As COVID-19 spreads and legions isolate at home to try to flatten the curve, stories are one of the salves that we can turn to. They can help brighten our days. They can help provide escape and enlightenment. And they can help us connect to others in surprising ways. From stories that serve to contextualize something about this present moment to tales that you just might not have gotten to before now, our resident bibliophiles offer up 26 recommendations for your social-distancing days. Welcome to the Ringer Book Club.
The Battle for the Falklands, by Max Hastings and Simon Jenkins
If there’s such a thing as a farcical war, it took place in the Falklands in 1982. Of the two belligerent nations, one suffered under a right-wing government desperate to claw back popular legitimacy by waging a war of empire. The other was the Peronist dictatorship of Argentina. This was a farcical war for worthless land, and authors Simon Jenkins and Sir Max Hastings (who had been embedded with British forces on the ground during the conflict) treat it as such.
No one is spared appropriate snark, from the Thatcher government to an Argentine general staff who immediately got way in over their heads to U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig, who burned countless gallons of jet fuel on a risible (and futile) quest to win a Nobel Prize. The Battle for the Falklands is an antidote to the reflexive and bountiful military hero worship that’s emboldened the Western democracies of the past 20 years to spend so many lives and resources so recklessly for so little gain. It’s just nice to see someone say, in plain journalistic terms, “This war was ridiculous. I know because I was there.” —Michael Baumann
Be Like the Fox, by Erica Benner
Niccolò Machiavelli dedicated The Prince, the book for which he became infamous, to Lorenzo de’ Medici. The slim volume first appeared in 1513, the same year that Lorenzo became the leader of Florence at the age of 20. Lorenzo was wealthy beyond imagination, ambitious, and had the authoritarian instincts of a young man who had never been told “no.” He was descended from the powerful Medici family (his grandfather, also named Lorenzo, was nicknamed “The Magnificent”), proprietors of the Medici Bank, the largest in Europe. For Lorenzo, the laws and various councils that governed the Florentine Republic were annoyances. Even the deeply held Catholic traditions of Florence were things to be ignored. Early in his reign, the newly anointed leader invited the Duke of Milan and his wife to the city. It was the season of Lent, when Catholics give up meat and other luxuries in preparation for Easter. The Duke’s courtiers had already irritated the populace by marching around the city like a conquering army, forcing old men and ladies to make way. Irritation turned to shock and alarm when “was seen a thing never before seen in our city … the Duke’s court, without respect to Church or God, all fed on meat.” For Lorenzo de’ Medici, truly nothing was sacred.
This was the man whom Machiavelli—by 1513 a lifelong public servant and diplomat— sought to advise. Princes, Machiavelli wrote, should govern by fear rather than love. Since the prince’s allies and adversaries use violence and lies to rule their territories, princes should become experts in violence and duplicity. He who lies best, in fact, often rules most effectively. Cardinal Reginald Pole, an Englishman whose family was persecuted under the regime of Henry VIII, would later write of the treatise, “I had scarcely begun to read the book when I recognized the finger of Satan.” Many would come to feel the same way. Today, the term “Machiavellian” refers to a person who is scheming, unscrupulous, and amoral.
But, as Erica Benner argues persuasively in Be Like the Fox, everything we know about Niccolò Machiavelli is probably wrong. Instead of a ruthless flatterer of the powerful, Machiavelli was a lover of freedom and republicanism who used his keen intellect and cutting sense of irony to expose the hypocrisies that give rise to tyrants. Disgusted by Florence’s steady slouch toward authoritarianism, Machiavelli was “a eulogist of democracy,” who aimed “to defend the rule of law against corrupt popes and tyrants.”
In The Prince, Machiavelli writes that the pursuit of power and status are ends that justify immoral means. Yet his works, as Benner shows, are full of ideas and scenes that contradict this. “When he describes how Cesare Borgia scapegoated his own governor, having him sliced in two pieces and laid out in the piazza at Cesena with a bloody knife close by,” Benner writes, “Machiavelli gives readers an unforgettable image of how far princes will go to hold on to power.”
Benner unearths observations that contradict the popular image of Machiavelli and ring like a bell across the centuries. In Discourses on Livy, written in 1517, Machiavelli warns of the dangers that the newly liberated populace faces: “For that people is nothing but a brute animal that … has always been nourished in prison and servitude. Left free in a field to its fate, it becomes prey to the first one who seeks to rechain it.”
