Let’s say there’s a father in your life. Maybe you’re married to him. Maybe you’re his child. Maybe he’s just a buddy of yours. Last year, on Father’s Day, you bought him a tie in his favorite colors. The year before that, it was a calfskin wallet, which you’ve noticed he still hasn’t used. This year, with Father’s Day just a week and a half away, you’re leaning toward buying him a bookstore gift card because he likes to read, but you don’t know what book to get him.
Resist this impulse. For a lot of busy dads, a store card is less a gift than a chore, one that can be skipped. (Don’t believe me? Take a peek in his sock drawer, upper right hand corner, just behind that unused calfskin wallet: Yep, a small stack of unused gift cards.) More importantly, a gift is a way of telling someone that you value them, that you know them a little better than they realized, and few things do this better than a well-chosen book.
Below are book suggestions for 11 different kinds of dads who read. These suggestions assume that the fathers you’re shopping for have read most of the more popular books about the topics that interest them and may be looking for something new. Most of the books on this list are in paperback and should cost less than $20.
1. Big Game Book Hunter Dad
A certain kind of man views his bookshelves the way a leopard sees bleached bones on the veldt—as evidence of past kills, the larger the better. Hence, the popularity of the Doorstop Novel, the 500-, 600-, 700-page social novel or family saga. Every year publishers lavish splashy advances on the latest epic that might appeal to that most elusive of literary beasts, the middle-aged male fiction reader. A few years ago, that book was Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding. Last year it was Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves, which, not so coincidentally, has just been released in paperback in time for Father’s Day.
Both are solid novels, and brag-worthy kills for the Big Game Book Hunter in your life, but for sheer ambition neither can touch Phillipp Meyer’s cowboys-and-Indians epic, The Son. Meyer’s nearly 600-page Western contains three overlapping narratives, but the most gripping is that of family patriarch Eli McCullough, who is kidnapped by a Comanche raiding party in 1849 and raised as the chief’s adopted son before returning to white society. A particularly fearless reader-hunter will want to pair Meyer’s tale of the settling of Texas with Canadian writer Joseph Boyden’s equally audacious novel The Orenda, a fictional retelling of the bloody clash between French missionaries and local Huron and Iroquois tribes in 17th-century Canada.
2. Literary Fiction Dad
He’s read Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. He’s braved the languors of the Las Vegas chapters of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. He’s read Jonathan Franzen, Michael Chabon, Jennifer Egan, and Jeffrey Eugenides. Why not branch out, see a little more of the world? In recent years, American readers have been treated to a bumper crop of first-rate literary fiction by immigrants from around the globe. If the Literary Fiction Dad in your life is open to reading women, he may want to try Americanah by Nigerian-American writer Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, or The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, an American of Bengali heritage. Among male writers, Nam Le, a Vietnamese-born writer raised in Australia and educated in the U.S., wrote a gripping collection of stories, The Boat, in 2008, and Chinese-American author Ha Jin, has turned out a steady stream of novels and story collections, perhaps the best of which is War Trash, set in a POW camp during the Korean War.
But the Big Kahuna of American diaspora literature is Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which has a legitimate claim to the title of best American novel of the new millennium. By turns hilarious, tender, and harrowing, Oscar Wao follows an overweight, Dominican-born sci-fi nerd in his search for love and the secret to survival in his cursed homeland. Diaz’s plot and characters are riveting, but the real pleasure of Oscar Wao is Diaz’s narrative voice, which combines slangy, high-velocity prose with penetrating insight into the political black hole that is the Dominican Republic.
