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50 Books That Will Motivate, Educate, or Help You Escape

Whenever I am feeling a particularly strong emotion, I often find myself turning to books. When I was trying to teach myself how to knit, I got really excited and bought like five books on the topic. A few months ago I got really into the story of Mary (yes, that Mary, celebrated across religions and revered by many), bought four books on Amazon, and read them all, even though I’m not religious. If, say, I’m feeling particularly frightened about the prospect of a tyrannical egomaniac running the country, I’ll go to my library and dig through stacks of books about similarly minded world leaders to better educate myself about their triumphs and what led to the demise of each.

If ever there was a time for reading books to learn, to find solace, or just for some pure escapism, I think it’s right now in the United States. With that in mind (and after receiving an email from reader Bridget, who sparked this idea), we’ve put together a list of fifty books you might want to sink your brains into over the holidays:
5 motivational books

YEAR OF YES (SHONDA RHIMES): TV writer and all-around amazing lady Shonda Rhimes decided to say yes to every opportunity that came her way, no matter what. Just about everyone on staff at APW loved this the most.

I’M JUDGING YOU: THE DO-BETTER MANUAL (LUVVIE AJAYI): If you’re already familiar with Awesomely Luvvie, a lot of her book will be like visiting a favorite friend. If you’re not, girl, get ready for an education.

the misadventures of awkward black girl (issa rae): Issa Rae is the brilliant mind behind the web series of the same name, and her book is 100 percent glory:
Rae covers everything from cybersexing in the early days of the Internet to deflecting unsolicited comments on weight gain, from navigating the perils of eating out alone and public displays of affection to learning to accept yourself—natural hair and all.
big magic: creative living beyond fear (elizabeth gilbert): Elizabeth Gilbert is best known for Eat, Pray, Love, and in this book she talks about embracing curiosity and diving into life.

you can’t touch my hair: and other things i still have to explain (phoebe robinson):
Being a black woman in America means contending with old prejudices and fresh absurdities every day. Comedian Phoebe Robinson has experienced her fair share over the years: she’s been unceremoniously relegated to the role of “the black friend,” as if she is somehow the authority on all things racial; she’s been questioned about her love of U2 and Billy Joel (“isn’t that . . . white people music?”); she’s been called “uppity” for having an opinion in the workplace; she’s been followed around stores by security guards; and yes, people do ask her whether they can touch her hair all. the. time.
5 political books

Hard Choices (Hillary Clinton): Holy cow, do I love this book. Clinton documents life after she lost the presidency to President Obama in 2008, and the bulk of the book is about her time as Secretary of State for the Obama administration. Hillary love aside, the book offers compelling insight into what the role of Secretary of State means, and will likely serve as evidence of stark contrast between how President Obama and our incoming president will lead the nation.
THE NEW JIM CROW: MASS INCARCERATION IN THE AGE OF COLOR BLINDNESS (MICHELLE ALEXANDER): Here’s the deal. The election of Barack Obama didn’t all of a sudden cure the U.S. of racism, and we for sure do not live in a post-racial world. This book is a powerful examination of our prison system, and how it disproportionately targets and punishes black men.
NO PLACE TO HIDE: EDWARD SNOWDEN, THE NSA, AND THE U.S. SURVEILLANCE STATE (GLEN GREENWALD): If you’ve heard a little about Edward Snowden and the NSA but are still fuzzy, this is the book to start with. In May 2013, author Glen Greenwald headed to Hong Kong to meet an anonymous source who claimed that the U.S. government was spying its citizens. The source? Snowden himself.
They can’t kill us all: Ferguson, Baltimore, and a new era in america’s racial justice movement (wesley lowrey): Washington Post writer Wesley Lowrey spent a year conducting over a hundred interviews in Missouri, Ohio, South Carolina, and Maryland—and then went back to Ferguson, Missouri, to find out what life in one of the most heavily policed cities in the U.S. is like.
Rules for revolutionaries: how big organizing can change everything (becky bond and zack exley): Becky Bond and Zack Exley both worked on the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign and are now turning their expertise into lessons for anyone who wants to learn them. The two have also been working in and on political campaigns for twenty years, and they know their stuff.

