1. True South: Henry Hampton and Eyes on the Prize, the Landmark Television Series That Reframed the Civil Rights Movement by Jon Else (Viking)
The trailblazing 1987 PBS documentary series Eyes on the Prize, created by filmmaker Henry Hampton, captured the momentous events and larger-than-life personalities of the civil rights movement. In this fascinating book Else, a producer and cinematographer who worked on the series, braids together Hampton’s story making the series and the dramatic national battle over racial equality that it describes. Hampton, a charming and irascible visionary, raised in an affluent African-American family in St. Louis, conceived of a film that focused its lens on citizen activists and bystanders like Emmet Till’s grandmother as much as famous leaders like Martin Luther King. Adding dimension to this marvelous account, Else, a professor at University of California-Berkeley’s School of Journalism, and a past MacArthur Prize winner, intersperses his own work for voting rights and against the Ku Klux Klan.
2. Rumi's Secret: The Life of the Sufi Poet of Love by Brad Gooch (Harper)
In this vivid, fascinating biography, Gooch recovers the life of 13th century Persian mystic and poet Rumi, best known in the West for such inspirational concepts as “let the beauty of what you love be what you do.” Gooch brings to this book the talents that made his earlier biographies -- City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara and Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor – such pleasurable reading. Gooch set out to inhabit Rumi’s journey fully, following his footprints from Central Asia to Turkey, where the poet’s family migrated when it was displaced by the Mongol reign of terror. Gooch, who learned Persian, illuminates an array of important influences, such as the iconoclastic mystic Shams of Tabriz, to move beyond the cliches surrounding Rumi and reveal a more complex and interesting figure.
3. The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain and the Birth of American Empire Stephen Kinzer (Henry Holt)
Kinzer, a former New York Times bureau chief in Turkey, Germany, and Nicaragua, and author of several books about American imperialism, takes on the Spanish-American War in this fascinating and timely new book. As in previous books like Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq, Kinzer shows a keen interest in, and insight into, the national debate over whether America should plant its flag, and exert its influence, in other lands. He has a stellar cast of characters to work with in this story, as famous Americans like Theodore Roosevelt, William Randolph Hearst, and Mark Twain all weighed in on the war — with Twain emerging as an especially ardent and eloquent foe of empire-building.
4. Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved By Beauty: An Intimate Portrait of My Grandmother by Kate Hennessy (Scribner)
Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, is a popular heroine today for her radical activism, passionate writing, and selfless work on behalf of the poorest of the poor. Day died in 1980 and now Hennessy, her granddaughter, has written an intimate portrait that adds new dimensions to her story. Hennessy traces the arc of her grandmother’s life, including an early abortion and a child born out of wedlock before her conversion, and sympathetically recounts Day’s determined efforts to challenge the Church and fight for the powerless. At the heart of the book is the complicated relationship between Hennessy’s mother Tamar, who raised nine children (the author was the youngest), and her iconic mother.
5. Who Killed Piet Barol? by Richard Mason (Knopf)
Mason takes Piet Barol, the bad-boy fop from his excellent previous novel History of a Pleasure Seeker, and brilliantly remakes him and his avaricious wife as fraudsters living as French aristocrats in Cape Town, South Africa as World War I approaches. The charismatic huckster comes up with a scheme to get himself out of debt by exploiting a coastal village with a pristine mahogany forest – a plan that involves convincing the Xhosa people who worship it that it is dangerous and inhabited by threatening creatures. Mason elevates the novel beyond a typical story of suspense with rich multiple story lines and a clear explication of the colonial greed that underlay the Native Land Act of 1914 that undergirded apartheid. With an omniscient voice and multiple viewpoints -- even trees and spiders tell their stories -- the result is a an ambitious, elegantly written novel with a touch of magic.