3. Big Bad Noir Daddy
Here’s a pro tip: To find a smart, well-written crime novel by a guy for guys, search the roster of writers for David Simon’s cable series The Wire. George Pelecanos, who was a writer on all five seasons, has somehow also found time to crank out 20 crime novels in roughly as many years, most of them set in and around Washington D.C., and focusing, with bracing honesty, on the sorry state of race relations in our nation’s capital. The Cut, from 2011, is as good a place to start as any. Another of Simon’s writers, Dennis Lehane, based out of Boston, runs hot and cold, but his 1998 novel Gone, Baby, Gone is a nicely twisted bit of noir, and 2001’s Mystic River would qualify as a work of literary fiction if a child didn’t die in the early pages.
But the top thoroughbred in Simon’s stable, and arguably the finest American crime novelist at work today, is Richard Price. His books are structured as police procedurals and feature his famously razor-sharp dialogue, but Price is at heart an old-school social novelist in the mold of Charles Dickens and Émile Zola. His novels grab you by the ears and drag you into the hidden corners of modern America populated by immigrants, the poor, and those who prey on them. His latest, The Whites, written under the pen name Harry Brandt, offers a riveting look inside the minds of New York City police detectives who live their professional lives chest-deep in depravity and injustice. Price’s 1992 drug-dealer novel Clockers, later made into a Spike Lee joint, is another must-read.
4. Politically Incorrect Dad
He’s inappropriate. He can’t control his appetites. He sweats a lot. His sense of humor is, well, different. But underneath all the layers of gruff and odd, beats a well-meaning heart. Meet Milo Burke, unlikely hero of Sam Lipsyte’s 2010 novel The Ask.
Milo is a husband, a father of a young child, and a seething mass of misdirected grievance. “I’m not just any old hater,” he says early on. “I’m a hater’s hater.” In the opening pages, Milo loses his job wrangling donations for a third-tier university in New York City after he insults the talent-free daughter of one of the college’s wealthy donors, but is offered a chance at redemption if he can reel in a sizable gift from a rich college friend, who has, mysteriously, asked to work with Milo. Lipsyte specializes in the humor of white-male resentment, and when he misses he misses big, but The Ask is a tour de force of verbal pyrotechnics and shibboleth-skewering social insight.
5. World War II Buff Dad
Big fat books about honorable wars are to grown men with mortgages what Call of Duty video games are to 10-year-old boys: mind-travel devices granting sedentary, suburban beings vicarious access to a world of danger and heroism. As with video game franchises, the options for quality reads about the Second World War are quite nearly boundless. For a broad overview, there’s Max Hastings’s Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945, but World War II was so huge and so complicated that it can be wise to take it in pieces, using, say, Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers as a window onto the American war effort in Europe orLaura Hillenbrand’sUnbroken to gain a finer-grained understanding of the Pacific Theater.
A middle-ground approach that can satisfy the Big Game Hunter impulse while also offering a sharply observed portrait of the conflict that helped create the modern American military is Rick Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy, which focuses on the American war effort in Europe. The three-volume set, An Army at Dawn, The Day of Battle, and Guns at Last Light, span a collective 2,349 pages, making it a prime trophy for anyone’s shelves. But Atkinson shifts so effortlessly from the panoramic to the close-up, giving the reader a day-by-day, sometimes minute-by-minute, account of what it felt and sounded and smelled like to be an American soldier at battle with the Axis powers, that trophy-hunting readers will be compelled to eat what they kill.
6. Civil War Buff Dad
Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy is practically a novella compared to Shelby Foote’s three-volume The Civil War: A Narrative, which clocks in at a mammoth 2,968 pages. Everything in Civil War historiography is big. James McPherson’s single-volume history, Battle Cry of Freedom, consumes 952 pages. Ken Burns’s TV documentary The Civil War spans more than 10 hours of airtime. And that’s not even touching on the vast shelf of biographies of Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee or the rich scholarship on individual battles or lesser-known generals and leaders.
