
The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld
Well-built and well-written story of two women who live in the same house on a windy Scottish coast during different eras. In the post-WWII years, one woman is raising her husband’s two boys from a previous marriage, while he spends increasing amounts of time in London. She grows to love the severe, lonely coastline but finds the house, the town, and the culture strange and haunted, and her own life shrinking around her. Decades later her grand-daughter lives in the same house, with an equally uncertain grip on how to live a stable life. Woven like a red thread throughout the novel and the braided stories (including a third story from a much older time, about a woman accused of witchcraft), is the exhausting, constant menace of male violence.
Broken Harbor by Tana French
Another tour de force by Tana French, this time examining the murder of a young family in Ireland at the height of the 2008 recession. As with all of her novels, the question isn’t so much who did it, or even why, but what dark social and psychological forces gave rise to a world in which violence can be confused with salvation.
Christadora by Tim Murphy
Fabulous novel about the interconnected lives of several residents of a New York City apartment building and, through their powerful stories, a vivid portrait of the AIDS crisis and the multi-faceted activist movement that rose up to fight it.
Citizens Creek by Lalita Tademy
Fascinating novel about a Black man who was the slave of a Creek chief in Alabama, speaks numerous Native American languages and English, and becomes a translator in addition to an expert hand with cows (hence his name, Cow Tom). Over many years the man earns his freedom and, with his wife and daughters, chooses to remain a part of the Creek community that had once enslaved him. But white America has other plans, forcing the Creeks and many others from the South to designated Indian territory in Oklahoma, and refusing to believe that African-descended people like Cow Tom are indeed Creeks and entitled to what meager resources the government has promised them. The narrative rolls over generations and territories, bringing us close to the daily lives of vibrant characters and the pulsing question of what it means to belong.
The Cold Millions by Jess Walter
Wonderful and lively novel about the struggles of two brothers in Spokane, Washington in 1909, as the IWW and other unions fight against brutal plutocrats and police so that people who work with their hands and bodies can earn enough to survive. The novel turns American history deeply human, with warm characterizations of the two brothers, other workers they ally with, some cops and detectives, two women called Ursula the Great, and a dazzling star turn by the real-life union organizer Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.
The Consequences of Fear by Jacqueline Winspear
One in a series of novels about Maisie Dobbs, a British woman who worked as a nurse in WWI and then became one of the few women private detectives in London. Now, in the days of WWII, she continues her detective work and serves as an advisor to the government, assessing whether young women are psychologically fit for the high-stress, high-risk job of serving as undercover spies in occupied France. A case emerges that intertwines both of her occupations and her personal history.
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
Eerie yet charming Japanese novel about a young woman who can’t comprehend human behavior or feelings, is baffled that people don’t share her logic (see a dead bird? Don’t mourn it, cook it!), and learns to fit in—just barely—by mimicking the speech and styles of people around her. Keiko finally finds a way to thrive: working in a convenience store, where every interaction is highly regimented, and she finally understands her purpose. In a job considered appropriate only as a temporary stopgap, she stays for years until almost by accident, something shakes up her narrow, structured life.
The Cutting Season by Attica Locke
Caren Gray has worked for five years as the manager of a former plantation in rural Louisiana, now lovingly restored as a tourist attraction and wedding destination complete with a play about the plantation’s history, in which contemporary Black people dress in rags and declare their fidelity to the land and to the white people who own them. Hey, it’s a job. Caren, who is also Black, has grown up at the plantation—her mother was the cook—and is raising her young daughter there. The owners, of course, are white, as are the tourists. When the body of a young Latina fieldworker from the industrial farm next door is found near the preserved and still frightening slave quarters, all the ghosts of the plantation rise up, including Caren’s own past. A tense mystery with much more at stake than whodunnit.
Finding Mrs. Ford by Deborah Goodrich
All is serene and predictable in the wealthy, oceanside enclave where Mrs. Ford lives in the mansion her late husband built—until the FBI knocks on her door, wondering why a man on the terrorist watch list flew in from Beirut to visit her. It soon becomes clear to her neighbors and closest friends that nothing in her life is exactly as it appears, including Mrs. Ford.
Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss
A coming-of-age story that takes place in rural northern England, where 15-year-old Silvie, observant and nature-loving, is spending a week in the woods with her parents, an archaeology professor, and a small group of students. They are all wearing home-made togas and sandals and trying to live like Britons in the Iron Age. Her father, a bus driver who is obsessed with Iron Age history, lore, tools, and skills, has forced Silvie and her mother to spend all of their holidays in these pursuits, and now serves as the expert for the professor and his students. But only the lone woman student sees how cowed Silvie and her mother are by Silvie’s violent father, and the sojourn in nature takes a harrowing turn when the two men decide to simulate a human sacrifice ritual, with Silvie as the doomed maiden.
Ghosts of Harvard by Francesca Serritella
A young woman whose older brother went to Harvard and committed suicide there decides to attend Harvard herself, determined to learn more his life and death. There she finds herself unmoored by her own grief, and wonders if she too suffers from schizophrenia when she begins to hear voices. The voices soon prove to be ghosts that she can hear but not see: three distinct people from different eras in the past, each with deep connections to Harvard. The novel is a strange amalgam of a mystery, ghost story, coming of age tale, and family drama, with quantum physics thrown in. Not entirely my cup of tea, despite the intriguing premise.
The Gone Dead by Chanelle Benz
Excellent novel about a woman named Billie James who travels from her home in Philadelphia to fix up the dilapidated house in the Mississippi Delta that she inherited from her father, a promising Black poet and activist who died under mysterious circumstances when she was a small child. Her mother was white, an academic who met Billie’s father when they were both Freedom Riders. Now both parents have died, and as someone born in the Delta but now a stranger to it, Billie must face the personal legacy of racism, art, secrets, courage, and community waiting for her in Mississippi.
Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead
Beautifully written, engrossing novel about a woman named Marian Graves who grows up in Montana in the 1920s and 1930s and dreams of flying airplanes, an occupation almost foreclosed to women. She does find a way to fly, at great personal cost, and learns her profession by flying bootleg liquor from forested caches in Canada to the U.S. before becoming a bush pilot in Alaska and eventually flying planes for an all-women pilot force in England during WWII. The novel’s expansive view brings us close to the compelling characters in her life: her twin brother Jamie, their lifelong friend and Marian’s occasional lover Caleb, the pilot who first trains her to face the perils of the sky, the publisher who finances her most famous flight, the woman pilot in WWII who gives her a shocking lesson in love. In the 1950s Marian Graves attempts a pioneering round-the-world flight and is never heard from again. Seventy years later, a troubled young movie star named Hadley Baxter plays Marian Graves in a movie about her life, a film that romanticizes the many myths about Marian even as Hadley is discovering the surprising truth about Marian.
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
Much-praised novel about a boy who dies of the plague, his remarkable mother, who has otherworldly skills and talents, and her husband. He begins their relationship as a young and unworthy suitor and ultimately evolves into a long-distance husband, father, and oh yes, a successful playwright who writes a tragedy called Hamlet.
The Hive by Melissa Scholes Young
This glowing novel is about four sisters in conservative, small-town Missouri in 2008 who must scramble to save their family pest control business and figure out a future for themselves in the wake of their father’s death. They learn that he has plunged the company into debt and left it in equal shares to the four sisters and a distant male cousin, certain that no woman can manage a business, although the oldest sister had been doing so for years. Their mother, a “prepper” who’s convinced the end is imminent, especially if Obama is elected, is little help. This is the rare novel that recognizes racism, sexism, and the shifts of history are as much family concerns as grief and debt. Although the novel deals with serious themes, it’s shot through with warmth, quirkiness, and wit, like the Fehler family itself.
