5 Hot Books: Investigating the Brutal Murder of an American in South Africa, an Appalachian Memoir, and More

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

1. We Are Not Such Things: The Murder of a Young American, a South African Township, and the Search for Truth and Reconciliation by Justine van der Leun (Spiegel & Grau)

In the last days of apartheid in South Africa, Amy Biehl, 26-year-old American, a recent graduate of Stanford and a Fulbright scholar, was killed by a horde of young black men. Biehl’s parents expressed their forgiveness to two of the men involved and established a foundation to honor their daughter. Two decades later, van der Leun, a young American journalist in South Africa, revisits the horrible murder, and the ongoing efforts of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In this gripping narrative, van de Leun provides a first-person account of her attempts to investigate the contradictory stories about Biehl’s death, and also probes what the myths about this episode convey about contemporary South Africa.

2. The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between by Hisham Matar (Random House)

Living in exile in Egypt, Matar’s father – a leading opponent of the Qaddafi regime – was kidnapped, and taken to a Tripoli prison.  Matar never saw his father again. More than two decades later, Matar (with his wife and mother) returned to Libya in an attempt to understand his father’s disappearance. A wonderful novelist (In the Country of Men and Anatomy of a Disappearance), Matar’s fiction has been shortlisted for both the Man Booker Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award. He writes eloquent and precise prose, and his deep inquiry into his father’s imprisonment and absence, and the conflicting details about his death, blend with consideration of Libya’s politics and history, to create  a deeply resonant memoir.

3. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance (Harper)

His grandmother once told him that his family could call themselves “hillbillies,” but that nobody else could level the charge. Vance, a former Marine and graduate of Yale Law School, grew up in a small town in Ohio’s coal country, a part of Appalachia. In his deeply affecting memoir, Vance describes the poverty, joblessness, and opiate addition that characterize life there. Recalling his father’s absence and mother’s addiction, and how his grandparents raised him, Vance reaches beyond his own experience and contends that the abundant hopelessness of those in the region will only increase as families and communities continue to fray.

4. The Baseball Whisperer: A Small-Town Coach Who Shaped Big League Dreams by Michael Tackett (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

“Merl Eberly created a real-life Field of Dreams,” writes Tackett in this charming book about how Eberly (the “quiet hero next door) created a national baseball powerhouse with a network of college coaches, scouts, and players in a small town in southwestern Iowa. Tackett recounts how Eberly, once a teenager headed for trouble, was helped by a coach and aspired to do the same for another generation. “He wanted to help young players become better men, learn the value of discipline and the selflessness of team play,” writes Tackett, a past Chicago Tribune Washington bureau chief and currently an editor in the Washington bureau of The New York Times.

5. Here Comes the Sun (Liveright Publishing) by Nicole Dennis-Benn

This wonderful debut novel with a vividly sunny cover, a page-turner set on an island, is a real twist on the idea of a beach read. Dennis-Benn’s island is Jamaica, and hers is the flipside of paradise: a place where generations have been exploited by the tourist industry.  At the novel’s core is the unforgettable character Margot, who does what she needs, even sell herself to men, to win economic independence and an education for her younger sister – and to survive.  Dennis-Benn, who deals adeptly with complex social issues – race, class, homophobia –has written a dazzling story full of heart and passion.