|Yes, it’s that time of year: winter. Snow, ice, and slush envelop the world outside as the wind whips and people bundle up inside their homes. No doubt, winter is not many people’s favorite season. Nonetheless, it does present a wonderful opportunity to catch up on some new stories or to fall in love with reading for the first time.
So, as you bundle up with a cozy blanket or a warm drink, consider diving into these stories instead of viewing their television and cinematic counterparts. After all, books have a powerful means of transporting readers into their respective worlds.
And for those of you who continue to search for an enthralling read, this one’s for you. Some of titles are worthy of review, whereas others speak for themselves.
Worthy of Review
1. Educated (2018) by Tara Westover
Simply incredible. Every page had me wanting more. If I could have pulled an all-nighter and taken off a day of work to finish it, I would have.
From being self-educated and working in her survivalist father’s junk yard to receiving a PhD from Cambridge, Westover’s gripping memoir chronicles her journeys from one world to another—a world where education and trust in the government and mainstream society form the dividing line between her family and the rest of the world.
Along the way, Educated tells of the repeated violence she experiences at the hand of her abusive brother, Shawn, and of the continued near-death experiences she has as a result of her father’s negligence and mental illness. What’s more, Educated tells of Westover’s repeated efforts form and accept her new identity—grapplings that come with ambivalence, a heavy heart, and questions of her own sanity. What world, what reality will I choose, she wonders? My father’s: one set in Buck’s Peak and SE Idaho, that of perversion, constraint, midwifery, folk tinctures, and the “End of Days?” Or one of learning and security—a world in which I can safely and more happily be me? Her choice, however, would ultimately come at great cost, and her family—her life—have ceased to remain the same.
2. Born to Run (2009) by Christopher McDougall
A perfect marriage of my favorites—Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential and John Krakauer’s Into Thin Air—this work beautifully blends hilarity, wonder, and adventure. Billed as a genius work of journalism and memoir, it delivers on all accounts. This work employs beautiful prose and a vivid, stranger-than-fiction narrative. In it, the author and a rag-tag group group of runners become acquainted with the Tarahumara, Mexico’s running people, and their harrowing homeland, while completing in an endurance race for the ages. A gripping page-turner, Born to Run reads like an instant classic, a book to be enjoyed by runners and non-runners alike. 5 stars out of 5!
3. There are No Children Here (1992) by Alex Kotlowitz
Incredibly poignant and revelatory. Through brilliant ethnography, Kotlowitz charts the lives of two children, Pharoah and Lafayette, and their family as they try to live and survive two years in their long-tenured West Chicago housing project. This work is essential to understanding poverty and the struggle to survive in America’s segregated inner cities. A truly compelling work.
4. The Mastermind (2019) by Evan Ratliff
Vivid, tantalizing, and brilliantly researched, The Mastermind offers its readers a hard-to-believe, yet true thrill ride of the ages. (Looking for a cinematic analog? I’d suggest James Bond.)
In this work, journalist Evan Ratliff chronicles the rise and fall of one Paul Calder Le Roux—a master computer programmer, drug kingpin, and head of an international crime syndicate. From meth deals with North Korea and arms running with Iran, to illegal prescription drugs operations in the U.S. and phony fishing operations in Somalia, Le Roux’s empire is so convoluted that, truly, only he, Ratliff, and the dedicated few that bring him down understand its full scope.
Ultimately, The Mastermind, like many great works of non-fiction, becomes a story of the story. It explores how Le Roux, a shadow and cyber vigilante, goes unnoticed to all—governments included—except for a handful of determined DEA agents and a persistent reporter, for half a decade.
The Mastermind is a story of 21st century crime. A must read.
5. The Furious Hours (2019) by Casey Cep
Part true crime, part biography, part tell-all, Cep’s “Furious Hours” is like nothing I’ve ever read. In fewer than 300 pages, Cep parses the life of one of America’s most mysterious literary figures: Harper Lee. First, though, she chronicles the series of murders, legal proceedings, and retributive acts that originally inspired Lee to begin her unfinished work “The Reverend.”
When reduced to its backbone, this work, in its three sections, reads something like the internet search history of a chronic Wikipedia wanderer, following one arcane thread after another, yet remaining at least marginally related to the original point of intersection: in this case, Lee. At times, the story lulled, and I found myself wondering: where is she (Cep) going with this? Do not let these moments detract from the core ingenuity of this book, though. Whatever allure this work lacks as a page-turner, it makes up for as an interesting story with brilliantly spun prose. Just consider the following sentences:
“Lee’s book was never going to be a whodunit, since the murderer was never a mystery. But while the howhedunit was as puzzling as ever, the whyhedunit had taken a turn for the obvious” (230).
“One of the subjects in that documentary was an English professor at the University of Alabama, a southerner who was more hot sauce than sweet tea” (264).
In all, Furious Hours feels like an avant-garde approach on storytelling. Its pages are both fascinating and revelatory. And even if Cep doesn’t land all of her literary punches—admittedly, on a remarkably tough book to craft—she lands enough of them for this book to be worth the read. For this, I’ll give it four stars out of five.
6. The Potlikker Papers (2017) by John T. Edge
A savory work that interweaves culinary and historical narratives to paint a complex picture of the American South. In it, Edge illuminates not only the South’s evolutionary relationships with food, but also its inequitable relationships with its practitioners—namely African-Americans and women. In all, Edge vividly portrays and contextualizes America’s most misunderstood region, viewing it as a product of product of its present and future, as much as continuation of its dark past. 5 stars out of 5.
No Review Necessary
1. Kitchen Confidential (2000) by Anthony Bourdain
2. In Cold Blood (1965) by Truman Capote
3. Killers of the Flower Moon (2017) by David Grann
4. Evicted (2016) by Matthew Desmond
5. Sapiens (2011) by Noah Yuval Harari
6. Into Thin Air (1999) by Jon Krakauer
7. The Things They Carried (1990) by Tim O’Brien