Hello viewers and book lovers — you know who you are — and welcome to our holiday book picks. We asked members of our staff to recommend books that moved them this past year, newly published works but also oldies they’ve gone back to or just discovered. I’m grateful to all my colleagues who participated and hope the list and brief descriptions will suggest readings for our book-hungry audience, stimulate a bit of discussion, and help with holiday gifts.
Consider this a small taste of what is to come. It’s our intention to greatly expand our online book coverage. We have many ideas brewing, including regular reading recommendations from authors and, I hope, a NewsHour Book Club. Stay tuned, we’ll have more on all this soon.
One personal note to kick things off: I like to think of the author conversations I present on the PBS NewsHour as a kind of recommendation to you, our audience. I don’t mean it’s necessarily the “best” new book out there on a given subject or in a given genre (though sometimes it is.) Rather, something about the book or author interested me and made me think others might be interested as well. In that sense, my “recommendations” are on the record and available. But I read a lot for my personal enjoyment (and psychological well-being), including new books that for one reason or another don’t result in NewsHour segments. Let me share five in that category — two novels, one memoir, and two books of poetry, that stood out for me this year:
“The Little Red Chairs”, By Edna O’Brien
“The Sympathizer”, By Viet Thanh Nguyen
“The Return”, By Hisham Matar
“At the Foundling Hospital” By Robert Pinsky
“House of Lords and Commons” By Ishion Hutchinson
And now to our staff picks.
“Upstream” By Mary Oliver
One little book I discovered late this year is “Upstream” by Mary Oliver, a collection of essays. At a time when I’ve been consumed with political news, the “indoors” of life, Oliver pulls me outdoors with her reflections on nature and the great writers who transported her to faraway places. She uses simple descriptive language that reminds me to look up and around. A favorite sentence: “The pine tree, the leopard, the Platte River, and ourselves — we are at risk together, or we are on our way to a sustainable world together. We are each other’s destiny.”
Recommended by Judy Woodruff, Anchor and Managing editor.
“The Book of the Unnamed Midwife” By Meg Elison
Originally published in 2014 and re-released this past October to a wider audience, Meg Elison’s “The Book of the Unnamed Midwife” imagines a world in which disease has decimated the population — unevenly. The majority of survivors are men, leaving the few surviving women at their mercy. Elison creates a riveting story through journal entries, following the experiences of a woman trying to pass as a man in order to help as many other women as possible. There are echoes of other famous dystopian tales examining gender, but Elison offers an original and terrifying view of the apocalypse. Her sequel, “The Book of Etta”, comes out this spring.
Recommended by Adelyn Baxter, Associate web producer
“Ragtime” By E.L. Doctorow
I found “Ragtime” punishingly boring as a kid, but when Doctorow died last year and so many sang his praises, I dove into an old copy and was just blown away. Doctorow’s writing is lyrical and heartbreaking and funny. The book also feels 100 percent relevant today, with its woven stories of turn-of-the-century American immigrants, radicals, celebrities, and millionaires. Don’t believe the “genre-fiction” label! This is a powerful, moving piece of work.
Recommended by William Brangham, Correspondent.
“News of the World” By Paulette Jiles
“Commonwealth” By Anne Patchett
“When Breath Becomes Air” By Paul Kalanthi
“News of the World takes place in the post-Civil War Southwest. Captain Jefferson Kidd, an itinerant newsreader (going from town to town to read items of interest from newspapers to locals), is asked to return a white girl “rescued” from the Kiowa Indians to what remains of her family near San Antonio. An unlikely pairing but a journey of discovery for both the grizzled veteran and the 10-year-old girl.
“Commonwealth” paints a family portrait about how one encounter changes the lives of two couples and their children. Patchett explores what binds people together, pulls them apart and the family stories that define our relations to one another.
“When Breath Becomes Air” is a beautiful memoir by a neurosurgeon who comes to grips with dying after a diagnosis of Stage 4 lung cancer. Kalanthi explores what makes life matter as one approaches a certain death surrounded by loved ones and family.
Recommended by Peggy Robinson, Senior producer.
“Switched On” stuck with me quite a while because of the dynamism of the author. John Elder Robison describes how his life changed after Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation. Elder is on the the autism spectrum and has written extensively about his life, but the idea of an awakening of sorts where you realize that even some of the people you thought closest to you were laughing at you, not with you… was just a devastating thought to ponder. (You can watch my discussion with John Elder Robinson here).
“Getting to Green” is a book by Frederic C. Rich that looks at the bipartisan roots of environmentalism and forces that seem to pull the conservation conversation over to one side of the aisle. Clear air and clean water weren’t always partisan tools, and he outlines the areas of overlap that still exist and that must be nurtured. Rich is a banker and a conservationist who doles out advice to both sides. (You can see my conversation with Fred Rich here)
Recommended by Hari Sreenivasan, Correspondent and PBS NewsHour Weekend anchor.