When designing the laws of a republic, Machiavelli argues that it’s wisest “to presuppose that all men are bad, and that they always use the malignity of their spirit whenever they have the opportunity.”
On princes: “Not fortresses but the will of men keeps princes in their states … anyone who, trusting in fortresses, thinks little of being hated by the people.”
On winning at any cost: “Victories are never secure without some respect, especially for justice.”
Benner, amplifying Machiavelli’s contemporaneous defenders, sees the writer as a man whose purpose was to “warn people who live in free republics about the risks they face if they entrust their welfare to one man.” The Prince, then, is more an exposé of dirty tricks than a user’s manual; a set of maxims designed to hasten a tyrant’s downfall by playing to their worst instincts.
In 1512, the year before The Prince began circulating among the Florentine elite, Niccolò Machiavelli was fired from the civil service and imprisoned on suspicion of being part of a plot to overthrow the Medici government. Jailers bound his arms behind him and put him to the strappado, a device of torture, where his arms were tied to a crane-like machine that violently jerked him into the air. Hanging by his arms, he was asked six times about the identities of his co-conspirators. He said he knew two of them, but knew nothing of the plot. He was held for 22 days.
Machiavelli emerged from this ordeal with a newfound caution. Years after the publication of The Prince, he wrote to a friend “For a long time I have not said what I believed, nor do I ever believe what I say. And if sometimes I do happen to tell the truth, I hide it among so many lies that it is hard to find.” —Jason Concepcion
Burn the Ice, by Kevin Alexander
These are tough times for restaurants, as they are for a lot of industries. Year-over-year restaurant activity is down drastically. But even before a global pandemic slowed food service to a near halt, the domestic business model was in trouble. In Burn the Ice, James Beard Award–winner Kevin Alexander chronicles the American culinary revolution of the early aughts, as well as the various factors and forces that led to the food world overextending and hobbling itself over the last decade. (Full disclosure: Kevin is a former colleague and one of my best friends, though I’d recommend his book even if we hadn’t shared countless meals and laughs together.) In more than 75 interviews with celebrity chefs, local restaurateurs, bartenders, and diners, Alexander chronicles America’s ever-changing and challenging restaurant business. It’s a fantastic behind-the-scenes look and, given what’s going on now, remarkably prescient. —John Gonzalez
A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole
The story of how A Confederacy of Dunces came to be published, as told by Walker Percy in the novel’s foreword, is a compelling tale in its own right. Percy recalls how, as a professor at Loyola University New Orleans in 1976, a woman persistently solicited him to read her son’s novel. Her son, John Kennedy Toole, had died by suicide seven years prior, leaving behind a completed manuscript. Percy was skeptical, but agreed. Upon reading it, he was introduced to Ignatius J. Reilly, whom he describes as a “slob extraordinary, a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas rolled into one ...”
My former boss recommended A Confederacy of Dunces to me, describing it as a canonical work in Southern literature. Like Percy, I was skeptical at first, having associated that phrase with a Faulknerian tradition—“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”—that never appealed to my Yankee sensibility. I was wrong. The novel, set in 1960s New Orleans, is the funniest I’ve ever read, and Ignatius, wearing his green hunting cap and pushing his hot dog cart around the city, is the most absurd and boorish yet delightful character I’ve encountered in literature. He holds his convictions—offensive and repugnant as they are—with a passionate intensity. He lacks any moral compass and is driven only by his despotic impulses and delusions of grandeur. But there’s an impotence to his menace—he’s far too clumsy, too lazy, too stupid to cause any real harm. It’s safe to laugh at Ignatius, secure in the knowledge that he’ll never pose a threat.
That said, it’s been several years since I’ve read the book. When I read it again, perhaps I’ll be more wary of Ignatius Reilly, pushing his hot dog cart around the city. —Conor Nevins
Consider the Eel, by Richard Schweid
I came upon this book indirectly, while paging through a book of Jim Harrison’s food essays. Harrison raved about a book Schweid had written about hot sauce and Cajun culture. My interest piqued, I headed to the Los Angeles Public Library website and looked through his bibliography. The eel book stood out. Who knows anything about eels? No one, other than Richard Schweid, certain biologists, eelers in North Carolina and Spain, and European and Asian chefs and eaters, some of whom we meet in this book. The first thing a reader learns while considering the eel is that every American and European freshwater eel begins as a tiny larva hatched deep in the Sargasso Sea, a mysterious behemoth of territory in the middle of the Atlantic. Currents take the eelings their various ways, eventually flowing into a river on one continent or the other. They spend the next 20 or so years slithering around river bottoms before one day the evolutionary instinct leads them on a journey hundreds of miles back to their birthplace, where they create the next generation of eels and then die. Eels have beady eyes and gaping mouths and are slithery, slimy things that can wiggle around on land to circumvent obstacles. They’d fit nicely into many Americans’ nightmares.
