This is the third, now sort-of triennial, edition of Books that Moved Me. This one includes the novels and non-fiction books that I’ve liked the most since I posted Books 2 in 2020. As in the past, I’ve read virtually all the books on this list based on recommendations I elicited from a handful of friends (most of whom don’t know each other) whose judgment I’ve come to trust–at least with respect to books. I decided to post this list now because lately there’s been a drought of recommendations from my formerly reliable friends. I seem to keep reading one unsatisfying book after another, so I decided to cast a broader net. Here’s my Books 3 List:
- The Sweetness of Water (Nathan Harris)–A first novel and perhaps my favorite on this list. I read it after my esteemed book advisors failed me and I was left to find a good book on my own. I took a chance because it happened to be on both Obama and Oprah’s 2021 lists.
- The Weight of Ink (Rachel Kadish)–Fascinating novel written centuries before our own pandemic.
- The Piano Tuner (Daniel Mason)–Published in 2002, but new to me and excellent; set in Cambodia.
- What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker (Damon Young)–Incisive and, in places, funny essays about a young American Black man’s experiences and his perspective on “white America.”
- Deacon King Kong (James McBride)–One of the rare books I listened to; a good way to go.
- For Whom the Bell Tolls (Ernest Hemmingway)–Reminded me how great a writer he was.
- Lincoln Highway (Amor Towles)–Liked it a lot, but not as much as A Gentleman in Moscow.
- The Flatshare (Beth O’Leary)–Just a light, funny, well-written romance. A pleasure to read.
- American Dirt (Jeanine Cummins)–Gripping (and, in my view, unjustly controversial) novel that gave me a new understanding of the experience of those traveling north to get to the U.S.
- The Children Act (Ian McEwan)–Published in 2014, but I just read it; I’m not a huge McEwan fan, but thought this was terrific.
- Beasts of a Little Land (Juhea Kim)–Sweeping historical novel set against the backdrop of Japan’s domination of Korea.
- The Color of Law (Richard Rothstein)–Critically important book showing how the federal and state governments baked systemic racism into our economy and society, and its lasting consequences.
- Tracks (Robyn Davidson)–One of two books on this list that you probably won’t find on another. A truly amazing story of a young woman’s solo journey with her camels across the Australian Outback.
- Invisible Child–Poverty, Survival and Hope in an American City (Andrea Elliot)–An eye-opening story exposing how the child welfare system can devastate, rather than help, poor children and families, and the enduring strength of family bonds.
- Empire of Pain (Patrick Radden Keefe)–Following Dreamland, a searing account of the Sacklers’ criminal role in the opioid crisis.
- Caste (Beth Wilkerson)–Although skeptical at first, I was increasingly persuaded by her thesis comparing racism in America today to India’s caste system and Nazi Germany.
- Genghis Kahn and the Making of the Modern World (Jack Weatherford)–Who knew the Mongol Empire was so vast, and impressive? Not me.
- A Promised Land (Barack Obama)–I generally avoid reading politicians’ memoirs and was reluctant to read this one, but did so after several friends recommended it. I found it provided a remarkable window into what it’s like to be president; how complicated and unimaginably hard the job is for one who actually does it. Obama’s writing and narration also is terrific.
- The Body (Bill Bryson)–Simply fascinating.
- The Long Journey (George Charney)–You probably won’t want to read this, and it’s hard to get, BUT: for those who do, it’s a fascinating, self-critical memoir written by one of the leaders of the U.S. Communist Party. Charney was the best friend of my grandfather who volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War and was killed there in the futile effort to stem the tide of fascism.
- The Chancellor–The Remarkable Odyssey of Angela Merkel (Katie Marton)–The book is true to its title.
People responded to the Books I and Books II lists with some great recommendations. I’m hoping history will repeat itself, and if you have recommendations, please put them in the Comments so others can also get the benefit of them. In the meantime, I haven’t lost faith in my recommending friends. I’d be lost without them.
Karl Marlantes, Matterhorn and Deep River
Marlantes grew up in Seaside, Oregon, a small, coastal logging town. He played football and was student body president at Seaside High School, from which he graduated in 1963. His father was the school principal.
He won a National Merit Scholarship and attended Yale University, where he was a member of Jonathan Edwards College and Beta Theta Pi, and played as wing forward in the rugby team. During his time at Yale, Marlantes trained in the Marine Corps Platoon Leaders Class. He was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship at University College, Oxford. He returned to Oxford after his military service and earned a master’s degree.