How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang
Piercing and original narrative about two teenage sisters of Chinese descent who have lost their parents and try to make their way toward some kind of better future through the ravaged landscape of post-gold rush California. The novel has earned all kinds of acclaim, including being one of Barack Obama’s favorite books of 2020.
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab
In rural France in the 1700s, a young woman about to be handed over to a dreaded marriage prays for deliverance, and the devil answers. He grants her everlasting life, with one caveat: no one she meets will ever remember her. She lives for centuries, all over the world, absorbing art and learning new languages, but can’t maintain a relationship or establish a home, because friends, lovers, and landlords forget her the moment she is out of their sight. But in 21st century Brooklyn she meets a boy who does remember her, and she must reckon with the bargain she made. An enjoyable romp through the ages and consideration of the power of art.
Long Bright River by Liz Moore
This novel appears to take the form of a mystery about two sisters. One is a drug-addicted sex worker, the other a police officer who has been seeking her missing sister for a month in the midst of a series of murders of other local women in similar circumstances. But really it’s a eulogy for a community—the working-class neighborhoods of Kensington in Philadelphia—ravaged by addiction, and an indictment of the unaccountable power of police.
The Lost Diary of M by Paul Wolfe
A woman named Mary Pinchot Meyer was part of the “Georgetown set” of Washington, DC: high-ranking politicians, journalists, and spies (all men) who traded gossip at cocktail parties during the Kennedy administration. Divorced from a leader in the CIA, Mary was an artist, a pacificist, and had a serious relationship with JFK while he was in office. She was murdered a few months after JFK’s assassination, and it remains unsolved. All of this is historical fact. She was also reputed to have left behind a diary, which was never found. This novel purports to be that diary. I enjoyed the novel’s behind-the-scenes glimpses of Washington power brokers conducting the Cold War, and the DC locations. But the author stumbles badly in terms of writing from a woman’s point of view, creating such cringe-worthy clunkers as when Mary, in her own diary, describes herself as “a luscious blonde” and refers to her breasts as “my creamy ladies.”
Memento Mori by Muriel Spark
Several friends and acquaintances In 1950s England—all upper-class Brits in their 70s and 80s—receive a series of anonymous phone calls in which a stranger very politely tells them, “Remember you must die.” With sardonic wit, the novel examines the upheaval these calls trigger in the recipients’ surprisingly eventful lives and explores the parallel experiences of a group of elderly working- and middle-class women now in a nursing home, one of whom was a long-time assistant to one of the aristocrats, invested with all of her secrets. I first read this novel in my youth; it a different experience to read it in my 60s, but a delightful read at any age.
The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
A woman so unhappy with her life that she tries to kill herself instead finds herself in a library where, instead of books, she can borrow different versions of her own life. She gets to experience how things might have been if she had made different decisions at various points in her life—including now, where outside of the midnight library she is hovering on the verge of death. A little twee but still enjoyable.
Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy
In a time exactly like our own except that almost all undomesticated birds, fish, and mammals are already extinct, an ornithologist seeks to follow the arctic terns on their last great migration from pole to pole. In Greenland, she hitches a ride on a fishing vessel that plies the empty seas, on the promise that if they follow the terns she has banded with GPS devices, the birds will lead them to hidden fish habitats. Franny, the ornithologist and narrator, was born in Ireland but raised in Australia, and calls nowhere home, except perhaps the husband to whom she writes letters that she never mails. As she becomes more engaged with the crew of the fishing boat and learns their urgent language of knots and nets, Franny reveals to readers more and more layers of herself, and almost nothing we think we know about her turns out to be true. A well-paced novel that gleams with the romance of cold places.
The Missing American by Kwei Quartey
An American man who has been bilked by a Ghanaian internet scam goes to Ghana to confront the scammer, and disappears. Emma Jann, a young Ghanaian woman just starting out as a detective, sets out to find him. The book is much warmer and more charming than the usual dour detective fare, thanks to the engaging Emma and many other Ghanaian characters, and we get fascinating glimpses of life in Accra and the mechanics of the “sakawa,” or internet fraud, trade.
