September book bag: A harvest of life lessons

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 2 Min. )

September kicks off the busy fall season, when publishers bring out their most-anticipated titles. 

These include “Lessons,” the latest novel from Ian McEwan, who’s best known for “Atonement,” and “Lucy by the Sea” by Elizabeth Strout. Both novels go beneath appearances to surface long-buried truths in the characters’ lives. The sharply observed mystery-thriller “Killers of a Certain Age” by Deanna Raybourn challenges stereotypes about women and aging. 

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

The books our reviewers liked best this month include an emotionally honest novel about a single father, an impassioned plea for a closer reading of American history, and musings on what leads to true happiness.

Among the nonfiction titles, historian Peniel E. Joseph outlines the hurdles to be overcome for America to live up to its egalitarian ideals in “The Third Reconstruction.” Annie Proulx makes an eloquent appeal for preservation of the world’s wetlands in “Fen, Bog and Swamp.” 

In “Black Snow,” James M. Scott examines the U.S. military strategy of targeting Japanese civilians during World War II in a bid to limit Allied casualties and shorten the war. The strategy, used even before atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, raises profound moral questions. 

Familiar authors predominate this month, providing a welcome opportunity to dive into their latest works. 

1. Lucy by the Sea, by Elizabeth Strout

At the start of the pandemic, Lucy Barton is whisked from New York City to coastal Maine by her ex-husband, who is concerned for her health. As days stretch into months, Lucy reflects on her life and her daughters, and finds lovingkindness, forgiveness, and healing through nature and new friendships. 

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

The books our reviewers liked best this month include an emotionally honest novel about a single father, an impassioned plea for a closer reading of American history, and musings on what leads to true happiness.

2. Killers of a Certain Age, by Deanna Raybourn

The members of the first all-female squad of assassins – a poised, proficient, often spicy quartet – have reached their 60s and are ready to retire. Too bad someone from their organization, an outgrowth of World War II resistance fighters, wants them dead. Deanna Raybourn’s mystery-thriller-buddy novel delivers taut suspense, arch asides, white-knuckle fight scenes, and astute commentary about the assumptions that confront older women.

3. Lessons, by Ian McEwan

What constitutes a successful life – particularly one damaged by a crime of passion? Ian McEwan’s novel grapples with this question via the story of a troubled single father. Whether describing the day-to-day minutiae, a disturbing affair, or mammoth historical events, McEwan captivates with thoughtful, emotionally honest prose.

4. The Marriage Portrait, by Maggie O’Farrell

Maggie O’Farrell’s historical novel was inspired by Robert Browning’s poem “My Last Duchess” and the scant facts surrounding Lucrezia di Cosimo de’Medici, who died under mysterious circumstances in 1561 at age 16, less than a year into her marriage. Out of this, O’Farrell has painted a heart-pounding, atmospheric portrait of a chilling marriage and a young woman’s valiant attempts to escape her gilded cage.

5. Natural History, by Andrea Barrett

Andrea Barrett’s rewarding short story collection spans the Civil War era to the present day. Women’s roles evolve, as succeeding generations explore science, writing, teaching, and even flying, while still finding room for love and community.  

6. The Third Reconstruction, by Peniel E. Joseph

American ideologies and policies are in a state of constant flux, or as Peniel E. Joseph puts it, “reconstruction.” By examining past eras of reconstruction, as well as the presidencies of Barack Obama and Donald Trump, he offers a path forward by encouraging us to embrace the duality of America’s history.

7. Dinners With Ruth, by Nina Totenberg

NPR’s longtime legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg recalls the relationships that have buoyed and sustained her through professional challenges and triumphs as well as personal joys and losses. At the heart of the intimate book is her nearly 50-year friendship with the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

8. Fen, Bog and Swamp, by Annie Proulx

Annie Proulx takes readers to the world’s surviving wetlands and marine estuaries, which are under siege from development. She eloquently underscores the dangers for the planet, as wetlands sequester carbon emissions. The book is a stark but beautifully written “Silent Spring”-style warning from one of our greatest novelists.

9. Black Snow, by James M. Scott 

In March 1945, a U.S. bombing raid devastated Tokyo. While it may have shortened World War II, more than 100,000 Japanese people – mostly civilians – were killed. Was it justified? James M. Scott raises profound moral questions about the military strategy. 

10. Happiness in Action, by Adam Adatto Sandel

Adam Adatto Sandel’s provocative book draws on his own experiences and the work of philosophers both ancient and modern to argue that happiness is less about achieving one’s goals than about “self-possession, friendship, and engagement with nature.”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to September book bag: A harvest of life lessons
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today