Traveling (at last)? Take along the 10 best books of May.

Penguin Random House and Basic Books
"Plunder: Napoleon's Theft of Veronese's Feast" by Cynthia Saltzman, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 336 pp.; and "The Words That Made Us: America's Constitutional Conversation, 1760-1840" by Akhil Amar, Basic Books, 832 pp.

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As the world begins to reopen to possibilities such as traveling, nothing compares to having a book along for the ride. This month provides a generous duffle-bag worth of titles to explore and share. The fiction choices include novels about the immigrant experience and finding a wider sense of family. In nonfiction, the books range from American history to forest ecology to the U.S. Secret Service.

Why We Wrote This

“All things seem possible in May,” wrote American naturalist Edwin Way Teale. Our picks for this month transport readers through a bountiful landscape of books that entertain, challenge, enliven, and illuminate.

From a novel about difficult beginnings to a memoir that traces exercise fads, and from Napoleon’s art lust to trees that communicate, May books traverse a wide territory.

1. Things We Lost to the Water by Eric Nguyen

This debut novel spans three decades in the lives of a Vietnamese immigrant family that escapes war and communism to settle in New Orleans without the father – who has disappeared. Eric Nguyen exquisitely captures the nostalgia of childhood, the problems facing refugees, and the search for healing when secrets rock the soul. 

Why We Wrote This

“All things seem possible in May,” wrote American naturalist Edwin Way Teale. Our picks for this month transport readers through a bountiful landscape of books that entertain, challenge, enliven, and illuminate.

2. Monkey Boy by Francisco Goldman

Grove Atlantic
"Monkey Boy" by Francisco Goldman, Grove Atlantic, 320 pp.

In this semi-autobiographical novel, Francisco Goldman writes about a journalist with a Guatemalan mother and a Russian Jewish father, who grew up in Boston feeling like an outsider. Returning home to the United States after a decade in Mexico, he reconnects with a high school sweetheart, but his visit also exposes bitter memories of school-age bullying and a violent father. In this beautiful but sometimes wrenching story, Goldman uses humor to explore identity.

3. The Guncle by Steven Rowley 

Penguin Random House
"The Guncle" by Steven Rowley, G.P. Putnam's Sons, 336 pp.

Steven Rowley hits the sweet spot between hilarity and heart in this novel about a sitcom star who becomes the reluctant – and unconventional – caretaker of his niece and nephew. The siblings are grieving their mother’s death, and their father has gone into rehab, so Gay Uncle Patrick (aka GUP) takes them in. 

4. The Secret to Superhuman Strength by Alison Bechdel

Cartoonist Alison Bechdel tackles her obsession with exercise as the means of transcendence over various personal hurdles in this graphic memoir. In tracking her pursuit of self-improvement, strength, and enlightenment, she pulls off a remarkable balancing act between a personal quest and a fascinating overview of fitness fads over years.

5. On Juneteenth by Annette Gordon-Reed

Pulitzer Prize winner Annette Gordon-Reed renders a perfectly quilted work of history seen through the eyes of an African American family in Texas. It follows the seldom-shared stories of descendants of enslaved Black people from the 1820s to their emancipation in Galveston on June 19, 1865.

6. Finding the Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard

Suzanne Simard is a leading forest ecologist and a pioneer in the field of plant communication. She writes that trees are complicated, interdependent social organisms connected to one another through underground networks. This book is not just about the science, but about a deeply personal quest to understand one of the most dominant classes of species on Earth.

7. Plunder by Cynthia Saltzman

Napoleon Bonaparte, one of history’s most prolific art looters, plundered famous works from across Europe to stock the newly created Louvre Museum. In this fascinating tale, art historian Cynthia Saltzman describes how he stole one of Venice’s most important paintings and why, 225 years later, it remains in Paris. 

8. The Words That Made Us by Akhil Reed Amar

Akhil Reed Amar’s fresh and fascinating book focuses on the explosion of impassioned discourse that culminated in, and followed, the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. As the title suggests, the book elevates the importance of dialogue and debate in cementing American identity.

9. African Europeans by Olivette Otele 

Olivette Otele unfolds the long history of Africans in Europe, adding personal and social dimensions to the sometimes thin accounts that have been the standard. Her cast of characters is as broad as her canvas, and by redrawing the centurieslong story of African immigration, her book changes how European history is understood.

10. Zero Fail by Carol Leonnig

Carol Leonnig’s riveting book about the U.S. Secret Service surveys the agency’s history but concentrates on the period starting with the agency’s worst and most public failure: the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. In Leonnig’s telling, it’s all down-hill from there. She interviews dozens of present and former agents to tell a story of institutional rot that’s as fascinating as it is alarming.

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