They’re also fascinating, willful creatures who sustained the Pilgrims and to this day are prized in dining rooms on other continents. In this time of fearing creepy organisms that might make their way into our lives via unknown avenues, it’s worth remembering that not all of those creepy things are worth our fear. We should be responsible in limiting our contact with outsiders right now, but let’s not shut out the wider world for good. Schweid reports that eel cooked in a bit of olive oil and served with good bread is an excellent way to consume the fish in Spain. Right now that sounds like a great way to spend an afternoon. —Craig Gaines
Disappearing Earth, by Julia Phillips
In Disappearing Earth, the setting is a major character. The book takes place throughout the remote Kamchatka Peninsula in far eastern Russia, a place so isolated that it’s accessible only by sea or a 10-hour plane trip from Moscow, creating a story that taps into themes of isolation and loneliness that feel quite apt right now. The book begins with the kidnapping of two young sisters, and each of the following 12 chapters is told through the perspective of a different woman on the peninsula who has been either tangentially or directly affected by the event. Disappearing Earth is less a classic mystery and more a grappling with how a tragic moment can cause ripple effects throughout a community, and many of the stories told throughout the book focus less on the kidnapping and more on the challenges that come with living in a place that’s so disconnected from the larger world. Though each story is separate, the book ends on a hopeful note of community and commonality that also feels right for this time. —Kaya McMullen
Everything Matters!, by Ron Currie Jr.
Everything Matters! is the book I recommend to friends who are going through something, which makes it an ideal quick read for this indeterminately long something we’re going through. It tells the story of Junior, who is born with the knowledge that the world is doomed to end when he is 36. (The apocalyptic through line seems heavy right now, but it’s a lighter endeavor than Station Eleven or the like.) “Everything ends, and everything matters ... seek the meaning in sorrow, and don’t ever turn away from it, not once, from here until the end. Because it is all the same, it is all unfathomable …” reads one paragraph in the last section of the book, a 40-page chunk written so swiftly and carefully it could be its own novella. It’s a weird, winding novel with comets, young love, climate change, father-son relationships, and the Chicago Cubs, all in a distinct Kurt Vonnegut style. It’s easy to forget that beneath the immersive, sci-fi-like plot and quick pacing the author is trying to dig into the very meaning of our existence. It sounds weighty, but it’s done so quirkily—and at times unabashedly—that you don’t quite realize how impactful the book is until you reach the end. —Jacqueline Kantor
Heaven Is a Playground, by Rick Telander
If you’re feeling cooped up and missing sports this month, Rick Telander’s bittersweet journey to the heart of playground basketball will help. The author, a former Northwestern football player who later became a longtime Sports Illustrated writer and Chicago Sun-Times columnist, spent the summer of 1974 on the asphalt courts of Flatbush, Brooklyn.
The result of his experience isn’t just a white guy’s fish-out-of-water memoir. It’s an empathetic portrayal of the world of hoops-obsessed city teenagers. The book is full of iconic characters, including street agent/ticket scalper Rodney Parker, young future pro Albert King (Bernard’s brother), and local legend James “Fly” Williams.
Fly looks all around, questioning the growing crowd, then laughs in a loud, sibilant hiss which vibrates from his mouth like fizz escaping a soda bottle. He has no upper teeth except four or five on the left side, and he refuses to wear the dentures that were fitted for him at Austin Peay. “I got gums of steel, that’s why,” he once said. “I can crack bones on these here gums.”