 5 feminist books

Men Explain Things to Me (Rebecca Solnit): This book is exactly what it sounds like: a shredding of men who mansplain, complete with essays added in 2014.

vagina (naomi wolf): While I think having the chance to read this book in public is worth buying it ALONE (that title, though), you should also buy it because Naomi Wolf does some serious consciousness raising work.

how to build a girl (caitlin moran): I was going to write something clever, but I think Amazon did it for me:
Imagine The Bell Jar written by Rizzo from Grease. How to Build a Girl is a funny, poignant, and heartbreakingly evocative story of self-discovery and invention, as only Caitlin Moran could tell it.
bad feminist (roxane gay): This is a collection of essays speaking on feminism and politics that talks about everything from Sweet Valley High to Django in Chains.

sister outsider (audre lorde): If you look up “essential black feminist” and DON’T see Audre Lorde, Google has broken and we should all pray. Truly, this collection of essays is where you begin if you need an introduction to Lorde.
5 books for historical fiction

MARE’S WAR (TANITA S. DAVIS): Mare is a WWII veteran and a grandma, and she’s on a cross-country road trip with her two teenage granddaughters. I am 95 percent sure that’s all you need to know before you pick up this book (I’ve already bought a copy, myself). Head’s up, it’s got a YA fiction angle as well.

The underground railroad (colson whitehead): The book is about Cora, a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. She meets another slave named Caesar, and he tells her about the Underground Railroad. In this book, the Railroad is actually a series of tracks and tunnels, and Cora and Caesar are being hunted the entire way.

THE IMPERIAL WIFE (IRINA REYN): The Imperial Wife follows the imagined tales of two women: Tanya, an immigrant and Russian art specialist, and Catherine the Great. The stories are heavily feminist and badass and will leave you wanting to know even more about Catherine (just me?).

THE LOST WIFE (ALYSON RICHMAN): First and foremost, I am a HUUUGGEEE Alyson Richman fan; I buy and devour all of her books. The Lost Wife is the first one that I read, and it was such a great introduction to Richman’s work. Set in pre-WWII Prague, the book is about a couple and what happens after the Nazis invade.

snow flower and the secret FAN (lisa see): Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is set in nineteenth century China, aka during the Qing Dynasty. It’s an emotional journey into the world of powerful female friendship, and a glimpse into a time that many may not know much about.
5 books that will prepare you for the apocalypse

parable of the sower (octavia butler): Environmental and economic crises abound in the United States (sound familiar), and a young girl finds herself totally alone in a largely unknown American landscape.

parable of the talents (octavia butler): In this installment, environmental and economic mayhem still rage and are now joined by bigots who are against a black woman leading a new religion.

station eleven (Emily st. john mandel): A devastating pandemic has wiped out 95 percent of the world’s population, and the world is completely changed.

find me (laura van de berg): What if an illness swept the country… and you were immune?
Joy has no one. She spends her days working the graveyard shift at a grocery store outside Boston and nursing an addiction to cough syrup, an attempt to suppress her troubled past. But when a sickness that begins with memory loss and ends with death sweeps the country, Joy, for the first time in her life, seems to have an advantage: she is immune. When Joy’s immunity gains her admittance to a hospital in rural Kansas, she sees a chance to escape her bleak existence.
wool (hugh howey): Wool takes place in a toxic future, where the surviving people are living underground. A sheriff asks to go outside, and everything starts to change.
5 memoirs

When breath becomes air (Paul kalanithi): Neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer at the age of thirty-six. He promptly went from lifesaver to patient and chronicled his journey. The book is, oddly, full of hope right down to his horribly untimely death.

Ordinary Light (tracy k. smith): Smith is a powerful poet, and when she released her memoir I was first in line to pick it up. The heart of her story is about a mother and daughter, and race, religion, and loss all come into play.

With unflinching honesty and moving prose, Janet Mock relays her experiences of growing up young, multiracial, poor, and trans in America, offering readers accessible language while imparting vital insight about the unique challenges and vulnerabilities of a marginalized and misunderstood population.
the year of yes (maria dahvana Headley): For one year, Maria Dahvana Headley decided to date anyone—anyone—who asked her out, and ultimately discovered what really matters.

i am malala (Malala Yousafzai): In 2012, Malala Yousafzai was shot at point-blank range by a member of the Taliban. She survived, and went on to become an international activist for girls, children, and the power of education.
10 young adult fiction books

Eleanor & Park (rainbow rowell): Ugh, y’all: if you have yet to dive into the wonderful world of Rainbow Rowell, please go ahead and do so. This book is about bittersweet young love, the kind that probably won’t last but that you really hope does, anyway.

All the bright places (jennifer niven): All the Bright Places is about two people: Theodore, who is fascinated by death, and Violet, who is anything but. It’s also going to be turned into a movie in 2018, so you’ll be able to say you read the book first.