“Zero at the Bone” By Stacie Cassarino
Every year there’s a book that settles into my life, almost by accident — it lives in my bag, near my desk or bed, always occupying a corner. This year, that book is “Zero at the Bone.” Stacie Cassarino’s first book of poems, published in 2009, is arresting. Each piece addresses a different part of her emotional landscape, where grief and longing have sharpened the senses. The speaker, both empowered and vulnerable, is willing to ask difficult questions of herself and her environment. Her poem “Summer Solstice” begins: “I wanted to see where beauty comes from / without you in the world, hauling my heart / across sixty acres of northeast meadow, / my pockets filling with flowers.” We’re lucky to join her on that journey.
Recommended by Corinne Segal, Senior multimedia web editor, PBS NewsHour Weekend
I have to admit, I sometimes like novels about dysfunctional families. The Girl Who Slept With God has a doozy of a dysfunctional family. Set in rural Idaho, an evangelical Christian family is upended when one of their daughters reveals she is pregnant, and the father, she claims, is God. I found the characters engaging and endearing. The storyline, told through the eyes of the younger adolescent sister, is compelling, if a bit painful.
I’ve always agreed with the saying, “Nobody’s life is ordinary.” And that is the case with Harold Fry, the main character in Rachel Joyce’s novel “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.” When Harold sets off to mail a letter across England – then suddenly decides to make the journey on foot to deliver the letter by hand – the reader is taken on a trip that unravels questions about life, death, and the extraordinary journey of love.
Recommended by Merrill Schwerin, Producer.
“The Death of Great American Cities” By Jane Jacobs.
This year, I read “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” by Jane Jacobs. This 1961 classic challenged accepted thinking on urban planning and promoted ideas such as mixed-use development, which have since become popular. I love that Jane didn’t pull any punches. Here is the first sentence: “This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding.” Jane would have been 100 years old in 2016. Her birthday was celebrated all over the world through the Jane Jacobs Walk.
Recommended by Maura Shannon, Grant writer.
It’s hard to remain modern when retelling a classic, especially if the story is Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” but Curtis Sittenfeld hits the mark in “Eligible.” The chronicle of the trials of love and family are given the backdrop of reality TV. Yes, there is a Darcy. He’s a neurosurgeon. (Watch Curtis Sittenfeld discuss “Eligible” with Jeffrey Brown.)
Given the discovery of gravitational waves, I picked up “Our Mathematical Universe,” by Max Tegmark. The cosmologist from MIT explores the idea that math is not only the best way to understand the universe, but that everything is actually math.
If you like page-turning suspense, my final recommendation is Matthew Quirk’s “Cold Barrel Zero.” It follows John Hayes, a former Special Operations all-star who returns to the United States to win back his wife and daughter, while seeking revenge on the powerful government forces out to destroy him.(Watch Matthew Quirk talk to Jeffrey Brown about his previous thriller “The Directive,” centered on stealing from the Federal Reserve Bank)
Recommended by Michael Melia, Senior broadcast producer.
“What is Not Yours is Not Yours”, a collection of short stories, captivated me this spring. The book is heartfelt and full of mesmerizing characters that jump off the page. I really enjoyed the interwoven themes and visuals that tied many of the stories together. Unlike some other short story collections that can appear disjointed, I really felt like “What is Not Yours Is Not Yours” was a complete work, because all the stories are thematically linked, making the collection read like a novel. The prose by Oyeyemi is sophisticated and filled with intricate descriptions of people and places, almost Dickensian at moments. Even though many of the stories touch on familiar topics like desire or coming of age, they are both brilliantly realistic and hilariously fantastical at the same time.
As a young female journalist I have found “Settle for More” to be extremely inspiring, and harrowing at the same time. Kelly’s unorthodox journey into the world of broadcast news is fascinating. Having worked as a high power lawyer for nearly a decade before switching careers, her success and personal mantra of “settling for more” is very much attributed to her sheer willpower and ability to persuade people to create opportunities for her. It taught me a lot about how to handle the imposter syndrome that many young women feel in the workplace, and also encouraged me to keep my head up in sexist situations out of my control. Her year of dealing with President-elect Trump was complex and bizarre, and after finishing the book I feel as though I gained a much better sense of both the current American political landscape as well as the character of our next president.
Recommended by Jordan Vesey, Associate producer.
“Hillbilly Elegy” By J.D. Vance
J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and his story of growing up in Appalachia captured characters and places that echoed memories from my own childhood in northeast Mississippi.