This is Big Game Hunter territory, and if the dad in your life is new to nerding out on Civil War minutiae, you may want to shell out for the first volume of Foote’s epic, Fort Sumter to Perryville, a comparatively slim 856 pages. But if you are looking for new perspectives on the era, check out T.J. Stiles’s Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War. As its subtitle suggests, Stiles’s biography frames the legendary bank robber not as a Robin Hood of the Wild West, but as a disaffected Confederate Army veteran bent on reviving the Lost Cause by any means necessary. Stiles writes well and is a scrupulous scholar, but he is also a gifted storyteller who reaches beyond cardboard outlaw stereotypes to bring the James boys to life on the page.
7. Business Maven Dad
If the dad in your life goes in for business books, you can’t go wrong with Michael Lewis. Like his fellow bestseller-list regular Malcolm Gladwell, Lewis is perhaps too faithful to the journalist’s dictum to never let the facts get in the way of a good story, but he is a superb shoe-leather reporter and over the years Lewis’s eye for the big-picture truth has been unerring. His best book is probably The Big Short, about the 2008 financial collapse, but his 2014 book, Flash Boys, about computer-directed high-frequency trading, is also excellent.
But anyone who reads business books will already have a shelf full of Michael Lewis. If you want a different take on American business, look for Beth Macy’s Factory Man, about John Bassett III, heir to a once-powerful North Carolina furniture-making company, who took on cheap imports from China and won. One longs for Lewis’s tale-spinning prowess in some of Macy’s background chapters that drag under the weight of her too-earnest reporting, but Bassett, the would-be furniture baron, is a colorful figure, and Macy’s core message, that a smart, driven factory owner willing to take some risks can beat offshore manufacturers at their own game, more than makes up for the book’s flabbier passages.
8. True Crime Dad
Perhaps no section of the bookstore is more heavily stocked with schlock than the one devoted to true crime. For every classic like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood or Dave Cullen’s meticulously reported Columbine, there are dozens of sensationalist gore-fests written by the likes of Ann Rule and R.J. Parker. Good true-crime writing should do more than pile up the bodies. It should use crime to shed light on an underside of a society, teaching us the unspoken rules of the world we live in by telling the stories of those who break those rules in the most aberrant ways.
Few recent books do this as well, or as hauntingly, as Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls, about the murders of five prostitutes buried in shallow graves along Long Island’s South Shore. Lost Girls is an unsettling read because the murders remain unsolved, but Kolker provides a fascinating look into the shadowy world of Internet escorts. Unlike prostitutes of an earlier era, modern sex workers can connect with their johns online, eliminating the need for pimps or brothels. This means the women can keep more of their earnings and are freed from what is often an abusive and controlling relationship, but as Lost Girls illustrates, this freedom costs them the physical protection of a pimp, making them especially vulnerable to violence.
9. Sports Nut Dad
>As with true crime, the sports book genre breeds schlock. How many books on how to straighten out a golf shot can one man read? A good sports book, like a good true-crime book, should go beyond the details of its subject to make a larger point about society or about athletic excellence. Buzz Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights, about the subculture of high school football in Texas, does this. So does Andre Agassi’s surprisingly engrossing autobiography Open, about the trials of a man who succeeds at a sport he has come to hate.
To one degree or another, all sports books try to answer the question of what makes a great athlete tick, but in The Sports Gene, David Epstein takes this question literally, using science to explore mysteries like why Kenyans win so many marathons and what it takes to hit a major-league fastball. The book’s message that there is no one path to athletic success may trouble the sleep of those Little League dads dreaming of turning their eight-year-olds into future Hall of Famers, but Epstein’s intelligent use of sports science, and his willingness to embrace ambiguity, makes for absorbing reading.
10. Vinyl Collector Dad
The return of vinyl records has emboldened a generation of Boomer and Gen X dads to haul their high school LPs out of the garage and give them pride of place in the living room. But they need something to read while they’re listening to all those dinged-up copies of Kind of Blue and Exile on Main St. Launched in 2003 and now published by Bloomsbury, 33 1/3 is a series of more than 100 short books about classic albums, ranging from Tom Waits’s Swordfishtrombones (No. 53, by David Smay) to AC/DC’s Highway to Hell (No. 73, by Joe Bonomo). Each book in the series is by a different author, mostly music critics and musicians, with the occasional novelist like Jonathan Lethem (No. 86, the Talking Heads’ Fear of Music) thrown into the mix.
