New Year, New Recommendations: Sharing Stories that Inspired Me

As we start a new year, here are some books, a documentary and a play from which we can all draw inspiration. Each, in its own way, calls us to take action in the face of injustice. And they are reminders that we must never let oppression of any kind go unchecked. In the spirit of the new year, let’s add one more resolution to our list: to continue speaking out. 

Now that I’m back to traveling a lot again, I’ve been reading more than I usually do, especially when I’m airborne. I shared my must-read list last summer and was thrilled to hear from many of you about your own favorite reads. So, as we kick off a new year, I thought I would reach out again. This time around, I’m sharing a few books as well as a documentary and a play, all of which I found gripping. I hope you do too! 

 A Passage North by Anuk Arudpragasam is a truly compelling read. It is set in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in the years after the civil war. The novel follows the protagonist Krishnan as he travels to the funeral of his grandmother’s caregiver. Along the way, Krishnan reflects on his past, his present, his loves and losses and the effects of the war. I found the writing to be both poetic and philosophical. The New York Times notes that the author “… poses essential, existential questions about how we should live in a world with so much suffering. What are our obligations to others, especially those… who have been marginalized and oppressed? The novel offers one answer: We owe them our full attention.” This is a meditative book. It is both fully personal and fully political, and invites us to find deep meaning in our personal lives, even when the societies in which we live are so broken. This is my “sleeper book of the year.”  It might never reach a huge audience, but I’m going to continue to advocate for it to be noticed.   

Consider From Strength to Strength, a literary roadmap on aging well. The full title (From Strength to Strength: Finding Happiness, Success, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life) is a bit of a mouthful. But this book by Arthur C. Brooks is an eye-opener. Brooks, who is the “happiness columnist” for The Atlantic, argues that the greater our professional successes early in life, the more we notice our decline. Yikes! Rather than give in to an overwhelming sense of loss, however, he suggests seeking out opportunities for happiness, like learning a new skill and finding out what truly gives us meaning. Brooks says that by facing aging unflinchingly and making conscious efforts to discover new strengths, we can age happily. I’m counting on it!  

Now, while E.B. White may be best known for the children’s classics Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, it is his reflections on American democracy that I wish to share. On Democracy is a collection of letters, essays, and poems that, though written decades ago, feel eerily prescient. White wrote, for example, that democracy “can be destroyed by a single zealous man who holds aloft a freedom sign while quietly undermining all of freedom’s cherished institutions.” Sound familiar? Nonetheless, he also offers the reader hope. He wrote, “As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman… the scene is not desolate.” A book about democracy that made me feel somewhat hopeful? Thank you, E.B. White.  

Real Life by Brandon Taylor is a thoroughly engrossing novel about a young, Black, queer man from the South navigating complicated friendships while at graduate school in the Midwest. It takes place over the course of a single weekend, and as the storyline progresses, we begin to experience the protagonist’s feeling of “otherness” in social interactions tinged with racism and homophobia. In one scene, Wallace, who is the only Black person among his group of friends, attends a dinner party. When someone there makes a racist comment, Wallace’s friends say nothing. The narrator then notes that “Silence is their way of getting by… because if they are silent long enough, then this moment of minor discomfort will pass for them… as if it never happened. Only Wallace will remember it.… Wallace is the only one for whom this is a humiliation.” Taylor is so good at revealing truths about the human condition in this, his debut novel, that Real Life stayed with me long after I turned the last page.    

By now you’ve no doubt heard about the Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein documentary The U.S. and the Holocaust, which explores the United States’ response to Nazi atrocities. It is especially jarring to watch this at a time when antisemitism is on the rise yet again. The documentary is unapologetically graphic and includes powerful stories told by survivors themselves. It also exposes the horror of our country’s eugenics movement and deeply ingrained racism and xenophobia. As one critic notes, it is “a cautionary tale about what happens when the United States fails to live up to its humanitarian ideals.” I encourage you to watch this exceptional and emotional documentary.   

Leopoldstadt is the latest play by Tom Stoppard. It is also his most autobiographical. Stoppard was in his 50s when he learned that close members of his Czech family perished in Nazi death camps. Stoppard has said Leopoldstadt is his way of exploring his Jewish heritage. It starts in Vienna in 1899 with the Merz family, a cosmopolitan clan who are a model of assimilation. They throw lavish parties and rub elbows with the likes of Johannes Brahms and Gustav Klimt. However, at the sounds of shattering glass in the distance, the audience knows that the family’s picture-perfect life is about to end. The Kristallnacht scene is gut-wrenching. And as the play progresses (we follow the Merzes through 1955), we see how the trauma of war never ends.  Stoppard told The Guardian that writing Leopoldstadt was unexpectedly moving “… In the end I was sobbing…. Honestly, nothing I have written has had that effect on me.”   

I know these recommendations are heavy. Still, I found inspiration in each piece. In their own way, each calls us to take action in the face of injustice. Whether it is antisemitism, homophobia, or authoritarianism, we cannot let oppression of any kind go unchecked. And so, though the new year is already underway, perhaps we can add one more resolution to our list: to continue speaking out. That is one promise I look forward to keeping all year long. I hope you will join me.