Over 60 books were proposed for next year (thanks, everyone!) and after checking local libraries & weighing other considerations, here are the 13 books we’ve selected for your voting pleasure.
Please vote for your favorite 6 titles by going to our poll here.
Please vote before Nov. 13!
You can download a 4-page PDF of the book summaries here.
Cultivating joy was the subject of a five-day conversation between the Dalai Lama and Tutu, Archbishop Emeritus of South Africa, held in 2015 at the former’s residence in exile in Dharamsala, India. The two Nobel Peace Prize recipients argued for a “true joy that was not dependent on the vicissitudes of circumstance,” writes Abrams, who moderated the rare meeting between the two friends on the occasion of the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday. Highlighting the men’s playful joking and delight in each other’s company, Abrams carefully balances their strong voices during intense discussions on the many obstacles to joy (including fear, anger, and adversity) and ways to cultivate greater well-being, using as a framework the “eight pillars of joy” (perspective, humility, humor, acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, compassion, and generosity). Throughout, Abrams skillfully incorporates information about each leader’s life and work, basic Buddhist principles undergirding the Dalai Lama’s perspectives, and current scientific research.
Many people know Noah as the current host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show; however, one doesn’t need to be familiar with his comedy and commentary to enjoy this fascinating and funny memoir. Born during apartheid to a Swiss-German father and black Xhosa mother, Noah shares stories from his formative years when he often felt more like an outsider than the shining star he is today. His stories give insight into not only his personal history but the culture and history of South Africa. The subject matter is difficult, with violence, racism, and poverty all being part of his complex narrative. Despite his circumstances, Noah is able to find humor and love even in the worst of times, mostly owing to his strong-willed, independent, and devoutly Christian mother. Note: the audiobook version of this is read by the author so you get to hear all the different accents and languages he uses.
At the age of twelve, Sophie Caco is sent from her impoverished village of Croix-des-Rosets to New York, to be reunited with a mother she barely remembers. There she discovers secrets that no child should ever know, and a legacy of shame that can be healed only when she returns to Haiti–to the women who first reared her. What ensues is a passionate journey through a landscape charged with the supernatural and scarred by political violence, in a novel that bears witness to the traditions, suffering, and wisdom of an entire people.
This epic first novel involves the life of Philip Arminius Khoo-Hutton, half-British and half-Chinese, who lives on the Malaysian island of Penang prior to World War II. Feeling like an outcast in his aristocratic British family, he befriends an older Japanese diplomat, Endo-san, who teaches him the art of aikido. A sacred bond grows between student and teacher-“next to a parent, a teacher is the most important person in one’s life.” When war erupts and the Japanese invade Malaya, Philip finds his loyalty divided between his family and Endo-san. In a series of dramatic events, he discovers support from his courageous Chinese past told through his grandfather, a sustaining friendship with a fellow student of aikido name Kon, and a mysterious association with Endo-san that has been playing out for hundreds of years and can only be broken in a ritual of death. Philip’s personal drama unfolds against the backdrop of fascinating glimpses into Chinese culture, British imperialism, and the Japanese occupation that eventually claims the lives of everyone around him.
Fiction can do what straightforward historical narrative cannot: compress 300 years of African American experience into a story that is at once cohesive and compelling. The saga begins in West Africa in the 18th century, when Effia, a beautiful girl in the Asante tribe, is married off to a British officer who oversees slave trafficking at a fortress on the Gold Coast. Thus starts an African family line that bears the curse of complicity in slavery. At the same time, Effia’s half sister Esi is captured, endures the Middle Passage, and lands in America as a slave on a Southern plantation. Individual chapters take readers chronologically through pivotal historical moments and up to the present: living in Baltimore after the 1857 Dred Scott decision, Harlem during the Great Migration, a ghetto in the 1960s, and postcolonial Africa. Gyasi’s characters are vividly drawn, sympathetic yet not simplistically heroic. It’s wrenching to leave them behind, but readers will be quickly enthralled by the next generation’s story.
Set in Sierra Leone at the turn of the twenty-first century, Forna’s absorbing second novel (after Ancestor Stones, 2006) revolves around three very different men. British psychiatrist Adrian Lockheart has fled his failing marriage in England in the hopes of doing some good in Sierra Leone. Adrian becomes fascinated by two of his patients, elderly Elias Cole, a former university professor, and Agnes, a woman lost in a fugue state. The dying Cole reveals to Adrian, Scheherazade-like, how he fell in love with a radical colleague’s wife in the late 1960s, while Adrian must piece together the details of Agnes’ life. Adrian finds a friend in a haunted young surgeon, Kai, who is contemplating leaving the country. Kai questions some of Adrian’s risky decisions, such as his intention to track Agnes down once she leaves the hospital, but it is Adrian’s involvement with a local woman from Kai’s past that shocks the young doctor. Fate and tragedy intertwine in this stunning and powerful portrait of a country in the aftermath of a decade of civil war.
After moving to Turkey in 2007, American journalist Hansen, who writes for the New York Times Magazine, came to the startling realization that America seen from abroad is a wholly different entity from the America she knew. Hansen explores her own loss of innocence, as her belief in American grandiosity, exceptionalism, and humanitarianism is deeply shaken by the destruction wrought by the U.S. in the Middle East. The first chapters describe Hansen’s encounters with Turkish nationalism and her painful acquaintance with a new view of her country’s history. Subsequent chapters explore the ways American interventions have spread wars, propped up dictators, destroyed landscapes in the name of modernization, and spurred the rise of Islamic fundamentalism throughout the Middle and Near East. Lucid, reflective, probing, and poetic, Hansen’s book is also a searing critique of the ugly depths of American ignorance, made more dangerous because the declining U.S. imperial system coincides with decay at home.
