Make the last month of the year a good one with these recommendations.
No news is good news? Ha, no, there’s so much news happening. But I’ve been busy not reporting on politics for the past few months. I’m honestly not sure if that will change next year or not, so until then, I’ll just be posting occasional musings. Since it’s the time of the year when most of us are buying gifts or looking forward to some time off, I thought I’d post some recommendations for things that might make you or someone you love happy this winter.
I haven’t read as much this year as I usually do, for varying reasons, and much of what I’ve read was meh or probably not of interest to most of my readers. But I did make it through The Brothers Karamazov this summer, and that was almost a month of reading, so! I’m still not a Russian literature person, but I can’t help but wish Dostoevsky had lived to write the planned-for sequel.
However, I’m guessing that curling up with an 800-page Russian discourse on theology, criminal justice and psychology is probably not what you have in mind for your holiday reading. So below is a list of some other books I have read this year and enjoyed. This list is not a “Best of 2023,” and it is in no way unbiased criticism, as I am casually friendly online with a few of the authors below. (But that doesn’t mean that their books aren’t actually good!)
If you’re ordering online, you still have time to support your favorite local bookstore, such as my personal favorites Parnassus Books and Square Books. (Bonus: They often have signed copies!) I highly recommend ordering from Bookshop.org over Amazon, because they actually support local bookstores, such as other favorites The Book and Cover in Chattanooga or The Bookshop in Nashville. (If you have a local bookstore that doesn’t do its own online orders, they are probably on Bookshop.) But if you have the time to go to a bookstore in person, it’s worth it. Even if they don’t have the exact book you want in stock, a) they can order it, and b) they can help you find a dozen other books that are just as good.
Here’s my list:
Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation, by Maud Newton. This book is a thoughtful exploration of what family means and how to grapple with the knowledge that your ancestors did some messed up or even truly horrific things. While Newton’s ancestors may have had a much more colorful history than your own, her thoughtful assessment will have you thinking about your own family in a new light. A perfect gift for: That family member obsessed with genealogy.
Corrections in Ink, by Keri Blakinger. Blakinger is an award-winning reporter for The Marshall Project who reports on how fucked up jails and prisons are. She also knows first-hand about this topic, having served a sentence for dealing heroin. This book chronicles her addiction and recovery, yes, but it’s also a searing indictment of the prison system — and of the media’s shoddy coverage of crime. A perfect gift for: That elected official, legislative staffer or lobbyist pushing for longer prison sentences. Don’t know anyone with such regressive views? Purchase a copy to send to an inmate currently in prison at this link.
The Hero of This Book, by Elizabeth McCracken. A novel that’s maybe partially a memoir — or maybe not? — McCracken’s book is about the life and death of a woman’s mother who happens to have a lot in common with McCracken’s own mother. It’s funny and sad and just so damn good, like everything else McCracken writes. A perfect gift for: Your mother, unless she’ll think it means you want her to die already.
Scoundrel: How a Convicted Murderer Persuaded the Women Who Loved Him, the Conservative Establishment, and the Courts to Set Him Free, by Sarah Weinman. Do you love true crime? What about William F. Buckley and mid-century conservatism? Or maybe you’re just really into old publishing gossip? This book has it all. The true story of how Buckley pushed to release a convicted murderer from prison with disastrous results, Weinman briskly pulls multiple narrative threads together for an engrossing read. A perfect gift for: Your friend who loves Dateline and/or The National Review.
Shrines of Gaiety, by Kate Atkinson. Loosely based on the life of a real person, this novel explores the seedy underbelly of post-World War I London and feminism and trauma and the Bright Young Things, and, oh, there’s a murderer after young girls. I think I’ve read every single book of Atkinson’s, some more than once, and there’s no one quite like her. A perfect gift for: Your cousin who wishes she could have been a flapper.
This Time Tomorrow, by Emma Straub. What if you could go back in time to your high school years? What if you could finally get together with your crush? What if it could stop your dad from dying? If the idea of a reverse 13 Going on 30 set in the mid-90s sounds like a good read — well, it is. But Straub doesn’t settle for simple wish fulfillment. She complicates the narrative, and then complicates again. A perfect gift for: Your high school BFF.
