By Julia Broder
1. “On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous” by Ocean Vuong
Ocean Vuong’s semi-autobiographical novel is not so much a departure from the author’s previous book of poems; it is a burst of artistic evolution. Written as a letter from a first-generation, queer son to his working-class, Vietnamese mother, it is neither a public expiation or condemnation of past behaviors . The novel is a beautiful mediation on how our lives, and their stories, are necessary parts of our survival.
2. “The Topeka School” by Ben Lerner
Ben Lerner’s third novel is psychologically profound and socially coherent. Published in 2019, Lerner uses the advantage of hindsight to capture a teenaged Adam Gordon coming to terms with the collision of culture and politics in the mid-1990s; mirrored with his analyst parents’, Johnathan and Jane Gordon, assimilation to the Midwest post-1960s New York City. The author’s love of language and characteristic stream of consciousness propels the narrators’ thoughts and dialogues to rushing tempos and glossolalic crescendo. At just under 300 pages the book is both obsessively readable and astonishing in the magnitude of its accomplishments.
3. “Normal People” by Sally Rooney
Sally Rooney’s dialogue is an able conductor in this emotionally charged, compulsive novel. Deceptively perfunctory, the conversations between the two protagonists, Marianne and Connell, swing from prosaic to erudite. Therein lies the beauty of “Normal People.” That idealism of youth that nothing is irrelevant and even the monosyllabic contain multitudes. Rooney shrewdly evaluates the global socioeconomic crises of the new Millenia in this modern love story.
4. “Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland” by Patrick Radden Keefe
Part True Crime, part Oral History, Keefe’s investigation into the disappearance of Joan McConville, and the political unrest of Northern Ireland, spotlights the everyday realities and lasting effects of the Troubles. Keefe’s language is utterly relatable and full of intimate detail pulling from a wide range of sources. ‘Say Nothing’ faces the complexities and contradictions of the decades long religious and nationalistic conflict through the people who lived it.
5. “First: Sandra Day O’Connor” by Evan Thomas
With extraordinary access, Evan Thomas presents an engrossing, generous memoir of Sandra Day O’Connor’s life. Moving through her childhood on the O’Connor’s family ranch, Lazy-B, to her time in Arizona legislature with the skill of a seasoned biographer, Thomas impresses on us how every moment is a milestone. Thomas elegantly reveals how the Justice’s personal struggles and philosophies informed her jurisprudence. Those who have no interest in this country’s politics or judiciary system will find a new appreciation for Justice O’Connor’s status as a historic, American icon.