1. How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi (One World/Random House)
Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America won the National Book Award and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle prize, propelling him to prominence as one of the nation’s most important and lucid voices on race and equality. Now Kendi, founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University, has written a more personal book. Blending memoir, social analysis, and manifesto, it speaks out against the word “racist,” which has been rendered meaningless, freezing people into inaction. The more activist term “antiracist” – as opposed to “not racist” – is an essential addition to our national vocabulary, Kendi argues, calling on antiracists to confront racial inequality. In his last chapter he writes passionately about his diagnosis and odds-defying treatment of stage 4 colon cancer. “What if we treated racism in the way we treat cancer?” this incisive and important young scholar asks.
2. The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom (Grove)
Hurricane Katrina may have destroyed Broom’s family home in swampy New Orleans East, but The Yellow House is not just another tale of surviving one of America’s most horrific disasters. Instead, Broom, who was the “babiest” of 12 children, has conjured shards of memory, history, and anthropological investigation into this exquisitely composed epic of injustice involving money, wetlands, “dreaming and draining and emergence and fate.” From its metaphoric title, which refers to the yellow aluminum siding covering the house’s rotting wood, to heartbreaking last pages, Broom illustrates how she and her family remain emotionally tied to the ground where the house once stood, guardians of its memories.
3. The Plateau: Field Notes in a Place of Refuge in a World Adrift by Maggie Paxson (Riverhead)
The “heroic altruism” of Plateau Vivarais-Lignon in southern France is the focus of Paxson’s attention in her beautifully written book about this inspiring corner of the world. Drawing on her work as an anthropologist, Paxson embedded herself into this little cluster of villages of farmers and sheep herders and witnessed it as a refuge for asylum seekers from countries ranging from Congo and Rwanda to Chechnya. She also looks back to World War II, when thousands of Jewish refugees were sheltered by residents here, including an idealistic teacher who ran a home for displaced children until he was captured and killed by the Nazis. This is a nuanced and original perspective of a special place in the world.
4. Inland by Téa Obreht (Random House)
Obreht burst onto the scene eight years ago with The Tiger’s Wife, a contemporary Balkan folk tale that won the Orange Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Award. While her debut was set in the Balkans, Obreht, who is Serbian American, now travels in time, history, and landscape to Arizona Territory in 1893, yet retains her unique blend of realism and magic. For her frontier saga, Obreht entwines the narratives of a man wanted for murder and a frontierswoman who don’t actually meet but are both plagued by guilt and speak to the dead. Obreht’s fiction is distinguished by her light touch and an uncanny instinct for whimsy, whicht she vividly evokes in this excellent novel.
5. The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall (Simon & Schuster)
Wall’s debut novel centers on two couples over four stormy decades, and that structure, and the book’s lyricism, are reminiscent of Wallace Stegner’s magnificent classic Crossing to Safety. In The Dearly Beloved, Wall explores the alchemy of marriage and friendship, which is very much Stegner’s territory, but by telling the story of two pastors, who co-minister a Greenwich Village church, and their families, Wall gracefully adds an urban dynamic and explores religious faith and the challenges of life. Toward the end of her subtle, vibrant novel, one of the pastors, officiating at a christening, preaches not to shrink away from the trials we create for one another, because “only in the quality of your struggle with one another will you learn anything about yourself.”