Much like Vance’s grandparents, my people left behind chicken houses and cotton fields in the countryside to pull paychecks at textile mills and furniture factories in town, working themselves down to nothing to earn a better life for their kids.
Again and again, I found myself comparing his Mamaw, with her spitfire quips, raw truth and a heart bigger than the sky, to women in my family. Let me just say — she’d fit right in at our family reunions.
But his own poignant tale of defying the odds in working-class America is a literary voice I rarely hear. I felt like I was catching up with an old friend who also got out. He shirked the legacy of generational poverty, thanks in huge part to helpful hands along the way, for a chance to prove himself.
In many ways, Vance’s story made me homesick, telling a story that drew parallels to my own. We both know why we up and left our people, but we hope we’ll never be truly gone.
Recommended by Laura Santhanam, Data producer
“Vinegar Girl” By Anne Tyler
I thoroughly enjoyed Anne Tyler’s “Vinegar Girl,” a hilarious retelling of William Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.” In this modern version, Kate Battista is accustomed to taking care of her scientist father, so he assumes she’ll go along with his cockamamie plan to have her marry his lab assistant.
Recommended by Larisa Epatko, Reporter & producer.
“Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right” By Arlie Russell Hochschild
If you’re intrigued by the growing divide between the American right and left, “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right” will take you to the homeland of conservative attitudes. Arlie Hochschild, a University of California at Berkeley professor and sociologist, intensely profiles the Tea Party in Louisiana for the liberal mind. The attitudes toward politics, religion and the environment will surprise you. The novel documents fierce disappointment in agencies — from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dismissing low-wage workers health to distrusted top corporate executives – and conservative criticism toward every level of government. Traveling back and forth from Berkeley, California to Lake Charles, Louisiana for five years, much of the narrative focuses on the devastation brought to the bayou by the oil and gas industry.
Recommended by Courtney Norris, News Assistant.
“Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death” By Bernd Heinrich.
I consider Bernd Heinrich the most underrated of science writers. Heinrich is a biologist, ecologist, and insect and bird enthusiast who lives in the woods of Maine and writes deep, personal and scientific books about the lives of plants and animals. The first book of his that I read, “Racing the Antelope,” awakened my interest in science by patiently and beautifully explaining the biology behind some of my favorite things (running and animals.) This year, I read one of Heinrich’s most recent books: “Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death.” This book is a relaxed walk through nature, filled with fascinating observations and explanations of animal death, decay, recycling, and rebirth. It’s the perfect cabin read. You’ll never look at a carcass the same way again.
Recommended by Kristin Hugo, Science and Social Media News Assistant.
“The Right Stuff” By Tom Wolfe
Because this has been the year of making America “great again,” I decided to reread a book that I think captures the spirit many Americans most closely associate with some definition of former greatness. I first read “The Right Stuff” more than a decade ago, and I was intoxicated by the story of early aviation, the test pilots who pushed every envelope in the face of almost certain death and the primeval state of aviation technology in the 1950s. But on second read, what stands out in the text is the now-mythical narrative that paints an America united with a sense of purpose and achievement around a singular goal. Of course, to build that myth, “The Right Stuff” conveniently sidesteps the era’s civil rights clashes, the terrifying politics of 1950’s crackdowns on anyone deemed “un-American,” and the widespread institutional mechanisms designed to lock out anyone who didn’t fit the “correct” profile. The nostalgia has gone a bit sour. But maybe what’s left of the book could offer a rough roadmap for the kind achievement America needs in the 21st century. We need a more inclusive definition of what it means to have “The Right Stuff.” America could use a fresh cast of heroes, willing to hurtle themselves at our problems at the speed of sound. Maintaining peace and prosperity in a time as tumultuous as we now inhabit is a task riddled with unknown hazards, and will take a sense of unity greater than was required to put people in space. And we’ll have to do it this time without John Glenn.
Recommended by Travis Daub, Digital director.
Like many, I fell into the rabbit hole of the four Elena Ferrante “Neapolitan Novels” this year and spent many weeks living in her world. While I preferred the first three books to the more sober and painful finale, I devoured them all. There are so many interesting things to point to in these novels: The clear, unsentimental writing style, the vivid painting of the poverty and crime of inner-city Naples and the rich history of postwar Italy. But mostly it’s the complex friendship of two young girls, who over a 60-year period grow into young women and then mothers, and how that friendship (and sometimes rivalry) defines each of them, how everything they do is reflected and refracted in the other. The first novel is called “My Brilliant Friend,” and one of my favorite confounders of the book is which of the two is meant to be the “brilliant friend.”
Recommended by Jenny Marder, Managing editor, Digital