Marlantes left after one semester at Oxford to join active duty in the U.S. Marine Corps as an infantry officer. He served during the Vietnam War with 1st Battalion, 4th Marines from October 1968 to October 1969, and was awarded the Navy Cross for action in Vietnam in which he led an assault on a hilltop bunker complex. He also served as an aerial observer while in Vietnam. Marlantes was also awarded a Bronze Star, two Navy Commendation Medals for valor, two Purple Hearts, and 10 Air Medals.
He served another year of active duty at Marine Corps Headquarters after his combat tour. He suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Marlantes is featured in Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s 10-part documentary series, The Vietnam War (2017), where he reflects on his experiences during the war.
Marlantes is the author of Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War (2010). Sebastian Junger of The New York Times declared Matterhorn: “one of the most profound and devastating novels ever to come out of Vietnam – or any war”. It received the 2011 Washington State Book Award in the fiction category. The novel is based on Marlantes’ combat experience in the Vietnam War.
His next book was “What It Is Like to Go to War,” a biographical non-fiction work published in 2011 about his return to the civilian world and modern veteran life in general.
Marlantes’s novel Deep River (2019) was published in July 2019. It follows a Finnish family which flees Finland and settles in the Pacific Northwest in a logging community. The story examines the logging industry and labor movements of the early 1900s and rebuilding a family in America while balancing family tradition.
Agree Dale, Matterhorn is powerful. Another is, We Were Soldiers Once by Hal Moore
Thanks for the list. I love listening. Emailed you one of my favorites.
Thanks Rich! I agree on many of these and look to considering others you have listed!
Try River of the Gods by Candice Miller, Genius, Courage and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile. Miller wrote River of Doubt also which is about Teddy Roosevelt’s exploration of the Amazon. Her books are well researched and tie in history and human personalities and though provoking views.
Loved Caste, did you read Wilkerson’s Warmth of other Suns? She’s one of my heroes as she has opened up my view of history.
Read King Kong and McBride spoke at Greenwich Library and he was just fantastic!, American Dirt(riveting). I have Lincoln Hwy and Sweetness of Water to fit in soon.
I am a McEwan fan so will def try The Children’s Act. Tracks sounds great, The Body and many others!
Thanks Heather–The Candice Miller books look great. I agree with you on Wilkerson’s Warmth of Other Suns–it was terrific. I would have loved to hear McBride. Among other things, I understand that he’s an accomplished musician.
If you’ve never read Random Family, that’s the book I used to suggest that my interns read. But if I still had interns, I’d tell them (and pretty much everyone I know) to read Invisible Child by Andrea Elliott. My other favorites of 2021, in no particular order:
Between Two Kingdoms
Made in China
House of Sticks
The Sunset Route
This is Ear Hustle
These Precious Days
Fiction–Hands down favorite: The Love Songs of W.E.B.Dubois. The others:
Mr. Ice Sandwich
Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self
Things We Lost to the Water
What Strange Paradise
I read even more in 2022 than 2021, but don’t have as many favorites. For nonfiction it’s a tossup between Memorial Drive and Solito. You’ll never forget either one. Others I recommend:
Under the Skin
Corrections in Ink
Know My Name
I think my favorite fiction book of the year was Intimacies, but it’s hard to say. I didn’t have any that really blew me away. Others that would make the favorites list in no particular order:
The Last One
Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont
Olga Dies Dreaming
Life Without Children
Seeking Fortune Elsewhere
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies
Milk, Blood, Heat
A Girl Returned
How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water
Mother in the Dark
Tony Hagan Bought me an Ice Cream Float Before He Stol my Ma
School for Good Mothers
The Family Chao
The Personal Librarian
Happy reading and thanks for your recommendations!
Thanks very much Sara. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, but your list is amazing and I confess that I haven’t read many of these–yet. I agree with you on Invisible Child–I recommend it to everyone and wish they’d read it.
Recently much enjoyed books include After Lives by Absulrazak Gurnah, Between Friends by Amos Oz and The Magician by Colm Toibin. Currently struggling with The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard, am told it’s a classic but… next up Light Eternal by Francis Spufford, loved his first Golden Hill set in pre-revolution NYC.