Here are five books people are talking about this week -- or should be:
1. Difficult Women by Roxane Gay (Grove Press)
Gay is recognized as one of the most exciting cultural critics of our day, known for her 2014 essay collection Bad Feminist — a funny and wise take on modern feminism — and her TedTalk on the subject. But Gay is also a sharp and empathetic fiction writer, as she showed in her debut novel An Untamed State, set in Haiti, where Gay — the child of Haitian immigrants — spent summers. Her new book of stories, Difficult Women, was mostly written earlier in her career while she attended graduate school in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. A recurring theme of this vivid, emotionally charged collection is the trauma of sexual violence and how its long reach warps, distorts, and disrupts the life that follow it.
2. Audacity: How Barack Obama Defied His Critics and Transformed America by Jonathan Chait (Custom House/Morrow)
True to the subtitle of this fine work, Chait makes a case that President Barack Obama has effectively accomplished what he set out to do when first elected. Chait, a political columnist at New York magazine, who is also author of The Big Con: The True Story of How Washington Got Hoodwinked and Hijacked by Crackpot Economics, focuses on Obama’s domestic agenda. He addresses the President’s critics — including leftists within his own party — and argues that Obama’s economic policies and health care advances will ultimately cement his legacy. Chait writes in the introduction that the Obama presidency will be seen as “a long game with audacious goals, and a bold willingness to endure short-term costs in order to achieve them.”
3. The New Odyssey: The Story of the Twenty-First Century Refugee Crisis by Patrick Kingsley (Liveright)
Kingsley, the Guardian’s first migration correspondent, drew on his years of reporting across 17 countries on three continents to write this eye-opening survey of the current refugee crisis. Kingsley follows the migrant trail as untold numbers of refugees journey by land and sea to safety, or at least toward it. He chronicles in close-up detail characters like Hashem Al-Souki, a Syrian determined to make a better life in Sweden. Kingsley charts the arduous and dangerous journeys migrants undertake from places like Afghanistan, Libya, and Eritrea and shines a light both those who provide refuge and those who turn a blind eye.
4. The Most Dangerous Place On Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson (Random House)
For writers, high school is the well that never runs dry, and with her smart, psychologically astute new novel, Johnson descends deep into those roiling waters. She sets her novel in an affluent Marin County enclave and focuses in on an ensemble of cyberbullying middle schoolers who carry their demons to 9th grade and beyond. Johnson adroitly introduces a new teacher into this toxic mix of hormones and privilege, and she has a keen eye for the peculiar hierarchy that governs relations in the high school milieu. Social media adds a new, 21st century dimension to the relationships but what makes The Most Dangerous Place on Earth so effective is its power to evoke the age-old transition to adulthood, in all of its hellish drama.
5. No Wall Too High: One Man’s Daring Escape From Mao’s Darkest Prison by Xu Hongci; translated from the Chinese and edited by Erling Hoh (Sarah Crichton Books)
Swedish journalist Hoh discovered this memoir in Hong Kong and tracked down the original manuscript, written by perhaps the only person ever to escape from Mao Zedong’s brutal, Soviet Gulag-style labor camps. Hoh translated the manuscript and enhanced it with explanatory notes, and the result is a gripping story of an indomitable survivor. Hongci was an idealistic student in Shanghai who spoke out against Mao and was sentenced to a camp until he finally escaped — after several thwarted attempts — in 1972. The memoir not only recounts the cruelty of the camps in horrific detail, but captures the texture of life so convincingly that this historical narrative reads like a novel.