Any book lover keeps a list in their head that is constantly updated, especially at this time of year when the Best of This and the Best of That begin to appear. But a list can lead to discovering a book we might not have discovered otherwise and help us decide what to read next at the library or bookstore. Here’s a few to add to your list from mine.
November is Native American Month, so I recommend The Rediscovery of America: Native Peoples and the Unmaking of U.S. History by Ned Blackhawk (Yale University). Blackhawk surveys how a developing nation “managed” its Native peoples, encouraging successive generations of Americans to forget this continent’s Indigenous past. If fiction is your way to deepen an understanding of a difficult subject, Probably Ruby by Lisa Bird-Wilson (Penguin Random) is a heartwrenching novel about the impact that the kidnapping and adoption of a Native American child has on her original, bereft family and her dawning awareness as an adult that she has another identity locked away inside her. And to read with children, Berry Song by Michaela Goade (Little, Brown), is a 2023 Caldecott Honor picture book that celebrates nature’s bounty and a Tlingit grandmother and child going through the rhythms of the year together.
Dayswork by Chris Bachelder and Jinnifer Habel (Norton) sings from the first page as it tells how in the stress of a pandemic, a couple’s marriage is unexpectedly influenced by the wife’s growing fascination with Herman Melville. Full of facts and reflections about Melville and his circle, it particularly illuminates his long-suffering wife Elizabeth, and fellow (and at the time, much more successful) author Nathaniel Hawthorne, the object of Melville’s obsessive nature. How Melville’s many biographers and critics have viewed him, and the myriad ways Melville continues to impact our world is fascinating, but to me, it was ultimately an examination of creative women’s service over centuries to men and how much gets sacrificed along the way. Of course, we could just tackle Moby Dick again (it is such a beast of a book) as a long winter’s project.
I confess that the latest Zadie Smith, the historical novel The Fraud, left me unenthused to finish it, though I can’t resist the promise of a Dickensian saga. It was one of those Books with Big Themes that meant well but forgot to tell a good story. Imagine my satisfaction having faced up to reading the 500 page-plus Age of Vice by Deepit Kapoor (Riverhead), set in the dawn of the 21st century in Delhi. I was swept into a story of a lower-caste man caught up with a crime family, with mayhem ensuing amidst a multitude of perspectives, plot twists and sudden violence. A great reminder that the best genres are continually reinvented if we’re brave enough to expand our horizons a little.
On a more intimate scale, Loved and Missed by Ruth Boyt (New York Review of Books) is a slender book of less than 200 pages which I haven’t stopped thinking about since I read it. A story of a fractured family that is remade into something stronger, this tale of fierce love and heartbreak reflects something essential about life, and you feel better for having read it.
We all love a good heist story, and The Art Thief: A True Story of Love, Crime, and a Dangerous Obsession by Michael Finkel (Knopf) is the tale of a real-life Most Wanted who possessed the sang-froid of Arsene Lupin, the stunt work of James Bond and the obsession for masterpieces of an Isabella Stewart Gardner.
After a family trip to Greece this past summer where my family ate the same six or seven dishes every day with great relish, I came home determined to master a few Greek meals. Yiayia: Time-Perfected Recipes from Greece’s Grandmothers by Anastasia Miari (Hardie Grant) has helped me to achieve something reminiscent of the delicious food we ate. More importantly, Miari interviews with the elderly home cooks who have suffered hardship but continue to celebrate the wonder of Greece in every meal they make.
For pure enjoyment, try A Traitor in Whitehall by Julia Kelly (Macmillan), a mystery set in Churchill’s War Rooms about the hunt for a killer amongst the top-secret staff working underneath a blitzed London. Kelly proves herself a top author as she covers several genres with ease and launches what is going to be a terrific series dubbed “Parisian Orphan.”
With cold weather coming, the chance to see owls around Concord tempts us out to the fields in hopes of spotting one. What an Owl Knows: The New Science of the World’s Most Enigmatic Birds by Jennifer Ackerman (Penguin Press) is full of Ackerman’s genius research on this most fascinating of creatures.
If you have time to read only one of the year’s Big Books, do make it The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store by James McBridge (Riverhead.) In these fractured times, McBride shows how two marginalized communities join together past and present to make good things happen in their Pottstown, Pennsylvania town. A mystery, a pastiche, a tearjerker, a paeon to jazz and, most of all, a testament to an America we all want to believe in.