Truth be told: The 10 best books of August highlight honesty

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“The truth is rarely pure and never simple,” wrote Oscar Wilde in his 1895 play “The Importance of Being Earnest,” with tongue firmly in cheek.

Wilde’s flipping of the idiom “the pure and simple truth” contains an element of, well, truth: The reasons people do things are complicated, and the truth is not always black or white.    

Why We Wrote This

Our 10 picks for this month include books that deal honestly with the human condition, from the toll of war to the as-yet unfulfilled hopes for racial equity in South Africa. The protagonists offer powerful examples of people seeking truth, pursuing justice, and insisting on the dignity of each individual.

The 10 best books of August reflect a nuanced view of truth, tempered by empathy and compassion. Among the novels, people wrestle with rigid caste distinctions in India, crusade for justice in early 20th-century America, and struggle to find their way after fighting in recent U.S. wars.

On the nonfiction side, an author perseveres in his dream to pilot a flatboat down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. His encounters with  people along the route lead him to shed long-held preconceptions, and he finds common ground, even among those whose politics are different from his own. 

The uncomfortable truth of climate change prompts another author to ask, “What will happen when people are forced by global warming to leave their homes? Where will they go?” And, finally, a poignant book examines the current realities and disappointments affecting South Africans of all backgrounds, whether they recall life under apartheid or were too young to remember it. 

The pursuit of truth is a theme that runs through many of the selections this month. In much of the world, people are dissatisfied with the status quo and eager to see changes for the better. 

1. Moth by Melody Razak

This month marks 75 years since Partition – the creation of Pakistan from northern India. The novel “Moth” portrays one girl’s harrowing experience in the months leading up to that event. Alma, who is 14 and engaged to be married, lives with her Brahmin family in bustling, diverse Delhi. As independence from Britain dawns, religious tensions explode. Vivid and unflinching, the novel exposes the fissures created by rigid gender, religious, and caste-bound codes.

Why We Wrote This

Our 10 picks for this month include books that deal honestly with the human condition, from the toll of war to the as-yet unfulfilled hopes for racial equity in South Africa. The protagonists offer powerful examples of people seeking truth, pursuing justice, and insisting on the dignity of each individual.

2. Madwoman by Louisa Treger

At a time when public trust in the media is at an all-time low, Louisa Treger’s “Madwoman” is a reminder of how journalism can drive positive change. This work of historical fiction tells the story of Nellie Bly, the first female investigative reporter, who not only demanded justice from powerful institutions, but also insisted on dignity and compassion for the most vulnerable citizens.

3. The Ghetto Within by Santiago Amigorena

Santiago Amigorena crafts an emotional tribute to his grandfather, a Polish émigré in 1940 Buenos Aires, Argentina, whose loved ones struggle to reach him as he becomes “imprisoned by the ghetto of his own silence.” His anguish is rooted in his mother’s increasingly dangerous circumstances in wartime Warsaw. The novel is layered with soul-searching prose and stark history.

4. All the Ruined Men by Bill Glose

Bill Glose cracks open the physical and mental challenges of American Gulf War soldiers and their families in this stellar collection of intertwined stories. Glose, a combat veteran, former paratrooper, poet, and journalist, writes movingly and with brutal honesty. He honors his comrades’ lives with empathetic and knockout storytelling.

5. American Fever by Dur e Aziz Amna

A 16-year-old Pakistani Muslim girl, aching to leave her familiar, proscribed world, embarks on an exchange program to rural Lakeview, Oregon, in 2010. It’s a bumpy ride. She chafes at others’ assumptions while wrestling with her own amid the challenges of high school, cultural vertigo, and illness. An affecting, well-told tale.

6. Calling for a Blanket Dance by Oscar Hokeah

Oscar Hokeah brings to life a kaleidoscope of characters from an unforgettable Native American family. His depiction of Indigenous cultures honors their strength of community with remarkable love and healing humor, sending out a vital drumbeat of hope for future generations.

7. The Crossroads of Civilization by Angus Robertson

Journalist Angus Robertson delivers a lively history of Vienna stretching back 2,000 years. He winds through Roman and medieval times, successive invasions, Habsburg rule, Napoleon’s occupation, and the upheavals of the 20th century.

8. Nomad Century by Gaia Vince

Climate experts say that over the next 50 years nearly half of the world’s population will be living in uninhabitable areas of the planet. What will become of these people? Where will they go? How will they live? The answers, as Gaia Vince points out, are not radical nor implausible; the solutions lie with the migrants themselves.

9. Life on the Mississippi by Rinker Buck

Travel writer Rinker Buck built a flatboat and traveled from Pittsburgh to New Orleans on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. His goal was to better understand how river transport – for good and ill – made America’s westward expansion possible. 

10. The Inheritors by Eve Fairbanks

The end of South Africa’s apartheid regime in 1994 was met with jubilation. But the new government faced daunting challenges, and whatever its successes, it was bound to disappoint. Decades later, journalist Eve Fairbanks gets to know South Africans who grew up under apartheid and those who don’t remember it. The result is a moving group portrait of disillusion and resilience.

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