With the 2020 season in question and the world still in the midst of a pandemic, we’re continuing our series of recommendations of all sorts of things to do at home. Today, we make our second round of book recommendations.
The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson: This is one of my favorite non-fiction books of all time mostly because it doesn’t read like non-fiction at all. It reads like a mystery thriller straight out of the canon of the likes of Agatha Christie. It tells the story of the spectacular and true events surrounding the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair—both its construction and the serial killer operating in the vicinity at the time. It’s a gripping page-turner that will not disappoint.
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel: I absolutely love graphic novels and this one is among my favorites. It has since been adapted into a Tony Award-winning musical. Prior to seeing the musical, I was very skeptical because the graphic novel is very tragic and deals with immensely complicated questions of sexuality and familial relationships. But the musical is also fantastic. You may know Alison Bechdel without realizing that you do. She coined the “Bechdel Test” for movies, which asks the following three questions:
1. Does the movie have two female characters in it?
2. Do the two female characters have at least one conversation?
3. Does at least one of their conversations center around something other than a man?
Fun Home is Bechdel’s memoir, telling the story of her realizing her own sexuality only to find later that her father was a closeted gay man himself. She is able to live freely in a way he never did, but the unanswered questions he leaves behind are still an immense source of pain that the novel explores in depth in a poignant way that is incredibly engrossing.
The Wrinkle in Time Series by Madeleine L’Engle: Ever since J.K. Rowling has been in the news for all the wrong reasons, I’ve been thinking about the books that had the biggest impact on me growing up besides the Harry Potter series and this series is very much a part of that conversation. Unlike Harry Potter, the Wrinkle in Time series features a female protagonist and a fantastic one at that in Meg Murry, who is portrayed brilliantly by Storm Reid in the 2018 film adaptation of the novel. The Time Quintet feels just as relevant today as it did when it was published in the 1960s. It is a sci-fi adventure series about Meg, her brother Charles Wallace, and her friend Calvin O’Keefe, who travel through time and space to save the world from evil forces. It is a series of books near and dear to my nerdy heart and I know that kids (and adults) of any generation will love them just as much as I did growing up (and still do).
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr: So many brilliant Holocaust-era books have been written throughout the years, but what sets this one apart is that it is told through the eyes of a blind girl. Doerr crafts some of the richest prose I have ever come across and the book flips back and forth effectively between time periods and between two character perspectives, which is not easy to pull off. The richness of this novel means it might take a little while for your to get into it, but once you do, it rewards you graciously with a deep examination of the human condition, the ways in which we are all connected, and the stories that history leaves untold.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng: It seems I have chosen a lot of books that have been adapted in other mediums this round, which I did not do on purpose. But Little Fires Everywhere has recently been made into a Hulu miniseries starring Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington, which I confess I have not watched yet, but plan to. As for the book, it is wonderful—honest and sincere and filled with great characters that will steal your heart. Celeste Ng is a master storyteller, that much is clear. I was engrossed from the first page all the way until the end. This book has so much in its pages—part coming of age story, part thriller, part commentary on the human condition and what it means to be a family—there’s something here for just about everyone.
Note: In honor of #BlackoutBestsellerlist, I am selecting some of my favorite books from African American authors.
Native Son, by Richard Wright: It’s still hard for me to believe that this book was published in 1940. It feels so far ahead of its time in asking audiences to wrestle with the societal factors that caused protagonist Bigger Thomas to commit the heinous crimes he commits over the course of the narrative. It’s a book that does challenge one’s capacity for empathy, but it’s also a book that is hard to turn away from—I certainly remember the feeling of being horrified by what I was reading, but still being unable to stop reading. In writing this seminal text, Richard Wright paved the way for so many other black authors to follow in his lead in telling complex and honest tales about the brutal reality of living as a black man/woman in America.
Beloved, by Toni Morrison: With Morrison’s passing last year, America lost one of the greatest writers it has ever known. All of her works are well worth reading, but Beloved is arguably her most acclaimed novel, and it is the one which stays with me the most. It is both a story about slavery and a story about ghosts, and Morrison uses those two seemingly wildly divergent subjects to tell a haunting story about how the effects of slavery lingered well after it was officially abolished. And the ending passage is one of the most memorable and gut-wrenching pieces of writing that I’ve ever experienced. This book is one of many which ensures that Morrison’s legacy will stay with us for a very long time.
Kindred, by Octavia Butler: This year I made a conscious effort to try to read more books from authors of color, and this is one of the best novels that I’ve been exposed to so far as part of that endeavor. As was the case with Morrison, Butler added a bit of magical realism to her storytelling in order to properly grapple with the horrors of slavery. While Morrison chose a ghost story as her vehicle for exploring the subject, Butler uses time travel to contemplate how a black woman in modern times would fare if placed on a southern plantation. The result is predictably horrifying, as the main character must struggle to maintain hold of her agency in a world that is bound and determined to deny it to her. The book served as an excellent introduction to Butler’s writing, and I am excited to read more of her work soon.
Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates: While most of my suggestions for this series have been works of fiction, my top non-fiction recommendation would be this stunning text from one of the best writers working today. Even if your own political and social viewpoints are different from Coates, his books are honestly still worth reading just for the quality of his poetic prose. But personally, reading about his insights on race in America proved to be a transformative experience. As a white man, I will never fully understand what it is like to live with the many systemic injustices that black men and women have always been forced to contend with, but reading this book—which is presented as a letter written by Coates to his young son—exposed me to a perspective on these issues that I had never previously been exposed to. There is a passage in the book, for instance, which allowed me to more clearly perceive the horrors of slavery in a way that simply reading about that era of history in social studies classes never did. And above all, the book is an expression of sadness and fear that Coates and his son and those who look like them must always be mindful of the ease with which their lives could be unjustly taken from them. It is a book which remains required reading almost five years after its initial release, and I suspect it will remain required reading for many years to come.
The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead: Whitehead recently accomplished a feat that only three authors before him accomplished: he became a repeat winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. He first won the award for The Underground Railroad, but for my money The Nickel Boys—which earned him his second Pulitzer—is the superior novel. It is, horrifyingly, based on the true story of the Dozier School for Boys, a Florida reform school which gained a reputation for abuse, beatings, rapes, torture, and even murder of students by staff. The main characters in the novel struggle to survive in the segregated Nickel Academy, where the legacy of Jim Crow makes its ugly mark. It’s not an easy book to get through (really, none of my recommendations here are), but it’s well worth the effort, and Whitehead deserves to be commended for calling attention to such an ugly yet largely unknown story of injustice that took place in this country.
Crash Out: The True Tale of a Hell’s Kitchen Kid and the Bloodiest Escape in Sing Sing History by David Goewey: This nonfiction book tells the tale of one of New York’s most infamous prisons and a daring escape by prisoners in 1939. For those interested in local history this book captures New York in the 1930s as well as the history of the prison which has a surprising connection to the Yankees. It is a well researched, easy read that feels more like a thriller than nonfiction.
Diamonds from the Dugout: 115 Baseball Legends Remember Their Greatest Hits by Mark Newman: If you are missing baseball this could be a good book to pick up since you will get insight from some of the greatest stars to play the game. For Mets fans Darryl Strawberry, Mike Piazza, David Wright and Curtis Granderson are included and Chipper Jones’s is thankfully painless to read. Some others who share their most memorable hits are Derek Jeter, Ken Griffey Jr., Pete Rose, Cal Ripken Jr., Tony Gwynn, Albert Pujols, Bo Jackson, and Don Mattingly. Their answers just might surprise you.
Ballparks: A Journey Through the Fields of the Past, Present, and Future by Eric Enders: Even if baseball does return this season fans probably won’t be allowed into the stadiums for the foreseeable future. While nothing beats being at the ballpark to watch the game, this book is the best option available to explore the cathedrals of America’s pastime. Stunning photographs of stadiums both past and present help the reader immerse themselves in baseball’s history where they almost feel like they are actually at the ballpark. Almost.
Wonder by R.J. Palacio: This is technically a children’s book but it is so incredibly well-written that its genre should not prevent adults from picking it up. Main character Auggie Pullman was born with a facial deformity and the story revolves around him starting middle school and interacting with other children for the first time after being homeschooled his whole life. Important themes of bullying, kindness, and acceptance are deftly explored. The book is told from different points of view and Palacio handles each one brilliantly as every character feels real. This book should really be read but the movie starring Julia Roberts is worth checking out as well.
Big Machine by Victor LaValle: I had planned on writing about Big Machine for our first batch of recommendations, but a book I had just finished (The Institute by Stephen King) edged it out. But I’m glad that this was saved for the second batch, because it’s one of the most interesting novels I’ve ever read, and one that grapples with race in a really unique way.
To talk too much about the plot is to spoil the book, but the book combines a few things that I love: quiet character moments, a shadowy organization, meticulously followed routines, and a bizarre twist at the end. LaValle is one of the most underrated novelists working today, and Big Machine is a perfect place to start.
JSA by Geoff Johns Omnibus Volume 1 by Geoff Johns, et al: I’m a DC Comics stan, and I particularly love the generational aspect of DC Comics. The Justice Society of America is the first superhero team, but when they were relaunched in the late 90s, they had a new mission: train the next generation. It led to a book that was alive and exciting, both because of the new heroes emerging, and also because of seeing so many classic, Golden Age, heroes having amazing second acts.
This first omnibus collection starts off a little slow, but eventually grows into one of the richest and most satisfying superhero stories of its era. The second volume is even better, but best you start at the beginning.
