In the last year, I have written 15 book reviews for WEEKEND. When I tell people that I write book reviews, they always ask me two opposing questions: 1) How do you possibly have time to read for pleasure? 2) What do you recommend?
In answer to the first question, I have three words for you: books on tape. Listen to books while you work out, walk to class or wait in line at Durfee’s. I also make a concerted (and intermittently successful) effort to set aside half an hour a day for pleasure reading (or “The Daily Show,” if I’m less committed).
I usually puzzle a little more over the second question. Often, I refer the eager questioner to my latest book review. Yet, in today’s half-hour, I decided to pick the 10 books you really should read from the last year. Bear in mind, this is super subjective. But anyway, here they are (in no particular order):
1. “My Beloved World” by Sonia Sotomayor: This sparkling autobiographical best-seller is a rare achievement — a statement from a public figure that is both remarkably honest and beautifully written. In a break from tradition, a sitting Supreme Court justice — and not just any Supreme Court justice — has written a memoir that details a childhood in the projects, a life with diabetes, and the culture shock of transitioning to the Ivy League and then the legal big leagues.
2. “Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn: More than any other on this list, this novel was un-put-downable. “Gone Girl” made the jump from pulp fiction into mainstream acclaim with uncommon pizzazz. It tells the story of a wife who simply disappears, perhaps violently, leaving everyone to blame her husband. Secrets are revealed, all is not what it seems and then there’s this crazy twist. Like truly insane, though my lips are sealed.
3. “The Other Wes Moore” by Wes Moore: An unusual memoir that intertwines two kids, both named Wes Moore, both of whom grew up on the same street in the same bad neighborhood. The author went on to be a Rhodes scholar and acclaimed leader; the “other” Wes Moore is serving a life sentence for murder. In an engaging (though occasionally self-congratulatory) book, Moore explores why two kids who seemingly had so much in common led such different lives.
4. “Barack Obama: The Story” by David Maraniss: This monumental biography is so much more than a biography. It tells the story of Obama’s family, beginning a century ago in Kansas and Kenya, giving details that even Obama did not know existed. Its gripping narrative is only matched by the superb accomplishment of its journalism — hundreds of interviews make this book the authoritative account of young Barack’s life and the forces and places that shaped America’s first black president.
5. “The Orphan Master’s Son” by Adam Johnson: This recently crowned winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction is as enthralling and mysterious as the country it seeks to expose. The protagonist, Jun Do, is the son of a man who runs a work camp for orphans in Pyongyang, North Korea, and young Jun Do gets to pick which of the orphans eat first and which do the hardest labor. As he grows older and rises through the ranks of bureaucracy, Jun Do becomes a violent criminal indentured to the North Korean elites. He eventually risks his life and so, so much more to challenge Kim Jong Il for the affections of the woman he loves.
6. “My Brother’s Book” by Maurice Sendak: A mere 31 pages, this children’s book is surprisingly not for the faint of heart. Written by the author and illustrator of “Where the Wild Things Are” and published posthumously, “My Brother’s Book” is Sendak’s final work, dedicated to his late brother, Jack. In the book, a star cleaves the Earth in two, separating two brothers, Jack and Guy. It is a touching story of danger and loss, from a man known for his unusual approach. “I’m not Hans Christian Andersen,” Sendak grumbled shortly before his death. He’s not your average children’s book writer, and this is the last time we’ll experience the curious glow of his prose and pictures.
7. “White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf” by Aaron Bobrow-Strain: This endlessly entertaining book tells the story of America through our most ubiquitous foodstuff. Bobrow-Strain reveals that the history of white bread is intricately entangled with the politics of race, class, gender and ethnicity. From a beloved “superfood” to the fare of “white trash,” white bread’s history tells a tale of high ideals that often stratify our society.
8. “The Casual Vacancy” by J.K. Rowling: I reviewed this book earlier this year, and I called it an “important” book from “perhaps the world’s most important living author.” I stand by that. A tricky tale of death and deception from the small English village of Pagford, “The Casual Vacancy” appears to be just a story of a local election, no magic in sight. But this dark fable has more than just a hint of myth. It is a cutting indictment of the class divide that defines the modern world.
9. “Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield” by Jeremy Scahill: This stunning book, hot off the press, tells the story of America’s covert wars. Scahill, a reporter for The Nation, explores the lives of the soldiers, spies and private security contractors who are funded through “black budgets” to incite revolt, target leaders and destabilize regions. Detailing breathtaking and heartbreaking events in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and numerous other places, Scahill reveals the scary backbone of modern American foreign policy.
10. “We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March” by Cynthia Levinson: Based on four extensive and remarkable survivor interviews, this book tells a story often omitted from the annals of American history. When desegregation efforts in Birmingham stalled in mid-1963, thousands of black schoolchildren marched for their rights — against the initial wishes of Martin Luther King Jr. Many were imprisoned, some suffered physical harm, but astoundingly, they changed the course of the civil rights movement.
Well, there you have it. Perhaps this reading week, you can start reading for pleasure. I know (I wish) I will.