Sure, we may all seek distraction, but this list of books features seriously hefty tomes for these times.
CASTE: THE ORIGINS OF OUR DISCONTENTS
BY ISABEL WILKERSON
Many fine books about race in America were published in this year of racial upheaval. Isabel Wilkerson's Caste is among the most original and thought-provoking. She calls out the underlying fallacy of race as a real thing, citing genetic experts who dismiss it as "a social concept, not a scientific one." In fact, study of the human genome finds all humans are 99.9 percent the same.
From that foundation Wilkerson argues that race is an idea used by the privileged class to defend its privileges. She traces the history of caste as a rigid hierarchy in India and draws an unsettling connection between America's eugenics movement in the early 20th century and its race-based laws to Hitler's Germany. Not an easy read, but an important one.
BY MARILYNNE ROBINSON
Fans of Marilynne Robinson will not be disappointed by Jack, her fourth novel in the Gilead collection that revolves around the mythical town of Gilead, Iowa, and the family of an aging pastor, John Ames Broughton. Jack is the prodigal son who has made brief appearances in the earlier stories.
Robinson, widely hailed as one of America's finest writers, proves it again as she tells the story of Jack, a complicated man, a drifter and occasional grifter, but also a charmer — sometimes called "Slick" — who is capable of warmth and deep affection for Della, a refined Black school teacher and daughter of a pastor. The setting is St. Louis in the '50s. Robinson subtly weaves undercurrents of race and religion into the story, much of which takes place inside Jack's head as he contemplates his life, past regrets and uncertain future.
BY S.M. HULSE
One way to judge the power of a book is how long a key character lingers in your mind. Jo, the central character of Eden Mine, stays with you long after you put the book down. The story, set in northwestern Montana, revolves around an act of terrorism in a small town. Jo is the sister of the suspect and narrator of the story. She is also a paraplegic who uses a wheelchair, a detail that recedes into the background as Hulse creates a compelling story with a strong, independent, artistic young woman of grit and determination at the center.
TOO MUCH AND NEVER ENOUGH
BY MARY TRUMP
Now that we know for sure the Trump presidency is over, it's time to ponder: "What just happened?" Of the scores of books published this year and those bound for the shelves in 2021, Mary Trump's may provide the clearest answer. It's the only book by a family member who witnessed "neglect and abuse" and "casual dehumanization of people" inside the Trump home. Mary Trump is not only the president's niece, but a trained clinical psychologist able to understand what she witnessed and explain how it damaged the man Donald Trump would become.
Her story describing the family dynamics is told in lucid and believable prose. If not for all the lies and damage done to U.S. institutions — and nearly to our democracy — one could almost feel sorry for a guy raised to be a winner at all things and believe failure was not to be endured at any cost.
THE GREAT INFLUENZA: THE STORY OF THE DEADLIEST PANDEMIC IN HISTORY
BY JOHN BARRY
This book was first published in 2004 but returned to bestseller status this year due to the eerily familiar sweep of the story. John Barry is an award-winning historian and author, and his telling of the 1918 flu epidemic is broad and deep. There are scenes of makeshift hospitals not unlike what we've seen a century later. We have mobile refrigerated morgues; they had mass graves.
This may not sound like holiday reading, but it belongs on the bookshelf of any serious reader on your list. From the breakout of a lethal influenza in a Kansas army camp to Barry's clear-eyed lessons the book engages and informs. It is as much a history of science and medicine — and the heroes of that era — as it is of the worldwide horrors of 100 million lost lives.
As for those lessons, Barry leaves us with this: "Those in authority must retain the public's trust ... distort nothing ... put the best face on nothing ... manipulate no one."
A PROMISED LAND
BY BARACK OBAMA
This is a big, heavy book of 700 pages (including two sections of color photos). Released this month, it's timed for the holiday season and, thanks to nearly 80 million voters, the end of the Trump presidency. Anyone who has read Obama's earlier books already knows he is a fine writer. But this? Yes. Barack Obama stands out as a singular figure in American political history — a Black man elected twice to the pinnacle of American public life. He tells of his trajectory to this place at length because, as he admits, "I felt obliged to provide context for the decisions we made."
Obama's story is long, but reads short, thanks to graceful writing organized into episodic vignettes that blend historic moments with personal details.
Warning: A Promised Land ends with the death of Osama bin Laden. A second volume will follow. ♦
Mindy Cameron is a writer who lives in Sandpoint. Her memoir, Leaving the Boys: A story of Motherhood and Career, Feminism and Romance, was published in July.