Selections mine, descriptions from NYTIMES. Book links go to Amazon, list links go to NYTIMES.
The 10 Best Books of 2021
How the Word is Passed
A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America
By Clint Smith
For this timely and thought-provoking book, Smith, a poet and journalist, toured sites key to the history of slavery and its present-day legacy, including Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello; Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary; and a Confederate cemetery. Interspersing interviews with the tourists, guides, activists and local historians he meets along the way with close readings of scholarship and poignant personal reflection, Smith holds up a mirror to America’s fraught relationship with its past, capturing a potent mixture of good intentions, earnest corrective, willful ignorance and blatant distortion.
Poverty, Survival and Hope in an American City
By Andrea Elliott
To expand on her acclaimed 2013 series for The Times about Dasani Coates, a homeless New York schoolgirl, and her family, Elliott spent years following her subjects in their daily lives, through shelters, schools, courtrooms and welfare offices. The book she has produced — intimately reported, elegantly written and suffused with the fierce love and savvy observations of Dasani and her mother — is a searing account of one family’s struggle with poverty, homelessness and addiction in a city and country that have failed to address these issues with efficacy or compassion.
Editors’ Choice: The Best Books of 1998
We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families
Stories From Rwanda.
By Philip Gourevitch.
In 1994 the Government of Rwanda called on everyone in the Hutu majority of the country to murder everyone in the Tutsi minority. In 100 days 800,000 people were killed, most of them individually cut down with knives. The daily killing rate exceeded that of the Nazi Holocaust, and the deed was done mostly not by trained cadres but by neighbors, co-workers, even family members. In the years since, Philip Gourevitch, a New Yorker writer, has talked to survivors, witnesses and participants to discover the origins and personal motives for this collective crime. His grim book — it is his first — lays a burden on the world’s conscience. This genocidal crime now has faces, names, personal psychologies. As we encounter people involved in the massacre, we cannot pull back from looking into their souls, and our own. As the title — taken from a letter by seven Christian pastors to their religious leader — indicates, there were warnings. Those given to international agencies, especially the United Nations, make dismal reading. And American policy, which encouraged the United Nations to stay out of internal conflicts, is sickening in retrospect. The history of Belgian, French and British racism in colonial times bears on the massacres too. Gourevitch withholds judgments, but his restraint gives his book a subtle, subterranean power.
Editors’ Choice: The Best Books of 1997
Into Thin Air
A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster.
By Jon Krakauer.
Until May 1996, 630 people had climbed Mount Everest and 144 had died on it. That spring at least 30 expeditions of tourists made the climb. On May 10 a rogue storm blew up, and eight people in three separate expeditions approaching or leaving the summit died. Jon Krakauer, a 42-year-old writer, was with one team, assigned by Outside magazine to report on the commercialization of Everest. Although 12 people died altogether in 1996, he says, a record, 84 made it to the top, so it was a safer-than-average year. Krakauer explains the economic incentives for experienced climbers to lead groups of amateurs up the mountain, the even greater incentive for Nepal to license the trips and the total lack of incentive to limit the numbers risking their lives. When things go wrong in the death zone, the last 2,000 feet, and eventually they do, even the world’s best guides cannot save the tourists, or themselves. But his book does more than report on lethal tourism. He wrote it to ”purge Everest from my life.” It didn’t. It may put Everest ineradicably into your mind. This deftly constructed tale lets you sense the excruciating torture of climbing five miles high, the exhilarating and terrifying disorientation of oxygen starvation, the capricious moods of wind and snow, the strange seductiveness of death at odd moments. His re-creation of the storm that killed his companions swirls around the reader like the gale itself and gives this appalling struggle with death a horrifying intimacy.
Editors’ Choice 1992
By Pat Barker.