Some books in the series put the focus on the music while others take a more biographical or social-historical approach. One of the titles, No. 28 by John Niven, on The Band’s Music from Big Pink, is written in the form of a novella, telling the true story of how Bob Dylan’s one-time backup band created its iconic 1968 album from the perspective of a fictional observer. Overall, the series skews heavily toward Music White People Like, though acts like Public Enemy (No. 71, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, by Christopher Weingarten) and J Dilla (No. 93, Donuts, by Jordan Ferguson) do occasionally appear.
11. Aspiring Writer Dad
If you want to take the how-to route with your Aspiring Writer Dad, your best bet is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. While Lamott’s reflexive (and, to these ears, highly calculated) hippy-dippy whimsy can grate, she is a gifted teacher and her chapter on writing shitty first drafts is justifiably legendary.
But giving an aspiring writer Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is like buying a pocket dictionary for a college-bound high school graduate: It’s a cliché, and he’s probably got six copies at home, anyway. If the aspiring writer in your life is, like most aspiring writers, already up to his ears in well-intended advice, switch gears and give him Boris Kachka’s Hothouse, a gossipy insider’s history of how the sausage gets made in New York publishing. In this dishy corporate biography of the publishing firm Farrar, Straus & Giroux, which has published everyone from T.S. Eliot and Roberto Bolaño to 1950s diet guru Gayelord Hauser, Kachka serves up enough sex and intrigue to keep the lay reader turning pages, but the book is fundamentally the story of how one headstrong publisher and a handful of talented editors struggled to maintain an independent publishing vision in a rapidly consolidating industry.
Image Credit: The Athenaeum.
Fifty years from now, Americans may look upon the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., the same way we look back today on Martin Luther King’s march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., 50 years ago — as a hinge of history, one of those rare flashpoints that shapes a society.
But like the Selma march, the shooting of Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson last August is just one piece of a longer, more complicated story. Violence against black people is hardly new.
With each new report of a black man dying at the hands of a white cop — such as the shooting of Walter Scott in South Carolina last week — we pore over the videotape, argue on social media, and rally around hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter. But too often we lose sight of the broader context of the racism that is so deeply rooted in our history and culture.
Below are nine books, some new, some decades old, that shed light on the history and evolution of racism in America. As the case with any list of this kind, this one is incomplete. We invite readers to add their suggestions for further reading on this topic in the comments section.
Ghettoside, by Jill Leovy
This fascinating examination of the epidemic of violence in Los Angeles’s poor black neighborhoods grew out of “The Homicide Report,” an interactive database on the Los Angeles Times website that chronicles all murders in L.A. County. Ghettoside follows a single murder investigation headed by a heroically dogged white LAPD detective, but Leovy’s deeper point is far less uplifting. She likens the relentless gun violence in Los Angeles’s black neighborhoods to a “plague,” one caused in large part by the indifference of the outside world. “This book is about a very simple idea,” she writes; “where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic.”
Leovy’s argument that poor black neighborhoods need more policing rather than less may be a tough sell to those outraged by “stop-and-frisk” tactics and strict enforcement of petty crimes, but this crisply reported book bears out her points about the consequences of the failure to vigorously investigate and prosecute violent crimes. “Like the schoolyard bully,” Leovy writes, “our criminal justice system harasses people on small pretexts, but is exposed as a coward before murder. It hauls masses of black men through its machinery, but fails to protect them from bodily injury and death. It is at once oppressive and inadequate.”