The New Wilderness by Diane Cook
In a world ravaged by climate change, 20 people agree to join an experiment in which they leave the crowded, poisoned city and move to what may be the planet’s last wilderness. There these urban dwellers meet nature in all its beauty and brutality and learn how to live as nomads, hunting for food and tanning hides to make clothing. Not all survive. At the center of the story are a mother and daughter whose intense relationship twists and shifts as the daughter grows from a sickly 5-year-old into a teenager whose wilderness skills far outstrip her ability to understand adult concerns and the constantly evolving dynamics of community.
North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
I was surprised by how much I loved this Victorian novel, which is about the contrast between England’s industrial North and agrarian South. Straddling these two worlds is the educated, middle-class Hale family who, for financial reasons, must move from the south, where they’ve always lived, to the north, which they’ve always disdained. The adult daughter Margaret becomes friends with workers in a local factory and with the factory owner. Although she is pious and haughty, Margaret develops a passion for fairness toward workers, and urgently debates with herself and others whether creating a union is the best way to achieve it. An old-fashioned talky novel about love: of families, of spouses, and of justice.
Northern Spy by Flynn Berry
Tense and gripping novel about two sisters who live in modern-day Belfast. Tessa is a single mom with an infant son and works as a producer for the BBC; Marian is an EMT. One day, Tessa glances at some news footage and sees her sister and two masked men robbing a business at gunpoint. Tessa runs to the police, certain her sister has been kidnapped by the IRA and forced to commit the robbery, a tactic the IRA is known to engage in. But the reality is more shocking and dangerous than Tessa ever imagined. In addition to being a page-turner, the novel raises potent questions about politics and personal ethics and reveals how terrorism and The Troubles continue to shape daily life in Northern Ireland even now.
The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans
Short stories plus a novella about contemporary African American women who consistently find themselves in situation that raise a piercing question about white Americans: Do they know I’m human yet? Crisp, fresh writing that creates a powerful resonance.
Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy
A crew of scientists descend on rural Scotland for an experiment to rewild the Highlands by releasing a small pack of wolves. Some of the residents welcome the intervention and some are violently opposed, fearing the wolves pose a danger to their families and to the sheep that are their livelihood. Although rooted in the urgency of environmental catastrophe, this is a strangely gothic tale that includes a narrator who has both a peculiar sensory disorder and a speechless, hidden twin sister who may or may not be real. I loved the author’s first book, Migrations; this one, not so much.
The Other Americans by Laila Lailami
This wonderful novel set in California’s Mojave desert is a chorale in which many voices twine around two mysteries: who was the driver in a hit-and-run incident that killed a local Moroccan-American business owner, and who do we mean, as a community or a nation, when we talk about “us”? From the family of the man who was killed, to the cops who are investigating, to a witness afraid to come forward because he’s undocumented, and more, we see deeply into the characters’ lives and the forces, choices, and fates that have brought them into this shared moment that no one wanted.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
Published in 1961, this book still holds its power. Miss Brodie teaches at a girls’ school in Edinburgh in the 1930s. Charismatic and unconventional, she dominates the lives of a small clique of the “impressionable girls” she teaches, shaping their opinions of art, music, and romance. As the girls grow into their teens, she influences them into sexual relationships with male teachers and into swooning support of Franco, Mussolini, and other dashing fascists. So skillfully does the author handle point of view and interiority that when one of the students reports the teacher to the school administration, the reader can’t help feeling some sympathy for the dazzling and appalling Miss Brodie.
Red Joan by Jennie Rooney
Loved this novel about a British woman who, shortly after graduating from Cambridge with a science degree in the 1940s, takes a job in the lab that rushed to develop an atomic bomb for the British. When she is in her 80s, in 2005, she is arrested by government agents on suspicion of passing classified information about the bomb to the Russians during WWII. The questions that propel the book are not so much whether she did it but why, and whether she can possibly explain the fraught politics and existential stakes of that era to the rigid young agents interrogating her, who think having an interest in politics is in itself suspicious, or to her son, a high-ranking lawyer she hopes—but is not sure—will defend her.
