Critic Bethanne Patrick recommends 10 promising titles, fiction and nonfiction, to consider for your December reading list.
As your budget recovers from Black Friday and Cyber Monday, consider once again that books make the best gifts: There’s something for everyone; there’s no fretting over sizes; wrapping and shipping are a breeze. Best of all, there’s always something new out. Even relatively sleepy December abounds with variety, from two very different dystopian novels — one a freshly crowned Booker Prize winner — to science, history, politics, travel and the collected essays of a beloved writer gone too soon. Happy holidays, and happy reading.
Welcome Home, Stranger
By Kate Christensen
Harper: 229 pages, $29
When Rachel returns to Maine after her mother’s death, she doesn’t just encounter a cast of characters who span the social strata; she also meets the version of herself that can help negotiate the next phase of her life. Along the way, she’ll lose even more — her job, a cherished relationship — but regain a sense of family, belonging and perspective. An acclaimed novelist and memoirist, Christensen is expert at depicting spiraling protagonists, but she is always in narrative control.
By Samantha Harvey
Atlantic Monthly: 193 pages, $24
In her last novel, “The Western Wind,” Harvey told a murder mystery, set in the Middle Ages, backward. Now she moves to outer space with a story of four astronauts and two cosmonauts making a day’s trip around the Earth (or 16 sunsets’ worth). The result is just as powerful and elegiac — except that it’s for our own era. Each of the men and women on the space station has worries both personal and existential, along with their own perspective on the planet spinning below.
The End of the World Is a Cul de Sac
By Louise Kennedy
Riverhead: 304 pages, $28
Despite the early-aughts economic boom of the “Irish Tiger,” and despite political and religious change, women in Ireland still have trouble casting off centuries of misogyny and patriarchy. Kennedy, whose justly celebrated 2022 novel “Trespasses” followed one woman forced to choose between family and love, now showcases a wider variety of struggles, in which history is entangled with every dilemma. Stories about estrangement, disappointment and sheer miscommunication explore what it means to hit that titular dead end — and have to carry on nonetheless.
Yours for the Taking
By Gabrielle Korn
St. Martin’s: 336 pages, $29
Not all secretive billionaires are men — or at least not in Korn’s debut. Jacqueline Millender, founder of the Inside Project, at first seems alluring to our protagonist, Ava, who lives with her girlfriend in “what’s left of Brooklyn” in 2050. Millender’s worldwide network of climate-proof structures promise a kind of future in the wake of collapse, one free of patriarchy and other ills, but as Ava and others soon discover, they are part of a sinister plan that the project’s architect will do anything to keep hidden.
By Paul Lynch
Atlantic Monthly: 320 pages, $26
Lynch’s dystopian novel, which won the Booker Prize on Sunday, is at once so particularly Irish yet so universally familiar that it deserves the overused modifier “Kafkaesque.” Eilish Stack lives in a Dublin ruled by secret police, who sweep in one night and detain her union-official husband; her son joins the rebel forces. Meanwhile, she’s left at home with a teenage daughter and father with Alzheimer’s and dwindling choices.
The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism
By Tim Alberta
Harper: 496 pages, $35
Alberta, an award-winning journalist, a staff writer for the Atlantic, is also a practicing Christian and the son of an evangelical pastor. He combines professional rigor and personal compassion in this wide-ranging examination of what evangelism really means in today’s United States — a religious concept that has morphed into political belief and in the process gained a level of power that tends to corrupt. Alberta’s is an astonishingly clear-eyed look at a murky movement.
Airplane Mode: An Irreverent History of Travel
By Shahnaz Habib
Catapult: 288 pages, $27
These essays by an Indian writer and translator should be required reading for anyone who has trouble finding travelogues outside the canon of privileged white writers (think Paul Theroux, Sarah Gilbert, Bruce Chatwin). The author doesn’t object to using the term Third World; nor does she shy away from discussions of skin color, understanding that levels of power matter for tourists and travelers as much as for politicians and financiers.
Silent Cavalry: How Union Soldiers from Alabama Helped Sherman Burn Atlanta — and Then Got Written Out of History
By Howell Raines
Crown: 576 pages, $36
Did you know that an integrated cavalry unit of Union-supporting Southerners helped Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman lay siege to Atlanta in the closing months of the Civil War? The regiment, made up of “mountain unionists” and formerly enslaved Black men, were hailed for their courage, yet their history was suppressed by people (including a state archivist) who didn’t want anyone to know that some Southerners opposed the Confederacy. Raines, a former executive editor of the New York Times, has done great work debunking another Lost Cause myth to bring these soldiers into the light.
Songs on Endless Repeat: Essays and Outtakes
By Anthony Veasna So
Ecco: 240 pages, $29
Anthony Veasna So died in December 2020 at age 28, too soon to fulfill his extraordinary potential or even to see his debut short-story collection, “Afterparties,” earn praise across the literary world. He was also a talented essayist, and his nonfiction is being collected as well. Pieces originally published in the New Yorker, n+1 and elsewhere seamlessly integrate his Cambodian American family, California upbringing, queer identity and personal relationships both romantic and platonic. So’s work defines a life of longing — and will leave you longing for more.
The Waltz of Reason: The Entanglement of Mathematics and Philosophy
By Karl Sigmund
Basic Books: 448 pages, $33
Tread carefully if you’re allergic to math, as the scholarly Sigmund doesn’t stint on the formulas, demonstrating that one plus one equals two is a more complex equation than you might understand. Yet lovers of philosophy and human behavior who are at the very least math-curious will be captivated by the author’s investigations of game theory, the social contract, the classic prisoner’s dilemma and, of course, the looming question of whether computers are truly intelligent, even potentially conscious.