12 Books You Should Drop Everything and Read This November
By Jeff Wells
As the temperature drops, the thought of staying inside with a good book becomes more and more appealing. With that in mind, we’re happy to suggest a few titles, including a holiday-themed book of essays, a classic adventure novel, and an in-depth look at processed food.
1. BLUE HIGHWAYS, BY WILLIAM LEAST-HEAT MOON
After his marriage crumbled and he lost his job, William Least-Heat Moon embarked on an ambling 10,000-mile journey around the U.S. using only the lesser-traveled highways and byways that appeared in blue on his old Rand McNally map. His account of the journey is filled with colorful characters—including a couple building a houseboat together, and a former Brooklyn police officer turned rural monk—who altogether paint an odd and wondrous picture that is unmistakably American. A deeply personal work, Blue Highways is also about Least-Heat Moon’s search for all things good and essential. "A man who couldn’t make things go right could at least go," the author writes. Anyone feeling a sense of wanderlust can take refuge in this book.
2. HOLIDAYS ON ICE, BY DAVID SEDARIS
Amidst all the schmaltz and consumerism of the holidays, it’s refreshing to read about a disgruntled department store elf. That saga, one of several in this collection of personal essays that gleefully hacks away at the magic of the season, tells of Sedaris’ brief stint at Macy’s. It’s a classic for the author’s fans, and full of the dry, cutting humor that’s made him so popular. Also included in the collection: A pointed critique of an elementary school pageant, and a story about rescuing a prostitute on Christmas Day. Happy holidays, everybody!
3. THE LATHE OF HEAVEN, BY URSULA K. LEGUIN
George Orr is a very ordinary man with a very powerful ability: His dreams can alter reality. Rather than embrace his gift, though, Orr self-medicates to keep the dreams at bay. A sleep researcher named William Haber offers to help, but ends up harnessing George’s ability to dramatically change the world while enriching himself at the same time. LeGuin’s depiction of shifting realities, including unsettling visions of world peace and a world without racism, are thought-provoking, while the tȇte-à-tȇte between Orr and Haber keeps the plot tight, the pages turning.
4. THE TRIAL, BY FRANZ KAFKA
Two agents arrest a man on his birthday and take him to a makeshift courtroom to stand trial. Who are the agents? What are the charges? Don’t expect a resolution from Kafka, who’s more interested in the tension that comes from trying to make sense of the senseless. David Lynch fans will revel in the book’s many unsettling, dreamlike sequences, like when the protagonist, K., stumbles upon a side room where the two agents are being punished for soliciting bribes. It’s all very strange, which is entirely the point. Like any vivid dream, you just need to go with it.
5. RAGTIME, BY E.L. DOCTOROW
Doctorow reimagines 20th-century iconoclasts Harry Houdini, J.P. Morgan, and Henry Ford in this raucous and moving page-turner. The author, who passed away last year, took a lot of criticism from history buffs, who objected to Houdini having an Oedipus complex and J.P. Morgan’s twisted obsession with immortality, among other revisions. But while he may have fudged the details, Doctorow captured the spirit of a diverse, rapidly industrializing nation speeding towards the future. The lengthy set piece that ends the book, inspired by the early 19th-century work Michael Kohlhaas, feels especially timely in light of police protests and the Black Lives Matter movement.
6. SALT, SUGAR, FAT, BY MICHAEL MOSS
Don’t let the upbeat name and cheerful mascot fool you: Behind that box of breakfast cereal, a political and marketing war rages. Moss, an investigative reporter with The New York Times, examines the inner workings of the processed food industry, focusing on three key ingredients that make these wonders of technology so appealing—and in many cases, so unhealthy. Highlights in this impressively researched book include a history of Lunchables, the wildly popular kids’ meal developed as a way to sell more Oscar Mayer bologna, and a behind-the-scenes look at the world’s largest salt provider.
7. A PROBLEM FROM HELL: AMERICA AND THE AGE OF GENOCIDE, BY SAMANTHA POWER
Power, who serves as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, believes that the U.S. could have—and should have—done more to condemn and prevent genocide in countries around the world. After reading her detailed accounting of mass killings in Cambodia, Rwanda, and the former Yugoslavia, among other places, it’s hard to disagree. Military intervention isn’t always the answer, as Power points out. Even deeming these atrocities "genocide"—something the U.S. has failed to do in the past—has a significant impact. Whether you agree with her or not, A Problem From Hell is worth reading as a history lesson on how countries can slip into chaos.
8. WHITE TEETH, BY ZADIE SMITH
Insanely ambitious is one way to describe the debut novel from British author Smith, who zips through time and an array of different character perspectives in her examination of immigration and identity. The book centers on two aging war buddies living in London, Archie Jones and Samal Iqbal, whose lives have turned out to be less than they’d hoped. Smith examines these men, their wives and children, and throws in a third family, the Chalfens, for good measure. The diversity of voices is wildly entertaining but also very focused. And the way Smith draws together the seemingly disparate plot strands speaks to her immense talent.
9. THE DOOR, BY MAGDA SZABO
First published in Hungary in 1987, this novel endured a long road to its eventual translation and publication for American audiences. The wait was definitely worthwhile. The story centers on a writer, also named Magda, who recounts her relationship with her enigmatic housekeeper, Emerence, many years in the past. Separated by class, age, and education, the women develop a complicated relationship that brings them—and the reader—closer to Emerence’s secrets. Szabo, who died in 2007 and wrote this book at the height of her literary powers, crafted something subtle and haunting that plot summary alone can’t convey. It’s a book that explores hidden lives and a country’s troubling past.
10. GHOST IN THE WIRES, BY KEVIN MITNICK
These days, Mitnick lives a comfortable existence as a digital security consultant. But before that, he was one of the world’s most wanted hackers. Mitnick revisits his heyday in the '80s and early '90s, when he regularly infiltrated corporations like Novell and Sun Microsystems, and the ensuing cat-and-mouse game he played with authorities leading up to his arrest in 1995. That his adventures unfolded in the days of dial-up internet and even before make Mitnick’s story all the more suspenseful, since securing sensitive information often required social savvy and a flair for the theatrical in addition to all those deft key strokes.
11. SALVAGE THE BONES, BY JESMYN WARD
In the wake of a tragedy like Hurricane Katrina, it’s easy to reduce the lives of those affected to symbols of love, faith, endurance, and so on. Ward’s luminous novel reminds us of the full, beating hearts that existed before and during the storm. The book follows 14-year-old Esch, a budding lover of literature, and her family in the days leading up to the hurricane. Confounding stereotypes at every turn, and fully rooted in Esch’s earnest voice, Salvage the Bones unfolds as a series of vignettes that are raw and surprising, and that carry the weight of contemporary myth. When the storm finally hits, it hits with a fury that could only come from one who was there, as Ward was.
12. THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, BY JULES VERNE
After escaping a Confederate prison via makeshift hot-air balloon, five men and a dog named Top end up stranded on an island in the South Pacific (don’t think too hard about the logistics). Verne, who published his book in 1874, weaves a compelling story of survival as the characters learn to scrape by and eventually thrive in their new habitat. There’s a mystery afoot, too, as the title indicates, and a battle with bloodthirsty pirates—all the hallmarks of a great adventure yarn, in other words.