The Rose Code by Kate Quinn
Entertaining, deeply researched novel about three young British women who work as code breakers in Bletchley Park, England’s top secret campus for cracking enemy codes in WWII. Although their friendship is shattered by cataclysmic events, they must reunite in 1947 and use all of their skills and contacts to uncover a traitor and save the life of one of the code breakers.
The Silence of the Girls and The Women of Troy by Pat Barker
Par Barker tells another brilliant war story in these two books: the story of the Trojan and Greek women who appear as objects of desire and pillage in The Iliad but never as people. Both novels (The Women of Troy is a sequel) are narrated by Briseis, a young, royal Trojan woman who watches Achilles, as he leads the Greek army, seize her town and slaughter her husband and brothers. Achilles then claims her as his sex slave. Barker’s description of Briseis’ horror as she learns how to comport herself as a slave and how to discipline herself to her dreadful new duties—is particularly potent.
The Slow March of Light: A Novel by Heather B. Moore
This reads more like a fictionalized telling of real events (which it is) than an actual novel, but what a story it tells. After WWII, Berlin become the focal point of the Cold War, with West Berlin controlled by the U.S., Britain, and France, and East Berlin by the USSR. But when the Soviet Union built the Berlin Wall in 1961, the two sides of the city became suddenly inaccessible to one another. A nurse named Luisa lived on western side of the Wall, while her beloved grandmother lived in East Berlin. At tremendous risk, Luisa begins to help East Berliners escape to the West through a tunnel. Meanwhile, a U.S. soldier she is friends with is assigned to go undercover in East Berlin as a spy to identify possible military targets. He is eventually caught, imprisoned in an East German dungeon and tortured, which changes the course of his life long after he’s released.
A Study in Honor by Claire O’Dell
In an exhilarating mash-up of genres, a military surgeon named Dr. Janet Watson, who lost her arm in the still-ongoing civil war against the New Confederacy, joins forces with a government agent called Sara Holmes to solve a mystery that deeply affects Dr. Watson and her fellow veterans. Throw in the fact that they’re both Black women, both lesbians, and most of the action takes place in Washington, DC in the very near future, and you have a book that’s irresistible to a reader like me. I’m trying to broaden the genres I read, and this novel ticked several boxes.
Summer Water by Sarah Moss
Brief, lapidary gem of a novel about a handful of couples and families, mostly from Glasgow—strangers who become neighbors for a few days in a remote lakeside vacation community during an unusually rainy Scottish summer. The author draws us deeply into the varied characters, with their small dramas and deep questions, but something larger is building, and we can feel it in the tiny details. Brilliant.
The Third Mrs. Galway by Deirdre Sinnott
In Utica, NY in 1835, a naïve young woman marries an older, wealthy widower and moves into his home, where she is uncomfortable and aimless. When she discovers an enslaved woman and her son hiding on the property—they got waylaid on their way to a station of the Underground Railroad in Utica—she begins to learn the truth about slavery, the emerging abolition movement in Utica, how power works, and what she herself is made of. An unusual and well-researched historical novel, with some lovely characterizations.
TransAtlantic: A Novel by Colum McCann
People have been telling me to read this book for years, and I’m glad I finally did. This is a sweeping novel in the best sense, old-fashioned in scope, modern in design, that explores the lives and legacies of people who crossed the Atlantic from Ireland to America and vice versa. Major characters range from a couple of early aviators determined to cross the ocean, to Frederick Douglass, to a woman named Lily who began life as an Irish maid and ended it as an American matriarch, and many more—all of them rich and fascinating in themselves, and connected to the other characters and plotlines in often surprising ways.
Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry
It read this because I so loved her novel Northern Spy. While this book is very different—a psychological mystery about a woman intent on solving her sister’s brutal murder, although neither the police nor the reader can be sure she didn’t commit the crime herself—it still reflects Berry’s skill in pacing and character building.
