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11 St. Louis-based books to put on your 2022 list

122321_EH_readinglist2022_C.jpg Best Books 2021
Evie Hemphill
St. Louis Public Radio
Get to know St. Louis through some excellent new books.

The best part of my job is that I get to read, a lot. If a St. Louis author has a new book out — or even if a non-St. Louis author’s new book so much as touches on the city — it almost always ends up in my mailbox. And then, get this: I get paid to read it.

Now, the dirty little secret of publishing (and academia) in 2021 is that a whole lot of books aren’t very good, and I consider it my duty to be a little bit picky. If I’m not hooked after the first chapter, I doubt you’ll be, either. Most of you do not get paid to read this stuff. Why push something that isn’t worth your time?

Even with that high standard, we featured more than 20 books with a strong local connection on St. Louis on the Air this past year. The 11 that follow were my favorites. I hope you’ll find a book or two for your reading list this January.

And if you want more suggestions like this, sign up for our St. Louis on the Air newsletter, Off Mic. Every Monday, you’ll get a schedule for the week ahead and streaming versions that let you get caught up on the best of the previous week.

1. First to Fall
Former L.A. Times reporter Ken Ellingwood brought a journalist’s sense of pacing and suspense to this compulsively readable biography of Elijah Lovejoy, the first American journalist to be slain for his work. Neither St. Louis nor Alton comes out looking good here, as rabid defenders of slavery chased the preacher/publisher from one city and killed him in the next. But Lovejoy? He’s a hero for the ages.

2. The Snatch Racket
I’ve now given Carolyn Cox’s smart nonfiction account of how kidnapping flourished in America (and St. Louis in particular) to no less than three family members, and they’ve all raved about it. This book helps you understand the world we live in by showing you the way things used to be. The St. Louis characters are unforgettable.

3. The Mysteries
I love books that take girlhood seriously, and Marisa Silver’s novel “The Mysteries” has a more difficult job than most: It tells the story of two 7-year-olds. Somehow she gets their interior sensibilities exactly right. 1970s St. Louis also feels precisely depicted (perhaps because Silver’s husband, film and TV director Ken Kwapis, grew up in that time and place). I loved this book.

4. Bone Broth
Florissant author Lyndsey Ellis’ debut novel depicts a widow with a secret — one that involves St. Louis’ civil rights movement and the (real-life) unmasking of the Veiled Prophet. I’ve read numerous multi-generational novels exploring a character’s ’60s radical past, but they all center white Boomers going to Woodstock or agitating in 1968 Chicago. Telling a Black woman’s story feels new and interesting — and Ellis gives her tale scope and empathy.

5. Toward That Which Is Beautiful
St. Louis native Marian O’Shea Wernicke’s beautifully written fiction debut is about a novice serving in Peru who finds herself questioning her faith, the vows she’s set to take and the meaning of her life. Wernicke herself served as a nun in Peru, which helps explain why both the scenery and the sisters are portrayed with unusual clarity and great human sympathy.

6. Profit and Punishment
Pulitzer Prize-winning Post-Dispatch columnist Tony Messenger tells an important story in this brand-new nonfiction book, expanding the work he did exposing Missouri’s debtors prisons into a national scandal. Everyone should be talking about this issue. If you aren’t, well, start by reading this.

7. Blue Song
If you thought Tennessee Williams was a New Orleans playwright who only briefly lived in St. Louis, Wash U professor Henry Schvey’s illuminating nonfiction book will make you think again. In Schvey’s telling, Williams didn’t just live here longer than anywhere else; St. Louis helped shape his greatest plays and enduring themes.

8. The Hive
Hannibal native Melissa Scholes Young understands blue-collar America, and that gives this novel, set in 2008 Cape Girardeau, an unusual groundedness. By depicting four headstrong sisters and their Doomsday prepper mother, she helps us understand the anxieties of 2008 America, anxieties that led us to where we are today.

9. You’re Paid What You’re Worth
Wash U professor Jake Rosenfeld wrote this engrossing book before American workers began quitting their jobs in droves, but it seems shockingly prophetic as to our current malaise. Indeed, this briskly readable book explains so much I’d wondered about, from why trucking is no longer the job it used to be to what happens when salaries are made public. A must-read.

10. The St. Louis Commune of 1877: Communism in the Heartland
Attorney and professor Mark Kruger has spent his retirement on this nonfiction exploration of the revolutionaries who lived in 19th-century St. Louis. It’s an engaging look at the many forces that led to a surprising fact: In 1877, St. Louis became the first American city to be briefly run by communists. You’ll detour to France and to Germany before you get to the main action, but Kruger makes it pay off with a slam-bang final chapter.

11.Well, This Is Exhausting
Kirkwood native Sophia Benoit is a trip, a foul-mouthed voice of her generation who will make young, woke readers laugh out loud and take heart in equal measure. The jokes pop so quickly, it’s easy to miss the more serious subjects lurking beneath.

Sign up for the St. Louis on the Air newsletter, Off Mic, to stay up on the latest books and local coverage.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.