Looking for some great books to give as gifts? Maybe I can help. Here are my recommendations in several categories: Adult/Literary Fiction, Fantasy, Short Stories, Memoirs, and Essay Collections. I think (hope!) there is something for everyone on your gift list — and for you, too! As always on Read Her Like an Open Book, every book here was written by a woman. Obviously, there are just as many great books out there by men, but for those recommendations you’ll have to go to the usual publications, websites, and/or blogs.
Happy Holidays! And happy reading to you and yours!
A Place for Us – Fatima Farheen Mirza (SJP/Hogarth Books)
Muslim immigrants from India build a new life with their three America-born children in the Bay Area in this complex, insightful, and moving debut. Maybe the best book I read this year.
An accident involving an unorthodox oxygen treatment called a “miracle submarine” kills some patients, leading to a trial in a small town in Virginia that reveals much more than what happened and who is responsible.
A brother and sister grow up in a famous local mansion purchased by their ambitious father, when he marries a difficult younger woman and their lives become increasingly complicated. Told by the brother, looking back over 50 years, it’s the story of family — especially the close bond of siblings — and fortitude in the face of unexpected setbacks.
A dual narrative in the past and present explores the lives of Spanish Jews who fled the Inquisition and ended up in Mexico and ultimately New Mexico living as “crypto-Jews.”
Robinson fictionalizes the story of her great grandfather, who immigrated from England, fought for the Confederacy, and became a newspaper publisher with controversial modern ideas about race in Charleston, South Carolina.
Rivero’s debut is the compelling story of a young couple and their two children from Peru who strive desperately to build a new life in 1990s New York City despite being undocumented. Ana is determined to stay no matter what, while Lucho eventually wants to return to Peru.
It’s 1977 and Greer Michaels has returned to the small Georgia town he fled years earlier to care for his dying mother, Elizabeth. As a River ebbs and flows between 1977 and 1945, exploring racial and class conflicts in the town. Secrets are slowly revealed, allowing us to see how the impact of traumatic events rippled across time. Dayson has written a sensitive character study of four people, highlighted by her lyrical prose.
In her second novel, Obreht takes the Western myth and shakes it like a snow globe. Set in the Arizona Territory in 1893, it’s the story of Nora, a gutsy frontierswoman with a young son, and Lurie, an outlaw haunted by ghosts who decides to make an epic trek across the desert on a camel. When their paths cross, things get very interesting.
No one writes with a sharper scalpel about adult love, especially affairs, than Andersson. Her previous book, Willful Disregard, was riveting, and her latest continues her Ferrante-like psychological probing of her characters.
Few writers have mastered the art of “flash fiction” better than Desiree Cooper. Every one of the 30 short short stories in this collection is a potent snapshot of a character or a relationship. Cooper reminds us that, as dominating as the role of a mother is in her family’s life, a woman with her own interests and needs lives inside her, too. In just a few pages, Cooper is able to suggest a novel’s worth of connections and import. And her writing is beautiful.
Rooney’s two novels are closely observed stories dealing with coming of age, falling in love, and trying to stay in love. Both are hilarious and heartbreaking, and totally spot-on about our many foibles. Having visited Dublin in June, I enjoyed the strong sense of place, as her characters traverse key locations like Trinity College, Dame Street, St. Stephen’s Green, and the city’s many bookstores.
In the hot Australian summer of 1993, the three Van Apfel sisters disappeared. Their 11-year-old neighbor Tikka Malloy was as intrigued as everyone else searching for them in their small town. The girls were never found, and now, years later, Tikka has returned, determined to find out what happened to them. The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone is both a mystery and a moody, darkly funny coming of age story.