Telander coats nothing he sees with sugar, but there’s beauty in his writing. More than anything else, Heaven Is a Playground is a love letter to street ball, potholes and all. —Alan Siegel
A Keeper, by Graham Norton
Did you know that the arch host of The Graham Norton Show—my favorite late-night chat show—has written two novels (with a third on the way)? I didn’t either, until a recent trip to Dublin. I stumbled across Graham’s latest, A Keeper, in my hotel’s reading room and was fully taken in by it. Though quite funny in places, it’s not what you might expect from a witty talk-show host: It’s a story about family, about the things we don’t know about each other, and about what it can mean to find out. I was so taken with it, in fact, that I bought a copy at the airport on the way home so that I could finish the story. Read it with your best Irish accent, a steaming cup of tea, and your snack of choice. (I’d maybe skip the apples, though.) —Jack McCluskey
La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust: Volume 1), by Philip Pullman
There’s a moment in La Belle Sauvage, the first installment of Philip Pullman’s in-progress The Book of Dust trilogy, when young Malcolm Polstead asks his traveling companion Alice, “What’s the matter? Why are you angry?” To reveal the impetus behind Malcolm’s question, or Alice’s mood, or the circumstances that brought them together and tested their resolve, would reveal the quiet brilliance of the plot that kicks off Pullman’s return to the masterful His Dark Materials universe (since continued in Volume 2: The Secret Commonwealth). But Alice’s response, and the way Malcolm processes it, will resonate absent those details: “‘Everything. What d’you think?’ He shrugged. There was nothing he could do about everything.”
Malcolm isn’t giving in to any nihilistic tendencies, though. Quite the opposite. His instinct is to identify the problem and then to act, to help, to move, always, toward the prospect of some brighter future. Pullman’s stories ask us to consider the nature of consciousness and connection and goodness, and the role that free will plays in shaping our journeys, relationships, and worlds. They’re testaments to the power of finding the courage to ask a question and maintaining an open-enough mind to really consider the answer, even if doing so casts you down the current of a river that just materialized, or through a window into a world that, seconds prior, you didn’t know was there. —Mallory Rubin
The Last Cowboys, by John Branch
The appeal of reading fiction is often to immerse yourself in a world that does not exist but comes alive through writing. But because I tend to gravitate toward nonfiction, my favorite books end up being those that marry narrative, fiction-like storytelling with actual events. The Last Cowboys, which focuses on the Wrights—a ranching and rodeo family living and working in Utah as we speak—does that and more. The book is chronologically linear, but also circular in that it spans multiple years of the family doing the same thing, evolving but not quite fully transforming as the modern world closes in on them. The level of depth in the reporting makes you feel like the Wrights have adopted you into their expansive clan and welcomed you into their daily lives. The precision of the colorful language, as the book vividly depicts anything from a branding day at the ranch to the sunsets at Zion National Park, makes you feel like you’ve traveled to a world so far removed from city life, and even reality, that it doesn’t exist. But that’s arguably the best part of the reading experience: It does. —Paolo Uggetti
Last Days of Summer, by Steve Kluger
You know how sometimes books, movies, songs, etc., catch you at a specific point in your life and affect you in ways you thought unimaginable? That happened with Last Days of Summer for me. As a half-Jewish, half-Asian kid who grew up loving baseball, you can imagine how having my dad read me a book about a Jewish kid living during World War II, his Japanese best friend, and his pen pal-ship with a professional baseball player resonated with me back then and still does to this day. Even if you don’t relate to those aspects of the story in any way, though, the book is still an incredible read. Kluger blends humor and drama with ease and does so through an equally daunting and impressive epistolary style. The entire book is told through postcards, newspaper clippings, interview transcripts, and other documents, making it an incredibly unique read that keeps you on your toes with style as well as plot. —Jackson Safon
Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back): A Memoir of Recording and Discording With Wilco, Etc., by Jeff Tweedy
I’m not really a rock-memoir guy, but neither is Jeff Tweedy, which is what makes his memoir so special. From the start, he sounds self-conscious about the idea of doing a memoir: “Nobody has the disposable income to splurge on a memoir by a moderately successful indie rock ‘stalwart’ if it’s not going to deliver something pretty entertaining.” But by the end, he delivers one of the best I’ve ever read.
Tweedy’s writing, like his lyrics, is winding, digressive, and profoundly philosophical. He’s funny and self-deprecating, too. (“Yes, that is how professional musicians talk,” he confides. “‘Would anyone care to do some jamming?’ ‘Why, yes, let’s jam.’”) He recognizes, though, that “My comfort level with being vulnerable is probably my superpower,” and he applies that power to his sometimes sad upbringing in southern Illinois, not to mention migraines, mood disorders, opiate addiction, problematic relationships (both romantic and musical), and mortality. “I had never really been attracted to oblivion as a key component of some dunderheaded rock ’n’ roll mythology,” he insists, but he came close to oblivion anyway.
