Last Shabbat evening, I shared my top 5 recommendations for books I’ve read in the past year. Here’s a brief review of each book, along with 5 others that made it into my top ten:
10. Imperfect Union: How Jessie and John Fremont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity, and Helped Cause the Civil War, Steve Inskeep. I read this book for the obvious reason that I wanted to learn about the namesake of the city I live in. Well, now I know that Fremont was headstrong, reckless, incompetent, and egotistical. He was nominated by the Republicans for the presidency in 1856. His wife, Jessie, was far more intelligent and capable.
9. The Baseball Codes, Jason Turbow with Michael Duca. When the baseball season didn’t open due to the pandemic, I turned to this account of the arcane rules that govern the national pastime. Want to know the difference between “If you ain’t cheating, you’re not really trying and crossing the line?” You’ll have to read this book.
8. Grunt, The Curious Science of Humans at War, Mary Roach. There is no better author who can spin obscure facts into engaging narratives. I’ve read all her books. This one centers on how military scientists strive to keep our armed forces out of harm’s way.
7. The Overstory, Richard Powers. This was the most challenging book I read all year. It’s a powerful fictional meditation on the ecological disaster unfolding in our age. What made it difficult reading was the encyclopedic depiction of the ecosystem of trees. It would be accurate to say that the prose was florid.
6. Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders. I’ve never read this highly acclaimed author. This novel won the 2017 Man Booker award for fiction. This is an exceedingly original work that I cannot say I enjoyed, but I did find at times deeply moving.
5. Educated, Tara Westover. There is a reason why this book has been on the Times bestseller list for two years running. This memoir reads at times like a horror novel. One cannot believe what the author endured as a child and adolescent. But her lyrical writing and heroic tale of self-liberation is breathtaking.
4. Ben-Gurion: A State at Any Cost, Tom Segev. Most everyone knows something about Ben-Gurion, the founding father of the State of Israel. This biography is deeply researched, uncovering his complexity, contradictions, passions, and faults. Anyone wishing to understand Jewish history in the 20th century should read this book.
3. Hamilton, The Revolution, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter. If you love Hamilton (the musical), then you will love reading about its creation. Every song is annotated by Miranda; depicting the wordplay, historical references, and rap influences that you wouldn’t know even if you saw Hamilton ten times. We also learn about choices made in casting, choreography, costuming, and much more.
2. White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo. I read this book last summer. It impacted me then. In the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd on Memorial Day, this is the book I return to in order to inform me how I, a White American, can understand the systemic racism that is at the core of our society and how I can effectively work for change.
1. There, There, Tommy Orange. To say this book is a fictional account of American Indians living in present-day Oakland is a gross disservice. It is so much more: a depiction of the brutality Indians have experienced for centuries; an attempt to honor one’s ancestry while forging an identity; and a startling account of different Indian voices – young, old, male, female. After racing through this book, I paused to catch my breath, and then read it again.