I’ve spent the last two years in grad school, which means I’ve spent the last two years reading mostly for school and not so much for pleasure. As I’ve inched my way towards graduation I have found myself looking forward to the day that I won’t have to do any more homework, and when I won’t have to spend my Saturdays writing papers and reading textbooks, and when I’ll have time to cook dinner again and bake bread. I’ve also found myself feeling giddy at the prospect of being able to read for pleasure again. I thought I’d begin with these ten books that were published while I was in grad school.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi: This book begins with the story of two half-sisters, separated by forces beyond their control: one sold into slavery, the other married to a British slaver. Written with tremendous sweep and power, Homegoing traces the generations of family who follow, as their destinies lead them through two continents and three hundred years of history, each life indelibly drawn, as the legacy of slavery is fully revealed in light of the present day. Homegoing makes history visceral, and captures, with singular and stunning immediacy, how the memory of captivity came to be inscribed in the soul of a nation.
Swing Time by Zadie Smith: Two dancers with different approaches to their craft share a complicated childhood friendship that ends abruptly in their early twenties, in a story that transitions from northwest London to West Africa.
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond: Even in the most desolate areas of American cities, evictions used to be rare; today, most poor renting families are spending more than half of their income on housing, and eviction has become ordinary. Desmond takes us into the poorest neighborhoods of Milwaukee to tell the story of eight families on the edge: all are spending almost everything they have on rent, and all have fallen behind. Desmond transforms our understanding of extreme poverty and economic exploitation while providing fresh ideas for solving a devastating, uniquely American problem.
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance: Vance, a former marine and Yale Law School graduate, provides an account of growing up in a poor Rust Belt town that offers a broad, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class. The decline of this group, a demographic of our country that has been slowly disintegrating over forty years, has been reported on with growing frequency and alarm. J. D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hung around your neck.
The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee: The story of the gene begins in earnest in an obscure Augustinian abbey in Moravia in 1856 where Gregor Mendel, a monk working with pea plants, stumbles on the idea of a “unit of heredity.” It intersects with Darwin’s theory of evolution, and collides with the horrors of Nazi eugenics in the 1940s. The gene invades discourses concerning race and identity and provides startling answers to some of the most potent questions coursing through our political and cultural realms. Above all, the story of the gene is driven by human ingenuity and obsessive minds — from Mendel and Darwin to Francis Crick, James Watson, and Rosalind Franklin to the thousands of scientists working today to understand the code of codes.
Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson: For August and her girls, sharing confidences as they ambled through neighborhood streets, Brooklyn was a place where they believed that they were beautiful, talented, brilliant—a part of a future that belonged to them. But beneath the hopeful veneer, there was another Brooklyn, a dangerous place where grown men reached for innocent girls in dark hallways, where ghosts haunted the night, where mothers disappeared. A world where madness was just a sunset away and fathers found hope in religion. Another Brooklyn heartbreakingly illuminates the formative time when childhood gives way to adulthood—the promise and peril of growing up—and exquisitely renders a powerful, indelible, and fleeting friendship that united four young lives.
What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi: The stories collected here are linked by more than the exquisitely winding prose of their creator. The reader is invited into a world of lost libraries and locked gardens, of marshlands where the drowned dead live, the Homely Wench Society commits a guerrilla book-swap, and lovers exchange books and roses on St Jordi’s Day. It is a collection of towering imagination, marked by baroque beauty and a deep sensuousness.
The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan: After witnessing his two friends killed by a “small” bomb that detonated in a Delhi marketplace, Mansoor Ahmed becomes involved with a charismatic young activist, whose allegiances and beliefs are more changeable than he could have imagined.
Underground Airlines by Ben Winters: It is the present-day, and the world is as we know it: smartphones, social networking and Happy Meals. Save for one thing: the Civil War never occurred. A gifted young black man calling himself Victor has struck a bargain with federal law enforcement, working as a bounty hunter for the US Marshall Service. He’s got plenty of work. In this version of America, slavery continues in four states called “the Hard Four.” On the trail of a runaway known as Jackdaw, Victor arrives in Indianapolis knowing that something isn’t right—with the case file, with his work, and with the country itself. Underground Airlines is a ground-breaking novel, a wickedly imaginative thriller, and a story of an America that is more like our own than we’d like to believe.
The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World by Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu: Two leading spiritual masters share their wisdom about living with joy even in the face of adversity, sharing personal stories and teachings about the science of profound happiness and the daily practices that anchor their emotional and spiritual lives.