The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander
Most accounts of the Walter Scott shooting in South Carolina report that Scott had a long history of arrests, most involving his failure to pay child support for his four children. But as Alexander documents in The New Jim Crow, in many major American cities four out of five black men have criminal records — a statistic Alexander believes reflects America’s warped law enforcement priorities during the long-running War on Drugs. A law professor who once headed the ACLU’s Racial Justice Project in Northern California, Alexander argues that an unholy cocktail of strict drug laws, selective enforcement, harsh sentencing rules, and discrimination against ex-cons has created a de facto “racial caste system” that has, in effect, replaced the de jure caste system that ruled in the Jim Crow South.
Anyone wanting to understand why a police officer like Michael Slager would be so eager to pull over a black man like Walter Scott driving a Mercedes Benz with a broken tail light would do well to read The New Jim Crow.
The Whites, by Richard Price
Price has chosen to half-camouflage himself behind the pseudonym Harry Brandt, but no one should be fooled: The Whites is Richard Price at his ballsy, gritty best. The novel, his ninth, is at once a spellbinding exercise in straight-up genre storytelling, and a haunting meditation on the shadowy line between those who uphold society’s laws and those who break them.
The “whites” of the title are not white people, but murderers who escape justice and live free while the cops who know their guilt continue to pursue them like so many badge-wielding Captain Ahabs. The novel turns, brilliantly, on the moral quandary of how men sworn to seek justice should view those who have slipped through the cracks of the criminal justice system. At the same time, Price, a world-class reporter who happens to write fiction, puts readers inside the minds of New York City cops who serve as the sharp end of the spear of society’s often invisible war against the poor, the luckless, and the depraved.
Citizen: An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine
This book-length poem aims to document not just the instances of intentional and unintentional racism described in Rankine’s poetry, but the ongoing tide of violence against black men. In its first edition, which went to press in the summer of 2014, Citizen includes the following note: “November 23, 2012/In Memory of Jordan Russell Davis,” reflecting the date that the 17-year-old black man was murdered by a white man after an altercation over loud rap music at a gas station in Florida. A second printing, which went to press in September 2014, was updated to memorialize the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. A third printing, completed in November, not only adds to the list the names of two more slain black men, Eric Garner and John Crawford, but includes a long column of the words “In Memory of,” each left blank, presumably to be filled in with the names of black men whose violent deaths have not yet occurred.
On the facing page, Rankine has tacked on a brief haiku-like epigraph:
because white men can’t
police their imagination
black men are dying
Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, by Anna Deveare Smith
For her one-woman plays, Twilight and Fires in the Mirror, Smith interviewed hundreds of people involved in two of the most combustible race riots of the 1990s — the Rodney King riots of 1992 in L.A. and Brooklyn’s Crown Heights riots in 1991. Then, with a few simple props, Smith impersonated the people she had met, using verbatim excerpts from her interviews to create a theatrical documentary seeking to make moral sense of these explosions of racial violence.
On the page, Smith distills her characters’ words into a kind of loose poetry, which has literary merit in its own right, but so much of the richness of the plays owes to her performance. I saw her perform Twilight in San Francisco in the mid-1990s, while the O.J. Simpson trial was still on TV every day, and the experience has stayed with me. A light-complected black woman with an infinitely malleable body and voice, Smith could plausibly embody everyone from Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates to a gang member, creating a searing indictment of racism in America while also bearing witness to the human capacity to transcend race and social class. She created a film version of the play in 2000, under the direction of Marc Levin.
“Sentimental Journeys” from After Henry, by Joan Didion
This essay about New York’s infamous Central Park Jogger case, which first appeared in The New York Review of Books in 1991, is a tart, tough-minded examination of the power of the public imagination to convict young black men of crimes they did not commit. In April 1989, a young white investment banker was raped and left for dead after she was waylaid while jogging at night across Central Park. Five teenagers, four of them black, and one Hispanic, “confessed” to the crime, though, tellingly, none admitted raping the woman, claiming instead that they helped hold the woman down while others raped her.