“To exalt an artist’s suffering as being somehow unique or noble makes me cringe,” Tweedy says. Instead of dwelling on the darkness, he celebrates the light: His love for listening to music and making more with Uncle Tupelo, Wilco, and his kids; his explorations of the mysteries of songwriting; his touching affection for his family. “Oh, distance has no way of making love understandable,” Tweedy sings on “Radio Cure.” Maybe social distancing doesn’t, either. But Tweedy does. —Ben Lindbergh
A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara
If you’re like me, right now you want to be soothed. The news is overwhelming, so when seeking distractions, I want something calming, pleasant. Something benign and familiar.
But I know where this is headed. Soon, the isolation will leave me numb. Without external stimuli, I will forget how to access human emotions. When that time comes, I’m going to need some help. Books can deliver each of us to our emotional extremity of choice. Maybe you want to be thrilled or terrified.
Personally? I want to sob.
So I’ll pick up Hanya Yanagihara’s masterpiece. It’s a story about male friendship, and about love in many forms. It’s also about trauma. About how it shatters and separates. About the ways we try to tame it—both in ourselves and in the people we love. The book itself is a hefty thing, massive and sprawling. The sentences are spare and gorgeous. The characters are annoyingly wealthy, but still complex and generous and fully drawn. The world of their friendship is wholly absorbing. The story will leave you destroyed on one page, hopeful on the next. When the numbness sets in, it will remind you how to feel. —Jordan Ritter Conn
Mort, by Terry Pratchett
Terry Pratchett’s voice has always been a warm blanket for me. His mix of humor, ingenious fantasy, and clever narrative tricks have delighted me since I discovered him in college. Mort might be the most charming and easiest introduction to his Discworld universe. The simple premise of “death gets an intern” only scratches the surface of my love for this book. With a swift and elegant hand, Pratchett tells a story about mortality, young love, politics, and adventure, all in this adorable and hilarious romp. Read it and be delighted! —Steve Ahlman
Norwood, by Charles Portis
It’s a novel about poor white Southerners in the 1960s, and there are two or three incidental moments when characters use racial language that reflects this. You should know that going in. It’s also, on a laughs-per-page basis, maybe the funniest novel I’ve ever read? Top five for sure. Norwood is a U.S. Marine and aspiring country singer who travels from Ralph, Texas, to New York City to try to collect some money ($70) a fellow Marine owes him. That’s just about the entire plot. The marvel lies in the range of American grotesquerie his journey takes in, and in the mercilessly big-hearted humor with which Portis observes his characters’ many weirdnesses. There’s a scene when a bread-truck driver explains the plot of the Road Runner cartoons; remembering it made me laugh so hard I had to step away from this paragraph. (“Why the Road Runner comes along on some skates or has him some new invention like a rocket or a big wrecker’s ball and just busts that coyote a good one.”) Road novels are a good place to turn when you need a distraction from confinement. This is one of the best. —Brian Phillips
Paris Stories, by Mavis Gallant
Paris Stories is my favorite collection of short stories, and an appropriate one for isolation. Being truly alone is the through line for most of Gallant’s characters, as she gravitates toward figures whose roots have been snipped away, be they familial roots, romantic ties, the loss of a home, or the loss of a country once called home. She writes about love and connection unconventionally, choosing to explore the pain of foundations being broken rather than built. It all sounds very lonely, but Gallant writes people so well that you still feel close to them. Her stories are an incredibly intimate experience, with bits and pieces and traits and quirks expressed so realistically that I develop a rapport with her characters after just a page. My personal favorites from Paris Stories are The Moslem Wife, In Transit, In Plain Sight, and The Ice Wagon Going Down The Street. —Haley O’Shaughnessy
Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx, by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
Adrian Nicole LeBlanc was in her 20s when she first began reporting on a young and enterprising drug dealer from the Bronx named Boy George. And she was 39 years old by the time her book Random Family—the empathetic yet unsentimental tale of the real lives of Boy George and so many others in his orbit—was published. In that decade-plus, LeBlanc immersed herself in the existences of her subjects to the point where she was, at times, broke and living with them in the Bronx and in upstate New York, eating their food and puzzling with them over labyrinthine social assistance programs and playing peekaboo with their babies.
