There should always be a book or three under the tree. These are the 10 best books of the year, all of which make a great holiday gift for your favorite reader — or for yourself.
“Black Leopard, Red Wolf,” by Marlon James
FICTION. Inspired by African mythology, James, a Booker Prize winner, turns a motley group’s quest to find a missing boy into a fast-paced, fantastical adventure. These contentious companions explore a hyper-violent world of lush jungles, cities in the sky and dark forests, and they confront a catalog of creatures: ferocious trolls, giant bats and a bloodsucking fiend made entirely of flies. Clearly, Hollywood special effects are still playing catch-up with the magic our very best writers can spin.
“Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?” by Bill McKibben
NONFICTION. With 1989’s “The End of Nature,” McKibben was among the first to alert the public to climate change. His latest book is a sprint through what we’ve done to the planet and what we can do about it now. Determined to keep the words “climate change” from fading into our “mental furniture,” he has gathered the most vivid statistics, distilled history to its juiciest turns and made the case as urgently as can be: Our existence is in jeopardy.
“Girl, Woman, Other,” by Bernardine Evaristo
FICTION. The co-winner of the 2019 Booker Prize (alongside Margaret Atwood’s “The Testaments”) is composed of novella-length chapters that draw us deep into the lives of a dozen women in Britain of various backgrounds and experiences. As the novel progresses, their connections accrue gradually, allowing us moments of understanding spiked with surprise. Evaristo skillfully weaves these tales together, creating a breathtaking symphony of black women’s voices, a clear-eyed survey of contemporary challenges that is nevertheless wonderfully life-affirming.
“A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves: One Family and Migration in the 21st Century,” by Jason DeParle
NONFICTION. A riveting multigenerational tale of one Filipino family dispersing across the globe — from Manila to Abu Dhabi to Galveston, Tex., and so many places in between — as parents leave their kids for years at a time to send home wages many multiples of what they previously earned. As immigration emerges as a central political battleground in the Trump era, this book provides crucial insight into the global scope, shifting profiles and, above all, individual sacrifices of the migrant experience.
“Know My Name,” by Chanel Miller
NONFICTION. Miller, formerly known as Emily Doe, the sexual assault victim of Brock Turner, deliberately and triumphantly reclaims her story by drawing a clear-eyed portrait of how difficult it is for rape victims to get justice, and how the process serves as its own kind of re-victimization. In haunting prose, Miller documents a broken system, or several, which her book indicts one by one. “Know My Name” is a gut-punch, yes, but also blessedly hopeful.
“On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, by Ocean Vuong
FICTION. This debut novel by a Saigon-born poet is labeled fiction but draws heavily on the events of the author’s life. The daring mix of historical recollection and sexual exploration is framed as a candid letter to the narrator’s mother, a volcanic woman whose life was made possible by the Vietnam War. (Her father was a U.S. soldier.) Vuong’s willingness to solve the equation of his own existence, no matter its components, is a hallmark of this poignant and lyrical work of self-discovery.
“Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland,” by Patrick Radden Keefe
NONFICTION. This examination of “the Troubles” in Northern Ireland begins with the 1972 murder of Jean McConville, a widowed mother of 10 suspected of being a British informant. Keefe interweaves her story with the rise of Dolours Price, an Irish Republican Army member who was involved in McConville’s death. With its dual portrait of an obscure victim and a notorious revolutionary, “Say Nothing” is a cautionary tale about the zealotry of youth, the long-term consequences of violence and the politics of forgetting.
“Strangers and Cousins,” by Leah Hager Cohen
FICTION. The tale of a quirky family planning a wedding in a tumble-down house contains all the promise of an arthritic rom-com, but, as masterfully told by Cohen, it’s an absolute delight infused with the most pressing concerns of our era. The story expands to look at a historical tragedy and a current battle over an influx of ultra-Orthodox Jewish residents in the surrounding town. Cohen takes comedy seriously, and it shows in this disarmingly substantive story that’s funny, tender, provocative and wise.
“The Topeka School,” by Ben Lerner
FICTION. Here is that all-too-rare masterpiece: a svelte big novel. Lerner does what only great novelists can, which is explore the condition of the whole country in the particular story of a few characters in a small town. Lerner takes us back to Kansas in the 1990s where a high school debate team star and his mother, a psychotherapist, contend with the increasingly toxic language that passes for civil discourse in America.
“The Yellow House,” by Sarah M. Broom
NONFICTION. Broom’s stirring memoir, the winner of the 2019 National Book Award for nonfiction, is set in New Orleans East, a part of the city that tourists don’t visit. The yellow house of the title, Broom’s family home, is the pride, hope and prison of a black, working-class family. After it is destroyed during Hurricane Katrina, it also becomes a symbol of the issues confronting us today: pernicious racism, corporate greed, displacement and the improbable arithmetic of survival as a member of the working poor.