5 Hot Books: A Compelling New History of the Spanish Civil War, an Iranian Human Rights Memoir, and More

Five books people are talking about this week -- or should be:

1. Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War by Adam Hochschild (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

The Spanish Civil War was perhaps, bullet for bullet, the most literary war in history, chronicled in classic books like Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, and in dispatches from journalistic icons like Martha Gellhorn.  Hochschild, who takes his title from Camus, considers the war’s literary legacy, but his real interest is in the fighters against fascism who signed up to resist a regime aligned with the still-ascendant Hitler and Mussolini. Hochschild, a founder of Mother Jones magazine, wrote a remarkable account of the costs of empire in King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa, which was a finalist for an NBCC award in 1998.  In telling the story of Spain’s bloody battle between freedom and fascism – in which about a half million lives were lost – he has written a powerful history of both war and idealism.

2. Until We Are Free: My Fight for Human Rights in Iran by Shirin Ebadi (Random House)

For her work as a human rights lawyer, Ebadi became the first Muslim woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.  In this memoir, she tells the story of how the Islamic Republic of Iran harassed and intimidated her, and how the abuse grew even worse after she won the Nobel and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad rose to power. Ebadi writes of oppression and her own exile with depth and passion and emerges from these pages as a courageous, persistent crusader determined to fight brutality at home and around the world.

3. The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien (Little, Brown)

From the author of The Country Girls trilogy, who has been honored with the Irish PEN Lifetime Achievement Award, this is an engrossing novel from a literary master at the peak of her powers. O’Brien once again looks inside small villages in rural Ireland, and remains as alert as ever to the contradictory impulses and repressed feelings that lurk there.  This time, the complicated landscape is jarred by the arrival of a mysterious figure who is eventually revealed to be the “Beast of Bosnia,” so named for his role in the recent genocide. O’Brien moves the action from Ireland to London and The Hague, with careful attention to victims of war crimes and to a country girl who fell for the dark visitor.

4. Hold Still by Lynn Steger Strong (Norton/Liveright)

Set against a backdrop of frigid New York and steamy, sticky Florida, this powerful debut novel about a mother, a daughter, and a tragic incident ebbs and flows, sucking readers into its undertow.  The story has drama and suspense, but Strong’s greatest talent lies in how she expertly traces the tremors, large and small, in family relationships and closely observes how they change with time and circumstance.

5. Face: Cartography of the Void by Chris Abani (Restless Books)

This slender, provocative book is part of “The Face Series” from new publisher Restless Books, in which a talented and diverse group of writers use their own faces as a way of exploring their psyches and experiences. In this lyrically written volume, Abani, a poet, screenwriter, and fiction writer (The Secret History of Las Vegas), who grew up in the Igbo culture of West Africa in Afikpo, Nigeria, asks readers to consider how their own selves evolved and were shaped by their appearances. Albani’s essayish self-portrait responds not only to the harshness of life, but to the kindness, joy and the humor around him.