Umask Alice: LSD, Satanic Panic, and the Imposter Behind the World's Most Notorious Diaries, by Rick Emerson. If you’re like me, you read the “anonymous” “diary” Go Ask Alice in your tween years. Maybe it scared you off drugs for life, maybe you laughed your way through it, maybe you related to Alice and felt her pain. But as Emerson details, Alice was actually the creation of a Mormon housewife, whose next book helped create the Satanic Panic, too. And it gets weirder and sadder from there. I promise you will say, “Holy shit WHAT ON EARTH?!” out loud more than once while reading this. A perfect gift for: You, your teenager, and your local Moms for Liberty chapter.
You don’t need me to tell you to listen to Carly Rae Jepsen or Wet Leg (unless you do, in which case, please go listen to them). But passes or single-day tickets to Big Ears are a wonderful gift for the music lover in your life. It’s truly the perfect music festival for people who hate music festivals, like me. Everything is indoors, most venues have seats, the crowd is older and not doing drugs, the sound is usually great, and the music selection is completely eclectic. (It won’t be as delightfully campy as a Carly Rae concert, however.)
You can’t give podcasts as gifts, but if you’ve got holiday travel looming — or if you get stuck in Green Hills traffic for two hours trying to finish your shopping — these series will keep you occupied.
Bone Valley. You might know Gilbert King from his excellent books Devil in the Grove, about the tragic Groveland Boys case, or Beneath a Ruthless Sun, about a different racist wrongful arrest in Florida. It turns out he’s an excellent podcaster too, telling the story of a man wrongfully convicted of the murder of his wife and a criminal justice system in Florida that does not care — even though the actual murderer has confessed. If you still need further confirmation that many prosectors are terrible at their jobs, this will convince you.
Normal Gossip. Do you like hearing funny stories about petty drama? If so, this is the show for you. All stories have been anonymized, so you can feel safe laughing at the bad behavior of neighbors, kickball teammates or members of the wedding party. Each episode features one saga involving a random piece of gossip. It’s not serialized, so you can listen in any order. “Grandma’s Best Friend Dot” is truly a classic.
Rachel Maddow Presents Ultra. You might see “Rachel Maddow” and run away from this podcast, but that’s a mistake. This series is a well-researched history of the time there were actual Nazis in Congress, a somewhat forgotten piece of history that I personally knew nothing about. Oh, and that time was during World War II. Are there parallels to some other things going on now? You bet. And it’s packed with lots of fun facts to pull out during Christmas dinners with relatives.
I know, more email is the last thing anyone wants for Christmas, but I promise these Substacks are worth your time (and/or your money).
Department of Salad. Twice a week, you will get a salad recipe from food writer Emily Nunn. Sometimes there is also life advice. The recipes are mostly seasonal, and they vary from vegetarian-friendly side dishes to meat-forward main courses to occasional dessert salads. Every time I post a picture on Instagram of a salad I’ve made, I get a DM from someone asking me for the recipe. Bonus advice: For more recipes, get Emily’s book, The Comfort Food Diaries: My Quest for the Perfect Dish to Mend a Broken Heart, which is about recovering from a lot of sadness with a lot of good food and friends.
Today in Tabs. If you’re trying to spend less time online, this semi-regular (some weeks it’s daily, some weeks it’s not) newsletter will catch you up on all the good Twitter/other online drama. You don’t have to be extremely online to enjoy it, but it probably helps. Also, it’s really funny.
The Watch. Nashville reporter Radley Balko was inexplicably dropped by The Washington Post this year, so he’s started a Substack to continue his investigative reporting. A must-read if you care about criminal justice reform, police reform, or simply love good reporting. Bonus advice: Both of Radley’s books, The Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces and The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist: A True Story of Injustice in the American South (co-written with Mississippi Innocence Project head Tucker Carrington) are essential reading.
Ok, that’s it. I’ll be back in a few weeks with some reporting or some recommendations or maybe both. If you want to send me tips, I’m on Signal, and still on Twitter, for now. You can also reply to this email. If you want to help fund my future reporting, I’m on Venmo @cgervin and CashApp at $cgervin. A free press isn’t cost-free.