1. The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Take the glamour and intrigue of a young opera soprano and add a 19th century Paris backdrop, the Franco-Prussian War, the Paris Commune, and the Third Republic – and Chee’s lively and fertile imagination. The result is this wonderful novel, centered on a beguiling and complex female protagonist who has lived her life as a series of costume exchanges. Her adventures begin with stealing a new name off a gravestone and continue through a series of wild reinventions that include encounters with real-life characters like P. T. Barnum and Verdi.
2. The Black Calhouns: From Civil War to Civil Rights with One African American Family by Gail Lumet Buckley (Atlantic Monthly Press)
One branch of her family remained in the South, the other headed north. In this beautifully written book, Buckley – daughter of the great singer, actress, and activist Lena Horne – tells the stories of both. She starts with her great-great-grandfather, a house slave-turned successful Atlanta businessman, and follows it through six generations – a family story that is also, in many ways, America’s story.
3. Liberty and Coercion: The Paradox of American Government from the Founding to the Present by Gary Gerstle (Princeton University Press)
In this brilliant work of American political history, Cambridge University professor Gerstle delves into a central paradox that the Founders embedded in the Constitution. Our republic was built to be a powerful state capable of meeting the people’s wide-ranging needs – and a limited state that does not unduly trample on individual rights. Gerstle's “liberty” and “coercion” lens provides a vital perspective on historic events, like the civil rights movement, and current ones, like the rise of the Tea Party.
4. Black Deutschland: A Novel by Darryl Pinckney (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
From long-time contributor to The New York Review of Books Pickney, this heady novel is set in West Berlin in the 1980s, while AIDS was raging and before the Berlin Wall fell. It is narrated by a young gay black man under the influence of Charles Isherwood, a previous gay expatriate loose in the city, the author of The Berlin Stories. The action kicks into high gear with the first few lines of the novel – “ Berlin meant white boys who wanted to atone for German’s crimes by loving a black boy like me” – and it doesn’t let up.
5. On My Own by Diane Rehm (Knopf)
The author, host of “The Diane Rehm Show,” the long-running public radio show, writes about the illness and death of her husband of a half-century, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease. Frustrated that his physician could not legally help him die, he caused his own death by refusing food and water. Rehm writes candidly and passionately about a wrenching episode in her life, which helped turn her into an advocate for the right to die with dignity.