Back in 1999, this novel was a finalist for the National Book Award. Published by a short-lived independent press, it soon went out of print. Haywire Books has brought it back in a special 20th Anniversary edition, which is a good thing for those of us who missed it the first time around. It’s the story of Kate Banner, an American midwife working in Nicaragua in the 1980s. Suffering from burnout after she loses another patient, she decides it’s time to head home. Traveling through Guatemala, she is caught up in the secret wars there. Henley’s depiction of people raging against injustice, poverty, and war in ways large and small – with subplots involving love and faith — has been compared to other classics of the Central American struggle like Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory (set in Mexico) and Robert Stone’s A Flag for Sunrise.
An Israeli high school principal, injured in a terrorist bombing ten years earlier, finds the pain returning for no obvious reason. When a lover from the time before her long marriage reenters her life, she is forced to face dilemmas involving more than just her devastating injuries.
No More Boats made a big splash with its timely story of an earlier generation of immigrants closing the door on those trying to immigrate now. Antonio built a new life in the working-class western suburbs of Sydney in the late 1960s and 1970s, including raising two children whom he is proud to call Australian. Now it’s 2001, Antonio is much older, recently unemployed from a lifetime of construction work, and both Australia and his family have changed in ways that make them less recognizable to him. The situation disintegrates further when a boat with 400 refugees is held offshore by the government. Antonio becomes entangled in the resulting social and political soap opera, which has been inflamed by the media. No More Boats is a probing exploration of family life, immigration, changing cultures, and the things we do to find and keep our place in the world.
Katey Schultz brings a psychologist’s insight into character and a journalist’s unflinching search for truth to her depiction of the war in Afghanistan. The compelling plot concerns the intertwining lives of a rebellious young Afghan woman, an Afghan man who reluctantly works for the Taliban, and an American lieutenant obsessed with protecting his men in the final months of his tour of duty. Still Come Home reminds readers of the toll war exacts on all involved – soldiers and civilians, Americans and Afghans. After only two books, Schultz has staked a claim to being one of the best writers on the war in the Middle East, in a class with Helen Benedict (Sand Queen, Wolf Season), Phil Klay (Redeployment), and Roxana Robinson (Sparta).”
This debut novel probes the life of a family with a severely disabled son, Ben, who suffers from life-threatening seizures. No facility will care for him, so the Novotny family assumes his care. His parents have contrasting responses to the burden, as do his sister Ivy and brother Hugo. How they cope with Ben’s challenges over time shapes the family in profound ways. Justicz is a civil right lawyer in Chicago and knows well the degrees of difficulty experienced by a family like the Novotnys.
Gina Frangello writes beautifully, whether it’s her novels or her many essays. Her gift is a deep empathy for broken people, meaning most of us. In Every Kind of Wanting, Miguel and Chad want to become parents. Chad’s sister offers them an egg, and they approach Miguel’s friend Emily, who is married with two children, to serve as surrogate. Soon, everyone is entangled in their efforts to have a “community baby.” The plot allows Frangello to consider issues of race, class, gender, and orientation with insight and humor.
Your House Will Pay – Steph Cha (Ecco)
Dominicana – Angie Cruz (Flatiron Books)
Cantoras – Carolina de Robertis (Knopf)
The Butterfly Girl – Rene Denfeld (Harper)
The Other Americans – Laila Lalami (Pantheon)
The Unpassing – Chia Chia Lin (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Bluebird Bluebird and Heaven My Home (sequel) — Attica Locke (Mulholland Books)
Disappearing Earth – Julia Phillips (Knopf)
The Grammarians – Cathleen Schine (Sarah Crichton Books)
The Revisioners – Margaret Wilkerson Sexton (Counterpoint)
Cherokee America – Margaret Verble (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
In popular YA author Bardugo’s first book for adults, we meet Galaxy “Alex” Stern, who has led a difficult life of neglect, drugs, and violence. When she’s offered a chance to attend Yale on a full ride scholarship – on the condition that she monitor the school’s legendary secret societies for her mysterious beneficiary – she accepts, determined to figure out why she was chosen. Ninth House is an occult thriller featuring a Yale that seems to be in a parallel universe, but which is still populated by the wealthy and privileged. It’s a cross between Lev Grossman’s The Magicians and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Stephen King says, “Ninth House is the best fantasy novel I’ve read in years, because it’s about real people.”