Wayward by Dana Spiotta
A middle-aged white woman buys a lovely but decrepit house in urban Syracuse and move in, leaving her husband and teenage daughter in their suburban home. The book is about the “change of life” in numerous ways: leaving home, gentrifying a neighborhood, discovering your solo identity, experiencing menopause, figuring out how to live in resistance under an oppressive political regime, recognizing your own complicity in systemic racism, redefining family relationships.
What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez
Gorgeously written and enlarging novel about two middle-aged women, both writers, one of whom is dying of cancer and asks the other to live with her as a friend and companion until she takes the pills that will end her life. Reading it is like having a long conversation with your most thoughtful, best-read friend, someone who, like all of us in midlife or later, walk through our days wreathed in memory.
Becoming Duchess Goldblatt by Anonymous
A memoir about how a writer whose real life brought her sorrows upon sorrows created the fictional Twitter character of Duchess Goldblatt, who now has more than 55,000 followers, including me. By writing her particular brand of tweets—smart, tart, facetious, yet somehow warming—Duchess has created an online community of like-minded readers, writers, and artists, some of whom have in turn created a family for her still-anonymous creator. This book is in a genre all its own: a personal memoir of an online phenomenon.
Black is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine by Emily Bernard
A collection of smart, witty, and beautifully crafted essays about race, identity, and the notion of home. Bernard is a Black woman who grew up in the South but has spent her adult life in ultra-white Vermont, where each time she leaves the house, she is “engaged in an act of representation.” She throws her light on experiences that range from a brutal stabbing she survived to minor racial misunderstandings that take place over cups of coffee with friends, to the joys and efforts of raising her multi-cultural family (white husband, daughters originally from Ethiopia) in a white space. Highly recommend.
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabelle Wilkerson
The author of The Warmth of Other Suns explains America to itself through a new lens, redefining racism as an implacable caste system similar to the long-lasting one in India and the more modern caste system of Nazi Germany, which, she reminds us, was based in part on the efficacy of U.S. racial laws.
The Chancellor: The Remarkable Odyssey of Angela Merkel by Kati Marton
Surprisingly gripping biography of Merkel, who spent the first 35 years of her life living in the repressive police state of East Germany, earned a Ph.D. in physics, and went on to become Chancellor of Germany, leader of the EU, and with the ascendance of Trump, leader of the free world. Throughout it all, she continued to live in the same modest Berlin apartment and do her own grocery shopping. But this is not a rags-to-riches hagiography; the author—who herself grew up in a Communist police state, Hungary—examines how Merkel’s East German upbringing, firm values, and self-knowledge helped shape her into an extraordinary leader who nevertheless had blind spots and shortcomings.
Eat the Buddha by Barbara Demick
From the author of the fantastic Nothing to Envy, a close-up and personal account of life in a Tibetan town where Buddhist monks, students, and astounding numbers of unlikely martyrs set themselves on fire to protest Chinese oppression and the repression of religion, which is central to their daily lives and traditions.
The Empire of Pain by Patrick Fadden Keefe
A scorching examination of the Sackler family and the extreme strategies they used to market OxyContin, generating billions of dollars for themselves while dismissing the miseries of the opioid crisis that created their profits.
Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Kolker
In this story of the Galvin family—military dad, religious mom, and 12 children—the author chronicles how the family dealt with six of their ten sons developing schizophrenia and interweaves that with an exploration of how the scientific understanding of the illness evolved in the 20th century, in part through studying the Galvins. For me, the most chilling aspect of this book was the fact that the parents regularly left their two young daughters to the care of their much-older, mentally ill brothers, who abused them in numerous ways, including sexually. The author achieved astonishing access to the family, such as being allowed to quote at length from family members’ journals. There’s much to appreciate about this book, but it’s not for everybody.
My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead
A delightful exploration of the life and evolving world of George Eliot, and how her experiences—not her biography—are reflected in Middlemarch and her other novels and essays, braided with a consideration of how Mead’s own life and changing world have expanded her appreciation of the literary and humanistic feat that is Middlemarch.
Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century by Jessica Bruder
Narrative reportage about the lives of mostly older Americans who live in vans and travel around the country, creating community when they can and working at a series of temporary jobs—an Amazon warehouse around the holidays, an RV park in the summer—in a constant scramble to survive economically before their vehicles or their bodies break down. If you saw the movie with Frances McDormand, you saw a burnished version of this story, with most of the sharp edges buffed away.
Rough Magic: Riding the World’s Loneliest Horse Race by Lara Prior-Palmer
On a whim, and with a crazy-making (to me) lack of preparation, a 19-year-old British woman decides to participate in a race in which people from several countries ride wild ponies across the Mongolian steppes for seven days. It is a horse race that is kind to the horses but not the riders. The fact that she wins is perhaps less surprising than the fact that she survives. Lovely writing about a unique experience by an author who is older and more grounded, but still in touch with her chaotic youth.
Somebody’s Daughter by Ashley Ford
Beautifully written and much-lauded memoir by a Black woman whose father has been in prison—for two brutal rapes—for most of her life, leaving her and her brother to struggle for survival with their mercurial, sometimes loving and sometimes violent mother. Then, when she is an adult, her father is released after 30 years, and she must come to terms with him, with her mother, with the person she herself has become.
The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together by Heather McGhee
This book uses personal stories, American history that none of us learned in school, and economic and policy analysis to cast racism in a new light—as a force that is strategically used by the powerful few to prevent people of color and white people from uniting in common cause. The result is that none of us can have the “nice things” that government could and should provide, from decent jobs to good schools to clean air. I had the privilege of working as Heather McGhee’s research and writing assistant while she wrote The Sum of Us. The book spent months on the New York Times bestseller list. Rachel Maddow called it “probably the most influential book in the American left right now,” and the Obamas selected The Sum of Us for their media company to adapt as a podcast series. Perhaps my favorite comment was from the book review editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, who described Heather as “an economic theorist who writes like a poet.”
Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala
A harrowing yet lyrical memoir by a woman who emerged dazed and battered from the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka to discover that she was her family’s sole survivor: her husband, children, and parents were killed in the tidal wave. With telling detail she recreates her life in London, where she and her husband are both economics professors, raising two young boys, and in Sri Lanka, where the author grew up and her family spends months of each year. Hard to fathom how someone could survive such a devastating loss, and Deraniyagala is unflinching in her description of the sense of disbelief that persisted for years, and the lengths she went to in order to “tame her pain.” (This is not in the book, but she eventually went on to marry the actress Fiona Shaw.)
Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder, and a Woman’s Search for Justice in Indian Country by Sierra Crane Murdoch
In 2012, a young white man who came to the sprawling Fort Berthold reservation in North Dakota to work the oil fields went missing. Lissa Yellow Bird, a member of one of the three Tribal nations that lived in Fort Berthold for generations, decided to find out what had happened to him. She is a complex and fascinating person—a mother of five, a former drug addict and convict, now sober and deeply drawn to traditional ceremonies, who used her smarts, wiles, perseverance, and vast family ties on the reservation to solve a mystery that many people urgently wanted her to drop. Throw in a white author who went to North Dakota to cover the oil boom and ended up spending years in intimate contact with Lissa and her family, and you have a compelling and troubling story.
Zero Fail: The Rise and Fall of the Secret Service by Carol Leonnig
The Secret Service is much, much worse than I ever imagined, shot through with toxic masculinity and white supremacy (no surprise there), hampered by outdated procedures, traditions, and technology, and so underfunded that there’s no way to mitigate these dangerous shortcomings. Leonnig examines the history, culture, and performance of the Secret Service, filling in the details of many instances we’ve read about in the news. While she reveals many stories of courage and character, her larger conclusion is that only luck has prevented more presidential (and other) disasters from taking place.
It’s almost time to start another year of reading. What do you recommend?