From Bach to ‘Booth’: 10 books to brighten your march toward spring

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“Our life is March weather, savage and serene in one hour,” wrote American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. The swings in the natural world reflect the many moods that readers will encounter in the 10 best books of this month. 

An atmosphere of buoyancy and purpose arises from a novel about studying music with Johann Sebastian Bach, bringing with it a sense of transcendence. Another novel examines the family of John Wilkes Booth, and the far-reaching effects of his assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, offering a path for understanding family dynamics, both historic and current. A third title takes inspiration from George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” transposing the tale to Africa and using animals to deliver a piercing political commentary. 

Among the nonfiction books, an Iranian American writer points out the importance of reading books that are considered challenging, rather than advocating banning and censorship, and the rewards of keeping an open mind. Another title unfolds a history of the definition of “woman” and demonstrates how oppressive notions about women were resisted and overturned. And an amateur historian writes with humor and heart about following the European itinerary of Thomas Jefferson and coming to grips with Jefferson’s complicated legacy. 

Why We Wrote This

Our 10 picks for this month include books that celebrate the joy of music, explore family dynamics, undermine autocracy, and reflect on the changing definition of “woman.”

The selections this month cover a range of genres, from a thrilling novel about secret maps and a coming-of-age love story to a nonfiction look at Russian émigrés in Paris after the 1917 revolution.    

1. The Great Passion by James Runcie

James Runcie evokes the rigors and rewards of studying with Johann Sebastian Bach during the 1720s. The busy composer brings Stefan, a bullied teenager and talented singer, under his wing, providing purpose and a sense of home. Runcie vividly depicts the teacher-pupil dynamic and the all-consuming demands of a creative pursuit. In soaring language, he portrays music’s ability to rouse, heal, and awaken wonder.  

Why We Wrote This

Our 10 picks for this month include books that celebrate the joy of music, explore family dynamics, undermine autocracy, and reflect on the changing definition of “woman.”

2. Groundskeeping by Lee Cole

Lee Cole’s novel sheds light on America’s social and political divisions through a coming-of-age love story. College groundskeeper Owen, a Kentuckian with deep roots in the South, and accomplished Alma, a Bosnian immigrant on an academic fellowship, find solace despite their different backgrounds.  

3. Booth by Karen Joy Fowler

Karen Joy Fowler’s “Booth” offers an absorbing tale of the family of Junius Booth, one of the most famous Shakespearean actors of his time – whose sons included John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of Abraham Lincoln. Her focus is on the circumstances that produced this man, and how his heinous act affected his close-knit, pro-Union, mostly abolitionist family. But like the best historical fiction, “Booth” helps us recognize connections between the past and present.

4. Glory by NoViolet Bulawayo

“Glory” depicts the anguish, absurdity, and grind of life in a fictional African autocracy. Each well-drawn character – from the ancient despot and his sycophants, to the rapacious successor, to exhausted citizens – is an animal. The engrossing allegory delivers a powerful emotional punch, along with keen political and social commentary. 

5. The Cartographers by Peng Shepherd

Peng Shepherd’s captivating thriller begins with the death of an esteemed cartographer, who years earlier inexplicably fired his daughter, Nell, from the New York Public Library after she uncovered a 1930 map. Nell’s investigation unveils secrets about her family’s past and the map’s allure. 

6. Read Dangerously by Azar Nafisi

A prolific reader and gifted Iranian American writer argues that careful reading of challenging literature helps us make sense of our chaotic and turbulent times. A meticulously reasoned, timely, and welcome reminder about why we read. 

7. Woman by Lillian Faderman

Lillian Faderman charts the changing meaning of “woman” from the 17th century to the present. She illustrates historical cycles of repression and resistance with a wealth of examples, demonstrating that women of all races and classes have chafed against oppressive notions of what a woman ought to be.

8. After the Romanovs by Helen Rappaport

One of the effects of the Romanov dynasty’s fall in 1917 was a flood of Russian refugees into Europe, including the arrival of aristocrats, artists, writers, and intellectuals who landed in Paris at the height of the city’s creative ferment. Helen Rappaport tells their stories with marvelous skill and empathy.

9. Julia Morgan by Victoria Kastner

Victoria Kastner pulls back the curtain on architect Julia Morgan, the first woman admitted to Europe’s finest school for architecture, the first woman licensed to practice in California in the early 1900s, and the creator of roughly 700 structures, including Hearst Castle. It’s an inspiring portrait, highlighting the grit and grace that Morgan possessed.

10. In Pursuit of Jefferson by Derek Baxter

In Derek Baxter’s winning debut, the attorney and amateur historian follows the itinerary suggested by Thomas Jefferson in an unpublished travel guide, “Hints to Americans Traveling in Europe.” Along the way, with humor and heart, he grapples with the founder’s complicated legacy.

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