You’ve never read anything quite like this. Hollow Kingdom is the inventive, smart, and funny tale of a domesticated yet profane crow and a none-too-bright dog whose owner dies mysteriously. They soon discover that Seattle is in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. It sounds ridiculous but it works beautifully. Helen Macdonald called it a cross between Dawn of the Dead and The Incredible Journey.
Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus was one of the most popular books of the last decade. Her much-anticipated follow-up is equally enchanting, offering adults the sense of childlike wonder they rarely get to experience these days. A grad student named Zachary finds an unusual book in the library (OK, that’s a well-worn trope) and is stunned to find a story about himself in it. Following clues (it’s no fun unless there are clues to test the protagonist), he eventually finds a doorway (no, let’s call it a portal) into an underworld library full of lost cities, separated lovers, shifting time – and the key to the meaning of his story and his life.
The 2018 winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, this is a thought-provoking collection of stories about people struggling to find their own way as individuals and in relationships. The writing is distinguished by a fearless investigation of what makes her characters tick and a sardonic sense of humor.
Zuckerman, an American who has lived in Israel for decades, has written a novel-in-stories depicting the life of Jeremiah Gerstler, a college professor and the son of Jewish immigrants. Together, these 13 stories cover most of the 20th century and capture many of the common experiences of Jewish Americans with a clear-eyed compassion and just a little bite.
Fajardo-Anstine burst onto the literary scene with a collection of stories about Latinas, often of Indigenous descent, facing their demons and a society that marginalizes them in countless ways. That sounds dark, but there’s also a great deal of humor, family connection, and hard-won inspiration in these stories. It’s not surprising that Sabrina & Corina was a finalist for the National Book Award.
Bender is one of our best short story writers (her previous collection, Refund, was a finalist for the National Book Award). Here she examines contemporary America in crisply told stories about a school shooting, a political campaign, living astride two cultures, growing older and feeling left behind, and anti-Semitism (the prescient “How to Secure a Synagogue”). Bender has a gift for getting inside her characters’ minds and hearts while connecting their lives to the broader trends in American society.
One of the standout trends in the last year or two is the increase in fiction by black authors that utilized speculative, dystopian/sci-fi, magical realism, and similar approaches. Last year, Black Friday by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah knocked a lot of people’s socks off with its energy and inventiveness. Marlon James published a dark, violent fantasy, Black Leopard, Red Wolf. Nafissa Thompson-Spires produced what is arguably the best of these works, examining race, class, identity, and more in engrossing ways. Heads of the Colored People received nominations for nearly every award this year and rave reviews from many, including George Saunders, who called this collection “vivid, fast, funny, way-smart, and verbally inventive.”
This collection won the Iowa Short Fiction Award, which was judged by Carmen Maria Machado (In the Dream House: A Memoir and Her Body and Other Parties: Stories). In selecting Happy Like This, she said, “I love these dark, lyrical, sinewy stories about women’s relationships with their bodies and with each other. It’s the sort of theme that could feel irritably well-trod, but that’s not the case here at all; these stories surprised me at every turn. And the writing is so gorgeous!”
Winner of the 2019 National Book Award for Nonfiction, The Yellow House is an absorbing memoir of a house, the five generations of the author’s family who lived there, and a neighborhood before and after Hurricane Katrina. The New York Times raved about the book, saying, “Part oral history, part urban history, part celebration of a bygone way of life, The Yellow House is a full indictment of the greed, discrimination, indifference and poor city planning that led her family’s home to be wiped off the map.”