Pat Barker has been the model of a working-class realistic novelist, but here she leaps the lines of gender, class, geography and history at once. And she takes another daring chance: her novel is about real people who published their own memoirs. “Regeneration” is the story of the British poet Siegfried Sassoon, a World War I combat hero who in 1917 writes a highly publicized letter protesting the war and is sent by a baffled Government to a hospital where the distinguished neurologist and psychologist W. H. R. Rivers is pioneering treatments for shell shock. As an intense father-son relationship develops between the men, Ms. Barker’s themes — war and madness, war and manhood — make the madness of war more than metaphor. But, in the tradition of literary realism, she confronts reality without polemics, anger or artifice. Her story becomes a magnificent antiwar novel and a wonderful justification of her belief that plain writing, energized by the named things of the world, will change readers profoundly by bringing them deep into imagined lives.
Editors’ Choice 1988
Battle Cry of Freedom
The Civil War Era.
By James M. McPherson.
James M. McPherson’s book – eloquent but unrhetorical, scholarly but not pedantic, succinct and comprehensive at the same time – may be the best volume ever published about the Civil War. Everything Mr. McPherson touches drives his narrative forward, and yet there is not a hint of ostentation from the first sentence to the last. He makes the war steal up on the reader the way it did on the nation, teaching the most important and dreadful truth of all – that no more than ordinarily sinful men and women, and able and patriotic politicians, and a nation enjoying unrivaled prosperity, can make irretrievable and deadly blunders. It is the timeliest possible lesson for us now, and we get it here from a great teacher.
The Magic Lantern
By Ingmar Bergman. Translated by Joan Tate.
It is not autobiography in the usual sense. For instance, there is much less about films than you might expect, even though Ingmar Bergman is the most thoroughly artistic film maker ever. And there is not much about his wives or other lovers, nor about his children. But there are gripping revelations, especially about his childhood, told in an unrelentingly honest manner. It is a random, anecdotal, unchronological book that gives you a picture of a highly emotional and not very adaptable soul. It holds you as many of his films do, and his story deals in totally unpredictable ways with a life filled with maladies and rages as well as with an intense love of theater. As in many of his films, by the end he has revealed things you may find it discomforting to know and a central character whom you may not like but who is stamped into your imagination.
Editors’ Choice 1986
The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat
And Other Clinical Tales.
By Oliver Sacks
With the lucidity and power of a gifted short-story writer, Oliver Sacks, an eminent neurologist, writes about two dozen patients who manifest striking peculiarities of perception, emotion, language, thought, memory or action. His decidedly original approach to neurological disorders – he writes like a philosopher-poet -is insightful, compassionate, moving and on occasion, especially when he plays naive about neurological literature, infuriating. His eminently humane approach, and his willingness to take seriously the ordinary locutions people use to talk about their conditions, are entirely to his credit. There is no one else who writes about what used to be called simply ”mental problems” with such understanding and such delightful literary and narrative skill.
Editors’ Choice 1985
A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families.
By J. Anthony Lukas.
Covering a great deal more than its subtitle suggests, this is a huge study of Boston in the 1970’s, when it was under the pressure of court-ordered busing to achieve school desegregation. The three families J. Anthony Lukas focuses on include only a handful of the hundreds of people in a multilayered account of the moral fabric of a city and the vastly different social universes of its neighborhoods. Eventually the turmoil surrounding the desegregation efforts is seen in the context of history, not just national history or that of Boston but the history of the little villages cities are made up of and in many cases even the histories of individuals.
Editors’ Choice 1984
The Unbearable Lightness Of Being
By Milan Kundera
With cunning, wit and elegiac sadness, Milan Kundera, the celebrated Czechoslovak emigre writer, expresses the trap the world has become in this relentless novel about four people who are born of images in Mr. Kundera’s mind – a doctor and his dedicated wife and a frivolous, seductive woman painter and her good, patient lover. The stories of this quartet, all of whom die or fade from the book, are engrossing enough. But this writer’s real business is to find images for the disastrous history of his country in his lifetime. He uses the four pitilessly, setting each pair against the other as opposites in every way, to describe a world in which choice is exhausted and people simply cannot find a way to express their humanity.