The result is a knockout, a book that will never leave you once you’ve read it. Random Family is at once sprawling and claustrophobic: LeBlanc delves into the scattered lives of multiple generations of teenagers and their mothers and their boyfriends and their kids, but she also packs precise detail into every page, right down to describing the direction in which the household rats are scurrying.
Like Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers and Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women, LeBlanc’s Random Family reads with warm novelistic omniscience yet is built on a backbone of cold, hard, truths. One of those truths, LeBlanc later explained to The Atlantic, is how so many people are fully at the mercy of a flawed and incoherent system. “Something happens in the culture of social policy where people get all lofty,” she said, “and their brains get really big, and they stop asking, ‘How is she going to get to summer camp?’” Random Family doesn’t try to get lofty, which is why it soars. —Katie Baker
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari
For fellow nonfiction readers, Sapiens is as pressing as ever. Looking at our existence through the lens of thousands of years is both cathartic and educational, beautiful and terrifying. Yuval Noah Harari looks at the progression of all facets of human life; from the economy to language, from religion to love. It all coalesces in a complete understanding of how all human beings have grown and digressed from the dawn of time. Plus, it’s extremely long and dense and will keep you engaged for several weeks! —Noah Malale
Severance, by Ling Ma
By now, the word “pandemic” is too familiar. It’s used in nearly every news story about the virus spreading across the globe, but articulating the current phenomenon defies our usual vocabulary. And that’s why Severance by Ling Ma is a necessary read for anyone under quarantine or sheltering in place. Hopefully the 2018 novel didn’t perfectly anticipate the coronavirus, though. The novel is about a young woman who keeps reporting to her mid-level job in New York for an educational publishing company with facilities in China, despite a global flu that comes with a fever that is a precursor to death. In non-pandemic times, the book is an eerie interpretation of the mundanities of 21st-century life defined by the relationships mediated by text messages, the ambiguities of dating, and the global retailers found in every mall. Right now, it’s a vital prism for understanding the isolation that comes with staying home and social distancing. The magnitude of the COVID-19 crisis is difficult to process, but at any time, Ling Ma’s beautiful novel helps make sense of it all. —Juliet Litman
Soccer in Sun and Shadow, by Eduardo Galeano
I tried. I swear I did. Faced with an indefinite living room lockdown, and a finite collection of video games, I vowed I’d finally read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. I am a 20-something white boy who counts The End of the Tour among his favorite films. Of course that would be how I decided to spend my social-distancing time. Friends, my quest lasted about 12 pages, at which point I grew frustrated, put it away, and picked up the book next to it on the shelf: the late Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano’s Soccer in Sun and Shadow.
Translated from his native Spanish, Galeano’s book—comprised of dozens of one-to-two page vignettes—begins with an author’s confession. “Like all Uruguayan children, I wanted to be a soccer player. I played quite well, in fact I was terrific, but only at night when I was asleep. During the day, I was the worst wooden leg ever to step foot on the little soccer fields of my country,” the confession reads. “Years have gone by, and I’ve finally learned to accept myself for who I am: a beggar for good soccer. … And when good soccer happens, I give thanks for the miracle and I don’t give a damn which team or country performs it.”
Galeano, who died in 2015, spends the next 200-odd pages waxing poetic not just about the history of the game, but the sport itself. Entries titled “The Goal,” “The Ball,” and “The Stadium” tell the story of soccer’s building blocks, while essays like “Pelé,” “Cruyff,” and “Platini” expand on the players who brought the game to life. Soccer in Sun and Shadow is unlike any sports book I’ve read. And it should help fill the competition void. —Shaker Samman
Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel
I’m the kind of person who likes to steer into the skid when it comes to anxiety, exorcising the negative emotions in a makeshift form of immersion therapy. In a pandemic, that means revisiting Station Eleven, the 2014 novel depicting the societal collapse following the “Georgia Flu,” a rapid-onset disease with a 99 percent fatality rate. Dark stuff!