The Professional by W.C. Heinz: As I said in my Big Machine write up, I love a methodical, slow routine. The Professional is about a boxer training for a fight, and it is one of the slowest, most deliberate novels I’ve ever read. I’m not a huge boxing fan, but this book is such a wonderfully languid description of something honing their craft that it didn’t matter. It also has an ending that is either shocking or totally expected, but lands with a heavyweight punch nonetheless.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee: I’m in a book club, and I love it because it gets me to read stuff I normally wouldn’t. Pachinko is a book that, if described to me, I’d likely dismiss as ‘not for me,’ which is dumb because why am I prejudging books? But the story of three generations of Koreans who emigrated to Japan is one that has stuck with me for 2 years now. The title won’t seem relevant for the first ⅔ of the book, but what pachinko, the game, comes to represent is a really beautifully constructed metaphor for the immigrant experience.
You Never Give Me Your Money by Peter Doggett: My love for the Beatles is all consuming and obsessive. You Never Give Me Your Money is such a sad book because it is all about the deterioration, not just of the band, but of the relationships that built the band. You’ll see how bipolar George was when on coke, how shitty Lennon could be to, well, everyone, and you get so annoyed at Paul you’re basically writing your own “How Do You Sleep?” Poor Ringo is still just Ringo, but everyone else comes out looking worse for the wear. And yet, it is a book you can’t put down, even if you want to.
Good Omens by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman: Welcome to the End Times. I recommended the TV series in the first round of TV recommendations. However, as with most adaptations, the book is better. Well. In this case, they are both excellent, but like Aziraphale, our angel protagonist, I am quite fond of books. In this hilarious tome, we follow the birth of Adam, the son of Satan and the Antichrist who will bring about the End Times on Earth, according to the Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch. Of course, an angel, Aziraphale, and a demon, Crowley – assigned from Heaven and Hell, respectively – have grown fond of their existences on Earth. Naturally, they team up to try and avert the inevitable End Times. Hijinks, hilarity, and wonderfully quick wit and quips ensue. It’s darkly comedic and the bond between Crowley and Aziraphale is, dare I say, ineffable. Read it.
Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind by Gary Marcus: Due to a medical issue I had earlier this year, I reacted how I normally do. Reading obsessively. In this case, I decided foray into the vast world of nonfiction and read about the human brain. This book did not disappoint. While I don’t agree with all of Marcus’ assertions (or some of those he references) about the design and functions of the human mind, it is a thoughtful book and the description of the mind being a kluge feels particularly apt. It’s made me curious about what other scientists and psychologists think of brain development over the course of human history. Particularly worrisome, though, is the lack of non-white, male perspectives on this topic based on my current, limited research.
Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson: This book. THIS BOOK. This book is hands down one of the best books I’ve read in a while. If you know me, you know how much I adore Jacqueline Woodson (she is well known in the #kidlit world). This is her first foray into adult novels and man, oh, man it is an emotional ride. The story follows two black families, one successful, one struggling, as their lives become intertwined when their only children conceive a child as teenagers. It’s an enthralling perspective of growing up black, especially growing up as a black girl, in the United States. It’s also a profound look at long-term decision making, especially when those decision are made at a young age. Honestly, what makes this book is Woodson’s prose. I felt like I inhabited the characters while reading, experience their lives as I was reading it. It was a strange, emotional, and wonderful feeling and I cannot recommend this book enough! READ IT.
Cross Game by Mitsuru Adachi: Missing baseball? This manga series will do a bit to fill that void. This serialization follows Ko Kitamura and his friend, Aoba from elementary school through high school as they work to get the high school baseball team to the Koshien Baseball Championships. I adore this manga for a number of reasons: one – youth baseball! Two – the illustrations! This is the first manga that I have ever read, and to reading right to left does take some time to get used to, but it is absolutely worth it. It has well-developed characters, friendships, and relationships. It also sheds light on girls in baseball – though I haven’t gotten far into it yet, so I don’t know if Aoba gets a chance to play for the team. She’s exceedingly talented in her own right, often working Ko on his own development, but cannot play because she’s a girl (thumbs down, baseball – globally, you have a lot of work to do on this front). If you’re looking for a fabulous baseball read, here you go. Enjoy it.
The City of Brass (The Daevabad Trilogy) – S.A. Chakraborty: This is the first in a fantasy trilogy rooted in Egyptian and Persian mythology. I’m still surprised by how much I love this series. (P.S. A Netflix series is now in development). The first book in this series follows Nahri, a con artist who spends her day swindling those in 18th-century Cairo, Egypt until she unwittingly summons a djinn, Darayavahoush (or Dara, for short) and sets herself on a path of magic that she’d never dreamed of. The world building in this first book is absolutely glorious. Nahri’s powerful heritage as a healer causes many issues in the already tense city of Daevabad, the eponymous and legendary city of brass. The cast of characters is simultaneously baffling and intriguing, but it’s easy to root for both Nahri and Prince Ali, who is in many ways trapped by his family’s expectations. Bonus, I had the opportunity to see the author herself at a book festival last year. She’s a thoughtful, wonderful speaker and has another intriguing series in development. I highly, highly, highly recommend this for all fantasy and mythology lovers.