Lovis Corinth, Girl Reading (1911) Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
It’s the most wonderful time of the year—buying books for other people that you want to read yourself! And on that note, here are the best ones I read last year. All links are to IndieBound to gently nudge you to buy from independent bookstores.
It’s a tie between Douglas Stuart’s Booker award-winning Shuggie Bain (Grove Press, 2020) and Robert Jones, Jr.’s The Prophets (G.P. Putnam’s, 2021), a finalist for so many awards I can’t even begin to list them. Both are about gay men and the complexities of love, and both left me wishing that I could read them for the first time all over again. Stuart embeds his characters in a Margaret Thatcher-era working-class city, and Jones on an antebellum Southern forced labor camp (aka plantation.) Each one explores the power of homophobia over young men and reveals the complexities of whole communities.
If you are a Plathian, then Heather Clark’s Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath (Knopf, 2020, and now out in paper from Vintage) is the book for you. Of course, since the book weighs in at almost 1200 pages, it will not seem like Sylvia Plath had a short life: I found myself, at one point, 250 pages from the end and realized that poor Sylvia had only six weeks left to live. But there’s a reason for this! Clark is the first person to have had unfettered access to both Ted Hughes’s and Sylvia Plath’s papers, so she documents Plath’s life in the kind of excruciating detail that you might otherwise experience as a multi-season HBO drama. If you don’t like Plath, avoid this book: if you are fascinated with her, it’s a can’t miss.
But a much better biography is an old one I discovered just a few months ago: Alexis De Veaux, Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde (W.W. Norton, 2006). If you only know Lorde from her writing, De Veaux reveals someone far more complex, brilliant, contradictory, and often not very nice—and she does it in a way that sends you back to Lorde’s writing. Unlike Clark, she won’t tell you what her subject had for lunch (every day), but she tells the story of Lorde’s life, cut off young by cancer, in a way that reveals a whole world of feminist poetry and Black activism.
Again, a tie. Ruth Marcus’s Supreme Ambition: Brett Kavanaugh and the Conservative Takeover (Siman & Schuster, 2019; paper, 2020.) Call me biased because I knew, and briefly worked with, Marcus when we were undergraduates at Yale, but it is a fair-minded treatment of Trump’s first appointment that reveals a great deal about how a person gets to be a Supreme Court Justice in the first place. Marcus knows the law, is a journalist and is a superb writer.
Also in the category of “great stories about men who would never get away with this $hit if they were women?” Reeves Wiedeman’s Billion Dollar Loser: The Epic Rise And Spectacular Fall Of Adam Neumann And WeWork (Little, Brown, 2020, now out in paper from Back Bay Books.) A book about the Wild West culture of venture capitalism, Wiedeman teaches you what you need to know to understand why a business that seemed successful folded like a napkin. And if you are also fascinated by the Elizabeth Holmes/Theranos story (which you can gobble up for free on this podcast), it’s a similar tale of deception and grift.
If you have another Trump book in you, make it be presidential niece Mary Trump’s memoir of growing up in a family that makes Succession look like the Brady Bunch: Too Much And Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man (Simon and Schuster, 2020.) I listened to it, read by Mary Trump herself, and it is a psychological study—not just of the Former Guy, but of the whole family. And really? Compared to Fred Trump, Donald seems like a nice person. Favorite part? Ivanka regifting gift baskets received at Trump Tower to nieces and nephews.
What did you read this year that we should all bring into our households as if it is a gift for someone else?
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020). This essay is adapted from a post on her Substack, Political Junkie.