I’ll Give you the sun (jandy nelson):
At first, Jude and her twin brother are NoahandJude; inseparable. Noah draws constantly and is falling in love with the charismatic boy next door, while daredevil Jude wears red-red lipstick, cliff-dives, and does all the talking for both of them.

Years later, they are barely speaking. Something has happened to change the twins in different yet equally devastating ways… but then Jude meets an intriguing, irresistible boy and a mysterious new mentor.

The early years are Noah’s to tell; the later years are Jude’s. But they each have only half the story, and if they can only find their way back to one another, they’ll have a chance to remake their world.
the rest of us just live here (patrick ness): At its core, this book explores a crucial question: What if you aren’t particularly remarkable? What if you don’t vanquish dragons and save the day? What if you just want to graduate high school and go on a date with that girl you like? And how do you find extraordinary in your ordinary life?

Entrancing and romantic, Ash is a riveting and empowering retelling of the Cinderella story—a novel about choosing life and love over solitude and death.
Esperanza Rising (Pam Muñoz ryan): Esperanza lives in Mexico in a big house with her family, until the Great Depression hits and she finds herself in California, and she and her mother become farm workers.

Magonia (Maria Dahvana Headley): Aza is a young girl who is caught between two races (and essentially, two worlds), and finds herself lost in a very real, very not-Earth world after seeing a spaceship.

dreams of significant girls (Cristina Garcia): Three girls are brought together at a Swiss boarding school, and they hail from various backgrounds: one is an Iranian princess, one is German-Canadian, and the third is a Cuban-Jewish girl who loves to cook.

more happy than not (adam silvera): Aaron’s father has committed suicide, and he’s struggling to find a way back to a place of light. The book is the story of how he gets there and who helps along the way.

the kidney hypothetical: or how to ruin your life in seven days (lisa yee):
Higgs Boson Bing has seven days left before his perfect high school career is completed. Then it’s on to Harvard to fulfill the fantasy portrait of success that he and his parents have cultivated for the past four years. Four years of academic achievement. Four years of debate championships. Two years of dating the most popular girl in school. It was, literally, everything his parents could have wanted. Everything they wanted for Higgs’s older brother Jeffrey, in fact.
5 sci-fi/dark fantasy books

Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch) (Ann Leckie): A solider on an icy planet known as Breq is almost finished with her mission—until an act of treachery is committed.

who fears death (Nnedi Okorafor): 
In a far-future, post-apocalyptic Saharan Africa, genocide plagues one region. When the only surviving member of a slain village is brutally raped, she manages to escape, wandering farther into the desert. She gives birth to a baby girl with hair and skin the color of sand, and instinctively knows her daughter is different. She names her daughter Onyesonwu, which means “Who Fears Death?” in an ancient African tongue.
From Under the Mountain (Cait spivey): Nineteen-year-old Guerline knows what she has to do: be compliant, and don’t fall in love with Eva. But… she doesn’t quite get there. From Under the Mountain poses a crucial question: How do you know what evil is if everything you’ve been told is a lie?

unburied fables (rachel sharp): This is a collection of stories from students to established writers in which classic tales are reinvented. Half of the proceeds are donated to The Trevor Project.

midnight robber (nalo hopkinson): The Caribbean-colonized planet of Toussaint is celebrating Carnival—until a girl and her father are captured and taken to a new, brutal world.
5 detective/mystery books

As dusk approaches a small Dublin suburb in the summer of 1984, mothers begin to call their children home. But on this warm evening, three children do not return from the dark and silent woods. When the police arrive, they find only one of the children gripping a tree trunk in terror, wearing blood-filled sneakers, and unable to recall a single detail of the previous hours.
the curious incident of the dog in the Night-Time (mark haddon): A neighborhood dog has died suspiciously, and the most unlikely man is trying to figure out why.

the cuckoo’s calling (robert galbraith): Cormorman Strike is a former solider who is now working as a private investigator. He’s down to one client, his girlfriend has left, and life… kind of sucks. Enter John Bristow, who has a new case for Cormorman that will propel the PI into a dazzling world of wealth, fame, and confusion.

the hidden wife (B.M. HArdin): Tiffany has it all—except for a husband who isn’t married to someone else.

the rozabal line (ashwin sanghi):
An elite army of thirteen calling itself the Lashkare Talatashar has scattered around the globe. The fate of its members curiously resembles that of Christ and his Apostles. Their agenda is Armageddon.
 what are you reading right now, apw? what would you add to the list?

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50 Books That Will Motivate, Educate, or Help You Escape


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