Trainwreck. Demented. A dumpster fire of a year. We’ve all seen the social media memes, and most of us are ready to be done with 2020. But it isn’t over yet. We still have a rancorous election season ahead of us as the country continues to reel from the novel coronavirus pandemic, the resulting economic crisis and the summer’s racial reckoning following the death of George Floyd. We asked our staffers to recommend books for our current moment. Whether you need another jolt of politics or a dose of inspiration, read on.
“Glory: Magical Visions of Black Beauty” by Kahran and Regis Bethencourt
Pandemics, protests and presidential elections — oh my! You’ll think you’re over the rainbow after cracking this book. Photographers Kahran and Regis Bethencourt have made a career of capturing melanin’s majesty in youth (and garnered a large social media following to boot). Quiet some of the outside chaos by flipping through images of youngsters’ architecturally coiffed crowns, statement-making fashion as well as their aspirations and affirmations. “Glory” is Blackness in all its grace and beauty by way of the next generation. Young and old can peruse this picture book as the months get colder and be imbued with pride. Black is beautiful. And thankfully, the Atlanta-based photography team had the foresight to highlight hope in such vivid hues. To be young, gifted and Black is where it’s at.
— Darcel Rockett
“Our Malady” by Timothy Snyder
Timothy Snyder combines moving personal experience with keen historical and political analysis in “Our Malady: Lessons in Liberty From a Hospital Diary.” It’s a powerful argument for universal health care as a fundamental right. The short, compelling volume opens with Snyder alternating between episodes of rage and empathy as he rides out a near-fatal bout with sepsis after an appendectomy. From there, Snyder turns his view outward, diagnosing the United States as dangerously unbalanced: The fiery solitude revered in this nation as the ultimate expression of individual freedom has curdled into resentment, he writes, as families have been left to make a go of it on their own without social safety nets.
This resentment, in turn, leaves Americans vulnerable and apt to buy into fear-mongering politics of the Trump era, further contorting public health and hindering efforts to thwart the novel coronavirus pandemic. Snyder persuasively captures how an unequal and inadequate health-care system affects Americans from birth, arguing for expanded family leave and policies that would restore authority to doctors, rather than number-crunchers.
Perhaps best known for his bestselling primer “On Tyranny,” Snyder here offers another plain-spoken rallying cry to urge Americans to work toward the greater common good. He writes: “No amount of propaganda can blur the basic fact about American commercial medicine: we pay a huge premium for the privilege of dying younger.”
— Jennifer Day
“Give Us the Ballot” by Ari Berman
The book that’s been on my mind more than any other these days is Ari Berman’s “Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America” (2015). I can’t think of a more valuable read in the next 60 days. A history of voting rights and suppression, the arguments, the reforms, the scams — the whole ugly reality behind a supposedly inalienable right — it’s a very accessible reminder that many who claim proudly to be American are often the same who work hardest to deny the right to vote to fellow Americans. Think of it as the riveting, infuriating context behind the Post Office slow-down, arguments against mail-in voting and (mostly specious) shouts of voter fraud. Read Berman’s stirring call to action and I promise, you will vote this November.
— Christopher Borrelli
“Chicago: City on the Make” by Nelson Algren
Nobody likes this pandemic. The knuckleheads operating, since March, from a position of mask-free, COVID-spreading moral weakness — give me liberty AND give me death! — are destined to disregard public safety right up to the November election, which has been assured by our current president to end badly either way. Chicago’s righteous anger keeps mounting. The city’s bad rap, despite a good mayor, feels wholly deserved to some, tragically petty to others.
However you love/hate this town, Nelson Algren loved/hated it in ways few could touch. “Chicago: City on the Make” is an apt book to read this fall, or re-read. It dates to 1951, and when it came out the city loathed Algren for being hard on our city, for not being a team player. (A.J. Liebling’s “Chicago: The Second City” delivered the haymaker a year later.) Algren wrote a dreamy, unstable prose poem about the city, people, the corruption, the pessimism, his own most of all. “You can’t make an arsenal of a nation and yet expect its great cities to produce artists,” Algren wrote.
And this: “‘City of the Big Shoulders’ was how the white-haired poet put it. Maybe meaning that the shoulders had to get that wide because they had so many bone-deep grudges to settle.”
— Michael Phillips
“When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times” by Pema Chodron
Just the title of this book — originally published in 1996 — holds a promise that it could enable us to find ways to make it through 2020. Written by Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun and teacher in Nova Scotia, “When Things Fall Apart” is filled with anecdotes from her life and how she continues her journey in it.
I discovered the book earlier this year when musician Devendra Banhart was a guest on a segment of “On Being,” broadcast Sundays on WBEZ. Banhart talked about traveling with the book everywhere and re-reading passages when life becomes especially challenging.
