This year’s top news stories sometimes made it tough to remain optimistic, given the mass shootings, hurricanes and wildfires, controversial legislation and the threat of nuclear war. In times like these, when the daily headlines can feel so oppressively grim, we often turn to longer works to put our historical moment in context — to show us that there’s a better way forward in organizing healthcare, dealing with crime, addressing climate change and stabilizing government. That’s where this list comes in. Spanning both fiction and non-, essays and memoirs, these are the books that gave us hope in an otherwise tumultuous year.
“Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women” By Susan Burton and Cari Lynn
After her 5-year-old son was accidentally killed by a cop, Susan Burton descended into a crack addiction that landed her in prison — over and over again. As detailed in this heartfelt memoir, Burton eventually got the help she needed and now runs A New Way of Life, a scrappy nonprofit that offers sober housing and treatment for formerly incarcerated women at five safe houses in South Los Angeles.
“The Death and Life of the Great Lakes” By Dan Egan
The Great Lakes used to be a cesspool of industrial chemicals and municipal sewage, until Congress intervened in 1972. A massive cleanup followed, but that ongoing recovery is being threatened today by invasive species inadvertently dumped into the lakes. Dan Egan, a reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, lays out a natural history of how foreign fish and filter-feeders arrived (then spread through the nation’s waterways) and how government regulators can adapt.
“Unwarranted: Policing Without Permission” By Barry Friedman
Ever since the unrest in Ferguson in 2014, policing’s become a hot-button topic. Rather than blaming cops, Barry Friedman, a law professor at New York University, tries to move the conversation forward, arguing that judges and ordinary citizens alike need to do more to restore the Fourth Amendment’s protections against “unreasonable search and seizure” in a time of heightened surveillance and militarization among law enforcement.
“Janesville: An American Story” By Amy Goldstein
On a frozen morning in December 2008, the nation’s largest automaker, General Motors, closed down its oldest assembly plant, laying off thousands of workers and hollowing out Janesville, Wisc., the hometown of Rep. Paul Ryan. Amy Goldstein, a reporter at the Washington Post, picks up the story there, poignantly describing the efforts to shore up a vanishing middle class.
“Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions” By Valeria Luiselli
Why did you come to the United States? What countries did you pass through? Did anything happen on your trip that scared or hurt you? Depending on how they answer those questions, unaccompanied children fleeing violence in Central America are either granted a pass or sent back. Writer Valeria Luiselli, a volunteer who administered the questionnaire, details her first-hand experiences with the immigration system in this 120-page essay.
One in three low-income adults avoids smiling. That’s a consequence of treating dentistry as optional, allowing tooth decay and gum disease that afflict the poor to be written off as failures of personal responsibility. Mary Otto, a veteran health journalist, makes a stirring plea to close an unacknowledged gap in our medical system.
“Ghost of the Innocent Man: A True Story of Trial and Redemption” By Benjamin Rachlin
In 1988, after a neighbor came forward to claim a $1,000 reward, Willie Grimes was convicted of breaking into a 69-year-old widow’s house and raping her twice. Two decades into Grimes’s life sentence, DNA evidence exonerated him. In this meticulously researched book, Benjamin Rachlin explores North Carolina’s Innocence Inquiry Commission, the first body of its kind to hear wrongful conviction pleas and restore integrity to a system that’s locked up thousands of innocent people.
“The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution: Why Economic Inequality Threatens Our Republic” By Ganesh Sitaraman
The Founding Fathers curiously left any reference to wealth out of the Constitution, believing that America was a country where citizens were born equal, rather than becoming so, as Alexis de Tocqueville later put it. In a treatise packed with historical anecdotes and political theory, Ganesh Sitaraman, a Vanderbilt law professor, makes the case that America’s “middle-class constitution” is straining under an economic divide and offers corrective reforms.
“A Kind of Freedom” By Margaret Wilkerson Sexton
The lone work of fiction on our list, Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s epic debut novel follows three generations of a black New Orleans family, from World War II to the War on Drugs of the 1980s to Hurricane Katrina at the dawn of a new century. Even as they struggle to get by, in a country where racial progress has always been fitful, the family members display remarkable endurance.
“On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century” By Timothy Snyder
Another book about how to save our democracy, this slim volume dispels the notion that a republic can persevere without an engaged citizenry. “History does not repeat, but it does instruct,” Timothy Snyder, a Yale professor, begins, as he shares how totalitarianism gobbled up Eastern Europe a century ago and what can be done to prevent its creeping approach today.