‘AFTERLIVES’ – ABDULRAZAK GURNAH
THE WASHINGTON POST – Afterlives by the winner of the 2021 Nobel Prize in literature, is set in East Africa in the early 20th century. It demonstrates how gracefully Gurnah works in two registers simultaneously. The story is at once a globe-spanning epic of European colonialism and an intimate look at village life in one of the many overlooked corners of Earth. Deftly inverting the old Western narrative, it renders the Europeans as background characters and places East Africans in the forefront, moving fluidly between the complicated lives of its characters and the reckless actions of old empires.
DEMON COPPERHEAD – BARBARA KINGSOLVER
Equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking, Kingsolver’s latest is the story of Damon, the only child of a teenage alcoholic in southwestern Virginia. In a feat of literary alchemy, Kingsolver uses the fire of his spirit to illuminate – and singe – the darkest recesses of our country.
Inspired by the work of Charles Dickens, she has effectively reignited the moral indignation of the great Victorian novelist to dramatise the horrors of child poverty in the late 20th century.
This would be a grim melodrama if it weren’t for Demon’s endearing humour, formed by his unaffected innocence and weary cynicism.
MECCA – SUSAN STRAIGHT
By highway, the setting of Mecca is not far from the glitter of Hollywood and the animatronic joy of Disneyland, but by any measure that matters, it’s light-years away. Straight’s characters are the backbones of agriculture, health care and hospitality – people of colour who work long hours for low wages. Straight tackles the way prejudice both motivates violence and distorts our response to violence. Between the poles of two ambiguous crimes – committed 20 years apart – she strings the details of a terrifically engaging novel about a network of people related by blood, love and duty.
TRUST – HERNAN DIAZ
Trust is about an early-20th Century investor. Or at least it seems to be. Framed as a novel, it is actually an intricately constructed quartet of stories. The first luxuriates in the tragic fate of America’s wealthiest man, Benjamin Rask. In the second, Rask tells his own story. In the third and fourth, the testimonials of those who knew him reveal more of the truth. Diaz is interested in the way wealthy men burnish their image and how that process involves the diminishment of others. In summary Trust might sound overcomplicated, but in execution it’s an elegant, irresistible puzzle.
YOUNG MUNGO – DOUGLAS STUART
Stuart’s follow-up to the Booker Prize-winning Shuggie Bain is another masterful family drama set in the economic ruin of Glasgow after Margaret Thatcher’s reign. Fifteen-year-old Mungo shows the kind of vulnerability that makes people want to cradle him – or crush him.
The novel recounts his budding romance with a kind teenager named James. It also follows him on a menacing excursion outside the city with two adults. Stuart pulls the strings of suspense excruciatingly tight while still sensitively exploring the confused mind of a gentle adolescent trying to make sense of his life.
CONSTRUCTING A NVERVOUS SYSTEM – MARGO JEFFERSON
Jefferson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning cultural critic, invites us to rethink our relationship with art while finding resonance in moments she shares from her own life. Shoving aside old ideas about memoir as mere biography, her approach is an almost poetic presentation of fragments of her experiences as they ricocheted off artists whose work and lives she has found meaningful. She exudes charisma on the page with a voice that commands attention, drawing us into her thoughts about particular artists she admired in youth and then saw anew with the perspective of age.
G-MAN: J EDGAR HOOVER AND THE MAKING OF THE AMERICAN CENTURY – BEVERLY GAGE
Gage tapped into previously classified sources to write this nuanced portrait of the man who wielded power within the Justice Department for an astonishing 48 years. Often caricatured as a loose cannon, Hoover was actually the consummate cautious bureaucrat, Gage says, the keeper of the files – an uptight, puritanical librarian. He was profoundly complicated: a racist who spent much of his career trying to break the Ku Klux Klan; someone who hounded American communists and used his power to face down Joe McCarthy. This book is an enduring, formidable accomplishment, a monument to the power of biography.
THE PETROLEUM PAPERS: INSIDE THE FAR-RIGHT CONSPIRACY TO COVER UP CLIMATE CHANCE – GEOFF DEMBICKI
Dembicki, a Canadian investigative reporter, has written a dark tale of money corrupting politics and paralysing the public will. He shows how oil companies were studying climate science as a top priority during the 1970s. Executives were briefed and advised to act quickly to solve the problem. Instead, the fossil fuel industry acted to deceive the public, fighting a long war against the science of global warming – a science, ironically, that it had been instrumental in creating.
For those who want a no-frills account of how we ended up on the climate precipice, this is an essential read.
STAY TRUE – HUA HSU
In this thoughtful, affecting book, Hsu questions the possibility of meaning in tragedy. In college, Hsu became unlikely friends with Ken, whose mainstream tastes and interests couldn’t have been more different from his. Ken was murdered early one morning in 1998 by robbers who were strangers. Hsu describes the aftermath with devastating emotional precision. But while tragic, Stay True also succeeds as a wry chronicle of the insecurities of youth and of college life and culture during the 1990s. With warmth and humour, Hsu has produced an extraordinary, devotional act of friendship.
WEAPONS OF MASS DELUSION: WHEN THE REPUBLICAN PARTY LOST ITS MIND – ROBERT DRAPER
In this vital, indispensable book, journalist Draper elbows his way into the right-wing crowd in the halls of Congress. He starts with the insurrection at the Capitol, offering a startling level of new, first-person detail about that extensively covered day. In his rigorous reporting, Draper is drawn to individuals who speak – and tweet – opinions far outside of alignment with reality. He treats his subjects with empathy, even when he’s disputing matters of fact. But the abundance of deceptions he compiles adds heft to the ultimate point: that Americans’ combative relationship with the truth has made us vulnerable to any outrageous lie.