The transition from August to September is a bittersweet time. I’m ready for the breezes of fall, but sad to leave the expanding sense of time that summer brings and the pleasure of filling the hours with extraordinary books. So here’s a Janus-faced reading list, looking back on some of the best nonfiction I’ve read so far this year, then looking ahead to the fall:
“Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century” by George Packer (Knopf). This book is a real accomplishment; it’s hands down the best biography I have read this year. Published in May, it’s the deeply researched and reported story of a controversial American diplomat who just could not stop trying to make peace in some of the most war-torn parts of the planet, notably Vietnam, Bosnia and Afghanistan. Brilliant, ambitious, arrogant and committed, Holbrooke, who died suddenly in 2010, is a mesmerizing subject, and friends and enemies alike helped Packer craft this biography. Sure to win a prize (or two or three) in the 2019 literary-awards sweepstakes.
“Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love” by Dani Shapiro (Knopf). Shapiro, an accomplished memoirist, shows her mastery of the form in this deeply absorbing book. The story begins when Shapiro sends off a sample of her DNA to be tested on a whim. The results are life-altering; this daughter of Ashkenazi Jews discovers that her father, who she deeply identifies with, is not her biological parent. The discovery sets in motion a troubling reassessment of the early days of in vitro fertilization and Shapiro’s own life, and a meditation on the shifting nature of identity.
“Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth” by Sarah Smarsh (Scribner). In this memoir Smarsh chronicles her experiences growing up on a small farm in Kansas and the seismic changes in the economy that have battered the working poor over the last 50 years. While you can find a broader sociopolitical discussion in other books, Smarsh’s stories of her family and upbringing feel both tender and true. Shameless plug: I’ll be interviewing Smarsh about “Heartland,” just out in paperback, at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 3, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.
Looking ahead, here are some fresh titles and author appearances for fall:
“Our Dogs, Ourselves: The Story of a Singular Bond” by Alexandra Horowitz (Scribner, Sept. 3). While I spend a ridiculous amount of time trying to guess what my Cardigan Welsh corgi is thinking, he seems to have me figured out — how does he know I’m leaving the house before I even pick up the keys? Just one of many questions I hope to answer with this new book by a dog-behavior expert. Author of the bestselling “Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know” and head of Barnard’s Dog Cognition Lab, Horowitz investigates the dog-human bond and ponders the philosophical ramifications of our canine obsession. She appears at Town Hall Seattle on Saturday, Sept. 28 (tickets: $5).
“Make It Scream, Make It Burn: Essays” by Leslie Jamison (Little, Brown, Sept. 24). This summer I read Jamison’s 2018 book, “The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath,” in which she braided together two narratives: that of her own alcohol addiction and the role of alcoholism in the lives of artists, notably writers. I was transfixed by her fluid writing, her honesty and the depth of her insight. Her new essay collection is on top of my must-read list, covering everything from a lonely blue whale to the challenges of being a stepmother.
“The Dearly Beloved” by Cara Wall (Simon & Schuster). OK, it’s a novel, but it felt true to me. Wall spent 14 years writing this saga of two couples struggling with faith, marriage and the nature of belief. The story, which spans 40 years, begins in the 1950s and follows two men who enroll in divinity school, meet and marry their wives, and wind up at the same church in Greenwich Village (Wall grew up attending a very similar church). Among the couples, one man is a true believer, one a doubter, one wife an outright atheist, and the other will have her faith sorely tested. You don’t have to have ever darkened the door of a church to enjoy this book. Wall appears Wednesday, Sept. 25, at Elliott Bay Book Co.
“The Outlaw Ocean: Journeys Across the Last Untamed Frontier” by Ian Urbina (Knopf). Urbina, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter, investigates lawlessness on the last frontier — the high seas, which have become an unpoliced arena for resource exploitation, piracy and slavery. Based on his groundbreaking series in The New York Times, Urbina’s book is garnering rave reviews: “Urbina’s book ranks alongside those by Mark Bowden and Sebastian Junger, fraught with peril and laced with beer, the smell of sea air, and constant bouts of gaming an inept system,” said Kirkus Reviews. He’s in Seattle on Saturday, Oct. 19, at Town Hall (tickets $5).