For the past four years, I have been a staff book reviewer for WEEKEND, and for the past three years, I have written a “Top Ten Books of the Year” column as the school year comes to a close. This will be my third such list, and I’m only mentioning this because it is my final book review for the News. After this, on to the “real world.”
Size matters. I’ve long believed that you can tell much about a person by the size of the stack of books on her bedside table. And so, in the interest of helping you pick a few additions to your stack, I will discuss a few from mine. These are my super subjective top ten books of the last year (in alphabetical order):
1. “The Age of Acquiescence,” by Steve Fraser: In this searing fusion of history and criticism, Fraser — an accomplished muckraker — tells the story of America’s two “Gilded Ages,” times when there was an immense divide between the rich and the poor. The first spanned the end of the Civil War to the Great Depression; we are living through the second one today. Yet, as Fraser argues, in the first Gilded Age, Americans were not afraid to critique robber barons — and even capitalism itself. Today, the working class and bourgeois almost completely fail to call out the rich. For Fraser, there are few signs that we will emerge from our modern, gilded prison.
2. “All the Light We Cannot See,” by Anthony Doerr: One of only two repeats from “Summer Reading Roundup” this past August, “All the Light” tells the dual tale of Marie-Laure, a blind, brilliant Parisian girl, and Werner, a German orphan with hair so blonde the Nazis call it “snow.” Across pages of beautiful, lyrical prose, Doerr chronicles Marie-Laure and Werner’s attempt to live through World War II — she from the exploding French countryside, and he from the unforgiving barracks of an elite Nazi military camp. For years, the two protagonists’ paths seem as if they will never cross, but, of course, they do — in an ending as cathartic as it is tragic.
3. “Big Little Lies,” by Liane Moriarty: This charming novel paints a cynical and loving portrait of modern parenting, bourgeois society and murder in Australia. “Big Little Lies” tells the story of Madeline, Celeste and Jane, three mothers with children in kindergarten. It is an often a hilarious and jaded book, but it also delivers a nuanced, sensitive and important commentary on the realities of domestic abuse.
4. “Days of Rage,” by Bryan Burrough: In this profoundly necessary book, Burrough weaves together the stories of groups like the Weathermen, the Black Panthers and the Symbionese Liberation Army, among others, to explain the forgotten history of underground leftist revolutionary groups in the 1970s, and the FBI’s unrelenting war against them. Burrough explains how the FBI both enforced and subverted justice.
5. “Go Set a Watchman,” by Harper Lee: This is the only book on this list that I haven’t actually read, but I promise I have good reasons to have neglected it and still to have included it. “Go Set a Watchman” has not yet been released, but it is a long-lost work by arguably the greatest American novelist of the twentieth century, the beloved and reclusive author of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Long assumed to have been lost, “Watchman” will (apparently) tell the story of Jean Louise “Scout” Finch and friends, many of whom return to the town of Maycomb, Alabama, some twenty years after “Mockingbird” ended. “Watchman” promises to be a distinctly American experience — one that weaves together race, age, nostalgia and humor.
6. “The Good Lord Bird,” by James McBride: This brilliant and hilarious novel tells the story of Henry “Little Onion” Shackleford, a cross-dressing former slave who travels around with the legendary freedom fighter John Brown for a few years in the antebellum Midwest. Little Onion gives his own humorous spin to Brown’s iconic, and ultimately fatal, quest to destroy the institution of slavery.
7. “The Invisible Bridge,” by Rick Perlstein: The second repeat from my summer list, this long-awaited third volume in Perlstein’s epic story of the rise of American conservatism does not disappoint. Though it is an unwieldy 880 pages and almost mind-numbingly comprehensive, critics have described it as “engrossing” and “ultimately irresistible” — perhaps much like Ronald Reagan himself. “The Invisible Bridge” doubles as a political biography, that of a nation in malaise, and an actual biography, that of the strange B-list movie actor who rose unstoppably to national prominence.
8. “The Monopolists,” by Mary Pilon: I grew up playing Monopoly, and I always vaguely believed the old story that it had been invented by an unemployed Depression-era huckster who sold it to Parker Brothers and struck gold. In real life, apparently, Monopoly was intended to be a radical feminist, leftist critique, and it was invented by a fascinating woman named Lizzie Magie. “The Monopolists” tells her story, and that of the man who discovered her.
9. “One Nation Under God,” by Kevin Kruse: In this authoritative history of mid-20th-century America, Kruse reveals that the whole concept of a “Christian America” is a pretty recent invention. Through breathtaking historical research, Kruse shows that this concept was packaged, promoted and sold by corporations like General Motors in order to convince the nation to embrace a bastardized version of the “Christian” idea of individual salvation and to reject “pagan statism.” It’s a disturbing tale that tells us quite a lot about the nation we may think we understand.
10. “The Secret History of Wonder Woman,” by Jill Lepore: I heard Lepore speak about this book a few weeks ago in an auditorium at the law school. And it struck me: she is the most exciting historian writing today. In “The Secret History,” Lepore does not disappoint. She tells three stories: one of first-wave American feminism, one of the superhero who played a small but crucial role in second-wave American feminism, and one of William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman’s creator. Marston, the inventor of the lie detector, had a fascinating plural marriage and a close association with Margaret Sanger. The tale of how his life, and his interactions with founding feminists, influenced Wonder Woman is necessary and highly entertaining.