1. Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson (Simon & Schuster)
Isaacson has written acclaimed biographies of Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, and Steve Jobs, and now he adds a luminous portrait of Leonardo da Vinci to the list. The common theme among these great figures, he notes: a shared talent for making connections across disciplines – arts and sciences, humanities and technology – which is “key to innovation, imagination and genius.” Isaacson began by studying the great artist’s voluminous notebooks, with their 7,200 pages of notes, scribbles, and to-do lists. At the conclusion of this beautifully designed and illustrated book, Isaacson offers his own “Learnings from Leonardo,” which include: “Be curious, relentlessly curious,” “Go down rabbit holes,” “Procrastinate,” and finally, “Be open to mystery.”
2. Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks (Alfred A. Knopf)
Hanks may be America’s most beloved actor, but he has always been drawn to unusual lead roles, in movies like Forrest Gump, Big, and Castaway. That inclination for the somewhat off-center is on display in remarkable form in Uncommon Type, his engaging debut short story collection. Hanks has traded Hollywood and the romantic comedies for which he is known for rewarding stories about quirky, real people ranging from a teenage surfer, to a war veteran, to a small-town newspaper columnist, to a group of friends building a spaceship in their backyard. Typewriters are also a recurrent, charming theme.
3. Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell by David Yaffe (Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
From Mitchell’s isolated but tumultuous childhood on the Canadian prairie and polio diagnosis to her rise as a musical icon, Yaffe engagingly chronicles her life and explains that “it was her destiny to alchemize all that loneliness into music that made people feel they were not alone.” Mitchell transforms from a wispy blonde 24-year-old divorcee who had secretly relinquished her baby for adoption into a songwriter and performer of iconic music like “Both Sides, Now,” “Chelsea Morning,” and “Woodstock,” the anthem for a movement. Drawing on interviews with a wide array of sources, including musicians like Joan Baez, Judy Collins, David Crosby, Herbie Hancock, and the late Leonard Cohen, as well as his own deep knowledge of her music, Yaffe’s intimate biography captures Mitchell’s mercurial personality as well as her extraordinary gifts.
4. The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia by Masha Gessen (Riverhead Books)
Gessen, the biographer of Russian President Vladimir Putin, now focuses on the trauma and disappointment of Russia today. In her new book, recently short-listed for a National Book Award, Gessen offers up seven characters: a psychoanalyst, a sociologist and a nationalist philosopher, who fully grasp Russia’s transition from Soviet communism to Putin’s brand of state and crony capitalism, and four young people, born as the Soviet empire weakened, and struggling with today’s political and cultural repression. Forceful and eloquent on the history of her native country, Gessen is alarming and pessimistic about its future as it doubles down on totalitarianism.
5. The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
McDermott, who won the 1998 National Book Award for Charming Billy, returns to the fertile terrain of a Brooklyn neighborhood of Irish Catholic immigrants in the first half of the 20th century. The Ninth Hour, named for the hour of afternoon prayer, begins with a suicide, spans three generations, and is animated by the nuns of the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor, who take in a pregnant widow and help raise her daughter. McDermott eloquently contends with the power – and limits – of faith, the knot of selflessness and selfishness, and the complicated nature of sacrifice in a world rendered livable through empathy, love, and language.