Still, Station Eleven proves strangely uplifting, because it uses the end of the world as a pretense to celebrate the beauty of the world we have. Many main characters perform Shakespeare with a roving troupe whose motto, borrowed from Star Trek, is “survival is insufficient,” and the title is taken from a graphic novel written before the plague and miraculously preserved after it. The book is a celebration of art as a means of transcending our own experiences and connections with others. It’s also a reminder of just how delicate our web of virtual, international connections really is—not so we can be afraid, but so we can treasure what we’re fortunate enough to take for granted. Our worst nightmares can be more calming than we think. —Alison Herman
The Three-Body Problem trilogy, by Cixin Liu
Not since Harry Potter has a series so impacted the way I think about the real world or the possibilities of fiction. I’ve reflected on passages and morals from Cixin Liu’s trilogy nearly every day since I read it last year—and the world he develops is particularly relevant now. Essentially, humanity learns that a seemingly unstoppable threat is approaching from outer space and has to work both individually and collectively to combat the unprecedented danger.
To even divulge how far the story spans in space and time would be to give away key plot elements; suffice it to say the breadth is astonishing, yet all still intimately connected by the same core concepts. The trilogy weaves together considerations of belief and discovery, life and legacy, the clash between the self and society at large. And while the “sci” part of the “sci-fi” designation might overwhelm at various points, those moments are rare and don’t intrude upon the ultimately mesmerizing effect of the story’s turning points. I was most enamored of the second and third books, The Dark Forest and Death’s End, respectively—though others I’ve talked to liked the first, also titled The Three-Body Problem, the best. So great is the trilogy that any answer is right, and any moment from the books is guaranteed to provoke long-lasting thoughts about humanity’s place in the universe. —Zach Kram
What I’d Say to the Martians: And Other Veiled Threats, by Jack Handey
I’m not a comedy expert; I can’t say with authority if Jack Handey is the greatest joke writer ever. He’s my favorite, though—and has been since my parents gave me a collection of Deep Thoughts, the iconic series Handey created for Saturday Night Live, for Christmas in the early ’90s. There’s no fat in his work; Handey’s genius lies in finding the most direct route to the silliest joke possible. (Example: “The crows seemed to be calling his name, thought Caw.”)
What I’d Say to the Martians—a collection of Handey’s essays for The New Yorker and other outlets, plus some republished SNL material—showcases his gift for concentrating absurdity into its purest form. His work stands the test of time largely because it lacks a peg; why rely on topical humor when you can reliably spin “little-boy stuff” like monsters, cowboys, cavemen, and skeletons into comedy gold? Handey’s voice, typically delivered by a character oblivious to how massive a jerk he is, never wavers; the bits still land whether it’s your first read or your 500th. They’re endlessly enjoyable to revisit, like comedy comfort food, and the perfect thing for those who need something easy to laugh at right now. —Dan Devine
White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, by Carol Anderson
“The truth,” professor Carol Anderson poses in her tome White Rage, “is white rage has undermined democracy, warped the Constitution, weakened the nation’s ability to compete economically, squandered billions of dollars on baseless incarceration, rendered an entire region sick, poor, and woefully undereducated, and left cities nothing less than decimated.”
Anderson’s argument is profound, yet simple enough to understand: White supremacy, racially driven policies, and authoritarian regimes are furthering the nation’s demise and keeping us from truly democratizing the nation. And that didn’t manifest from thin air. It stems from the foundation of the great American experiment, there since the very beginning. Havoc came upon our communities because black people were kidnapped from foreign shores and enslaved; sought work and were robustly denied; pursued education and were segregated and given less; aimed to raise the American families of lore and were ghettoized. The idea fits together “like pieces in a mosaic,” Anderson writes. The portrait of the nation is painted with racial divide, and what James Madison described as “our original sin” is the through line to comprehending our present transgressions.
I couldn’t recommend a more essential read. —Tyler Tynes
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami
Though his short stories are all pretty good, Murakami’s proven to be a divisive novelist in recent years. His idiosyncrasies, especially in his female characterizations, have spoiled many appetites for his longer writing. But I swear by Murakami’s eighth novel, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, about a man named Toru Okada whose cat has gone missing. Naturally, Toru Okada’s search for his cat illuminates the state of his marriage, the transmutability of evil, and the Soviet invasion of Manchuria to expel Japan’s Kwantung Army at the end of World War II.
In The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Murakami tells a strange and roundabout story anchored by a helpless, housebound protagonist who must bend time and space to recover his goddamn cat and thus restore normalcy in his daily life. Murakami casts the quotidian against the grotesque. Toru Okada has weird conversations with weird people. If you come away from Murakami’s bleary historical digressions wanting to learn more about the Kwantung Army, I recommend Japan’s Total Empire by Louise Young. —Justin Charity