I challenge you to read the first few pages of this book and then stop. (Use the “Look Inside” feature on Amazon.) Stern has written a riveting recollection of a childhood dominated by separation anxiety and hyper-vigilance, as she moved between her divorced parents in the crazy quilt NYC of the 1970s and 1980s. I’ve never read a better depiction of what it’s like to struggle with anxiety and panic disorder. Only in her late 20s did Stern receive a diagnosis and treatment that have allowed her to live a “normal” life. Little Panic is funny and sad and very affecting.
Chung has written an intimate exploration of her adoption by a white couple in Oregon. She sensitively probes every aspect of her life, from her parents’ background as struggling immigrants in Seattle and her childhood as the only Asian kid in her small town to reconnecting with her sister and making sense of her bicultural identity. Recommended for anyone with even the slightest interest in what it’s like to grow up as an adopted child.
A Northern California nurse-midwife, her husband, and their two young daughters take a year off to travel across India. Buddha reads like a fast-paced novel rather than a navel-gazing interior travelogue. It’s a family adventure story that is funny, informative, and heartwarming.
Several nonfiction books have been published in the last few years that purport to explain what life is really like in “red” America. Sarah Smarsh’s may be the best of the bunch, both because she understands rural America (she’s the daughter of a Kansas farmer) and because she’s an exceptionally good writer. The review in the New York Times summed it up best: “Heartland is one of a growing number of important works—including Matthew Desmond’s Evicted and Amy Goldstein’s Janesville—that together merit their own section in nonfiction aisles across the country: America’s postindustrial decline…Smarsh shows how the false promise of the ‘American dream’ was used to subjugate the poor. It’s a powerful mantra.”
Tobola describes her experiences directing the Arts in Corrections program at the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo, teaching literature, writing, and theater to the inmates. Her memoir weaves together her time at CMC and her unusually unsettled, bohemian upbringing.
Wild Game: My Mother, Her Lover, and Me – Adrienne Brodeur (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
The Crying Book – Heather Christle (Catapult)
Ordinary Girls – Jaquira Diaz (Algonquin Books)
Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations – Mira Jacob (One World/Random House)
In the Dream House: A Memoir – Carmen Maria Machado (Graywolf)
Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls – T Kira Madden (Bloomsbury)
The Ungrateful Refugee – Dina Nayeri (Catapult)
Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl – Jeannie Vanasco (Tin House)
Jamison made a big impression with The Empathy Exams a few years ago. NPR calls her latest collection “a heady hybrid of journalism, memoir, and criticism.”
The New Yorker’s culture writer addresses a range of issues involved in navigating the Millenial world of hyper-critical social media and artificiality.
Crucet’s story collection, Ways to Escape Hialeah, and novel, Make Your Home Among Strangers, marked her as a noteworthy chronicler of the bicultural experience. This collection of essays examines her life as the daughter of Cuban immigrants growing up in Miami. Pulled in two directions, she attempts to shape her own identity. Her experience as a first-generation college at an Ivy League school had a profound effect on her. (And now she is a professor at the University of Nebraska.) My Time Among the Whites is a timely analysis of American dreams and myths, assimilation, privilege, and power.
Johnson, whose memoir The Other Side described her kidnapping and rape by her boyfriend, applies her keen intelligence to current issues of violence, gender, and justice.
Liz Prato’s family spent a lot of time in Hawai’i, allowing her to experience it as a frequent visitor who came to feel at home there and yet an outsider because she was a haole (mainlander). Here she confronts her own personal history and the effect of cultural appropriation, and also gives readers insight into what she’s learned of the true Hawai’i.
This book is both a memoir about Stanford lab researcher Esme Wang’s experience coping with schizoaffective disorder, and a series of essays exploring issues of diagnosis and treatment, as well as living productively with a mental illness.
For my money, Rebecca Solnit is the best nonfiction writer working today. No one covers as wide a range of subject matter – from culture and politics to climate change and history – with as much intelligence and as strong a narrative voice. All her books are required reading.