Stretching back and forth through time over the course of the twentieth century, Ohanesian’s heartrending debut chronicles the painful odyssey of one family against the broader backdrop of the Armenian genocide. When his grandfather, a successful Turkish businessman, dies, Orhan travels back to his native village, where he learns that his grandfather has unexpectedly willed his textile business to him, rather than to his father. Even more distressing than this humiliating break with tradition is the fact that the family’s ancestral home has been left to an unknown woman residing in an Armenian American nursing home in Los Angeles. Commissioned to travel to the U.S. to meet this woman and get her to sign over the house to his father, Orhan is compelled to unravel the mystery of his grandfather’s past and his family’s role in a shameful period of his country’s history. Ohanesian does a remarkable job of conveying the weight and the influence of time and place without excusing or excluding the human dimension that necessarily factors into the unfolding cataclysm.
The malicious injuring of a ballerina starts a train wreck that ends in the unmasking of highly placed moles in the United States and Russia. The dancer is inveigled into service as an agent but must first attend a graphically described “Sparrow School” where recruits are taught the art of sexual seduction. Her target is an American agent whose defeat obsesses Russian leader Vladimir Putin himself. The author, a veteran CIA field agent, liberally salts his thriller with realistic tradecraft, horrific villainy, and stunning plot twists as the opponents vie for control. An intense descent into a vortex of carnal passion, career brutality, and smart tradecraft, this thriller evokes the great Cold War era of espionage and adds startling touches such as recipes and a main character with synesthesia. Readers of bloodthirsty spy and suspense will welcome this debut from a writer who supersizes his spies.
Fiftysomething novelist Alma Huebner is finding many excuses not to work on the book for which she’s already received a hefty advance. She is staying home in Vermont while her husband, Richard, a manager for a humanitarian aid association, has been assigned to work at an AIDS clinic in Alma’s native Dominican Republic. The story she is considering is that of the 1803 Balmis Expedition, which brought smallpox vaccine from Spain to its possessions in the Americas and the Pacific in the first major public health project in the New World. Alma relives the expedition through the account of Doña Isabel, the mistress of the Spanish orphanage whose wards were the carriers of the vaccine. When interwoven with Alma’s contemporary tale, it mirrors Alma’s experience as her husband’s clinic is overtaken by rebels and he is taken hostage.
Li-Yan is the youngest daughter of an Ahka family near Nannuo Mountain in China in 1949. She tries to follow Ahka law, the rules set forth by the beliefs of this ethnic minority, but at every turn she seems to find herself doing the opposite: An Ahka girl must obey and learn from her mother, but Li-Yan studies hard at a modern school. Although an Ahka girl should not speak to men, when foreigners arrive from Hong Kong in search of a renowned, aged tea called Pu’er, Li-Yan is the only one who can translate. If an Ahka girl gets pregnant, she must marry the boy, but when Li-Yan gives birth, the father is gone. And, according to Ahka law, a child born outside of marriage must be killed. But Li-Yan cannot bring herself to do it. Instead, she leaves her daughter at the doorstep of an orphanage. While Li-Yan matures into a successful tea master, the daughter, Haley, is adopted into a white American family in Los Angeles, and her existence is revealed in sporadic letters, school reports, and, later, emails. These sections capture both Haley’s desire to fully integrate into her adopted family and her curiosity and heartache about her mother and the only clue she left behind: a tea cake. With vivid and precise details about tea and life in rural China, Li-Yan’s gripping journey to find her daughter comes alive.
Raised in poverty by her unwed epileptic mother and married off early by the rich, elegant father who has always kept her at arm’s length, Mariam would seem to have little in common with well-educated and comfortably raised young Laila. Yet their lives intertwine dramatically in this affecting new novel from the author of The Kite Runner, who proves that one can write a successful follow-up after debuting with a phenomenal best seller. As Mariam settles in Kabul with her abusive cobbler husband, smart student Laila falls in love with friend Tariq. But she loses her brothers in the resistance to Soviet dominion and her parents in a bombing just as the family prepares to flee the awful violence. Simply to survive, she becomes the second wife of Mariam’s husband and is bitterly resented by the older woman until they are able to form the bond that serves as the heart of this novel. Then the Taliban arrive. Hosseini deftly sketches the history of his native land in the late 20th century while also delivering a sensitive and utterly persuasive dual portrait. His writing is simple and unadorned, but his story is heartbreaking.
The title’s spring in question, used by Palestinian farmers for longer than anyone could remember, bubbled from a low stone cliff below the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh. In 2008, Israeli settlers constructed a pool to collect the water, then stocked it with fish and added a bench, a swing, and more pools. The Palestinian villagers marched in opposition, not just to the spring’s transformation, but also to larger issues they associated with Israel: the checkpoints, travel restrictions, land appropriations, walls and fences, home demolitions, and so on. Ehrenreich obviously sides with the Palestinians, particularly the young protesters, as he shares the exacting daily life he observed during the three years he lived, off and on, in the West Bank. Ehrenreich’s journal conveys how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict truly plays out at ground level, where normal might include the sounds of screaming, being arrested and questioned for hours, or simply being shot at.