And that is indeed the sustaining power of Chodron’s book. It takes the cliché of “life is a journey” and brings understanding and truth to it. As she writes:
“Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”
— Scott L. Powers
“To Be or Not to Bop: Memoirs of Dizzy Gillespie” with Al Fraser
Nothing heals like music, and no one made music more creatively or brilliantly than trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. His memoir offers the best of two worlds: Gillespie’s richly detailed, vividly told account of his life, interwoven with soliloquies from the giants he knew and worked with. These include no less than Ella Fitzgerald, Lionel Hampton, Billy Eckstine, Sarah Vaughan, Miles Davis and many more. Each offers their perspective on Gillespie’s journey, their recollections juxtaposed with his own, making this volume a telling combination of autobiography and oral history. Everyone who comments in this book was there to see and hear what happened. It all attests to Gillespie’s monumental role as innovator and teacher. “To Be or Not to Bop” reminds us how much Gillespie gave to world music, and how diminished it would be without him.
— Howard Reich
“Nothing to See Here” by Kevin Wilson
Lillian, the protagonist of Kevin Wilson’s 2019 novel “Nothing to See Here,” is a rare and remarkable character, an underdog’s underdog, a hard-as-nails heroine you simply have to love. But in the pandemic era, her story takes on new resonance. We’ve all been robbed of something — maybe something profound — by this virus and the economic aftershocks, and we’re all grappling with how to move on in meaningful ways. In that sense, consider Lillian your avatar. The daughter of an emotionally and financially impoverished single mom, Lillian lost her will to fight for a better life as a teen, when she was robbed of a hard-earned scholarship to an elite girls’ boarding school. Now 28 and living in her mom’s dingy attic, she begins to awaken from her apathy when her best friend from boarding school hires her to nanny two odd little children with a vexing tendency to burst into flames. A great read and a powerful allegory about anger and empathy, this book offers both hope and catharsis at a time when they are sorely needed.
— Nara Schoenberg
“Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel
It might seem counterintuitive to want to read a novel about the aftermath of a swine flu pandemic amidst a coronavirus pandemic. Actually, it’s more than counterintuitive; it is possibly foolhardy. But Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 novel that is (partly) about the arts surviving in a dystopia is rewarding on multiple levels. Her characters, centered around a famous actor who dies on a Canadian stage as the pandemic hits, reveal their surprising actions and interconnections with subtlety. Her writing and her plotting, although complex and filled with high drama, never feel ginned up or oversold. And what’s not to love about a post-apocalypse where the main “Travelling Symphony” caravan is able to survive by bringing plays and music to the encampments along Lake Michigan? The world of that time has darknesses, too, of course, but for those who endure Mandel delivers the glimmer of a possible future. All that, plus you’ll be ready for the forthcoming HBO Max series (no date announced, but expected this year or next), which was filming in the Chicago area just before the non-fictional pandemic forced us apart.
— Steve Johnson
“God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater” by Kurt Vonnegut
Kurt Vonnegut’s books have fallen out of the literary conversation a bit since the author died in 2007. Which is fine — not all of them have aged perfectly, including 1965’s “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.” But for a certain generation of American male, they were essential reading, a dozen or so novels that could be read and re-read like a series with the author’s alter ego, Kilgore Trout, popping up occasionally as a character, an unsuccessful science-fiction writer with great ideas and no writing talent whatsoever. Also, not all of Vonnegut’s books are equally suited to the present moment. His most famous, “Slaughterhouse-Five,” is more than anything else a response to war. But the current running underneath all of them, somewhere, is the notion that more important than love, God, truth, certainly politics, or striving for success, enlightenment or change, is the need simply to be decent to your fellow human beings. Not with grand gestures but every day. Whether you like them or agree with them or not, and regardless of their background or appearance. As the title character, Eliot Rosewater, says in part in this book: “Damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”
— Doug George
“Good Poems,” edited by Garrison Keillor
Books are like people. They come and go, and many of them you forget. But occasionally you encounter one that becomes a lifelong companion, always there to comfort you in times of need. “Good Poems,” a collection selected and introduced by Garrison Keillor, is one of those for me. These are straightforward, conversational poems, by famous and less-than-famous poets. They’re about life and death and summer and snow, about mothers and fathers and sons and daughters, about language and work and failure and faith. I’ve owned the book for a decade, and every time I flip through it, my eye lands on a thought that helps me. The other day it was this stanza, perfect for our moment, from Lisel Mueller’s poem “Hope”:
It is the singular gift / we cannot destroy in ourselves, / the argument that refutes death, / the genius that invents the future, / all we know of God.
— Mary Schmich
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