In her essay, Didion documents how the tale of a rabid gang of black teenagers — early tabloid headlines labeled them a “Wolf Pack” — setting upon an educated white woman fit the public narrative of a city out of control, overwhelming any discussion of the holes in the prosecution’s case. Sharp reporter that she is, Didion also shows how some in New York’s black community sought to demean the victim, claiming she had a black boyfriend and had gone into the park looking for sex. In 2002, another man confessed to the crime, and after DNA evidence confirmed his claims, the original convictions were vacated, though all five defendants had already served out their sentences.
The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, by Annette Gordon-Reed
No story better illustrates the deep strangeness of the relationship between powerful white Americans and the black people under their control more fully than that of President Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings, the mother of six of his children. Gordon-Reed nearly single-handedly put an end to two centuries of scholarship that had held that Jefferson could not have been the father of Hemings’s children — a line of argument that collapsed in 1998 under the weight of decisive DNA proof that Jefferson had indeed fathered Hemings’s children, four of whom lived to adulthood.
But the Jefferson-Hemings saga is so very much weirder than the mere fact that a sitting American president had a black concubine. Sally Hemings was herself the child of a slave, Betty Hemings, and a white planter, John Wayles, who was also the father of Martha Wayles, the first and only wife of Thomas Jefferson. Before she died, Martha made Jefferson promise never to marry again, and he honored this pledge by carrying on a decades-long affair with her half-sister, who by all accounts, looked remarkably like Martha Jefferson.
The Mind of the South, by W.J. Cash
Anyone looking for a single, book-length examination of the conservative, white racial imagination need go no further than this 1941 classic. Published months before Cash’s death under murky circumstances in Mexico, The Mind of the South offers a scorching view of the damage done to the mind of a people whose power, which they view as theirs by birthright, is threatened by the march of progress.
Among the shocks of reading The Mind of the South is how readily Cash’s portrait of the political belief systems of the post-bellum American South fits with those of the more extreme elements of today’s Republican Party. It’s all there: the evangelical religiosity, the veneration of violence and militarism, the preference of morality over law, the distrust of science and rational self-criticism. One sees in politicians like President George W. Bush and Texas Governor Rick Perry features of the figure Cash calls “the hell of a fellow” — a friendly guy who is not outwardly brainy, but deeply moral, religious, and fervently patriotic.
American Babylon, by Robert O. Self
Self, a history professor at Brown, is an academic, and writes like one, so this book is not for the Sunday browser, but I know of no more penetrating a study of how institutional racism actually works than this history of black Oakland, Calif., and the rise of the Black Panther Party. The sleepy port city of Oakland, once known in Gertrude Stein’s famous formulation as the place where “there is no there there,” became a magnet for poor black Southerners drawn to steady work in the city’s shipyards during the Second World War. But after the war, the shipyard jobs evaporated, leaving black Oakland residents stranded in poverty while the surrounding municipalities attracted factories employing middle-class white workers living out the California dream.
Self’s achievement is to explain how pervasive racism can exist when no one appears to be actively discriminating against anyone. Northern Californians did not need to slap “Whites Only” signs over swimming pools and water fountains, or ride out at night wearing white sheets. They needed only to build factories far from the homes of black workers in Oakland, and then design a public transportation system that made it difficult for those black workers to reach the distant white suburbs. They needed only to pass a property tax law — known as Proposition 13 — which made it easier for white homeowners to pay off their mortgages but slashed government aid to impoverished black renters in the inner city.
Considering his first novel was a chronicle of gang life in the Bronx, it makes sense that the new book by Richard Price is a tale of the NYPD. In the latest issue of The New Yorker, Joyce Carol Oates reads the novel, remarking that it “retains a residue of Price’s absorption with his rough urban settings and with the phenomenon of a particular sort of masculinity.” Related: our own Garth Risk Hallberg on Price and his crime fiction contemporaries.