1. Supernormal: The Untold Story of Adversity and Resilience by Meg Jay (Twelve)
Clinical psychologist Jay, celebrated for her best-selling The Defining Decade and TED Talk “Why 30 Is Not the New 20,” now focuses beyond 20-somethings on those who triumphed over childhood trauma or adversity. These people are Jay’s “Supernormals,” and in her energetic and compassionate new book, she finds that those who beat the odds have one common quality: resilience. “It is the untold story,” she writes, “of a diverse group of women and men who are united by the experience of surviving and thriving outside the so-called average and expectable.”
2. The Annotated African American Folktales: Edited with a Foreword, Introduction, and Notes by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Maria Tatar (Liveright)
This exquisitely designed treasure trove of a book, a collection of folktales, myths and legends, vivifies the rich African-American past. Harvard University professors Gates, known for his PBS documentaries such as Finding Your Roots, and Tatar, author of The Classic Fairy Tales, have traced tales, ballads, and lore from their origins around the world and illuminated them with annotation, gorgeous images, and framing essays. As Tatar writes in her introduction, the stories they assembled “entered the bloodstream of the vernacular to become communal wisdom in an era when few had access to the instruments of writing and reading.”
3. The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship, and Hope in an American Classroom by Helen Thorpe (Scribner)
Thorpe’s fascinating chronicle of a year in an English-acquisition class at a Denver high school provides a timely and much-needed perspective on the global refugee crisis. Led by their warmly encouraging teacher, these teenagers, with harrowing stories from countries such as Iraq (by way of Syria and Turkey), Vietnam, Somalia, El Salvador, Mozambique, Eritrea, Cambodia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, struggle to learn English, communicate with one another, and deal with their traumatic pasts. Thorpe, who has distinguished herself in previous books such as Soldier Girls, about women in the National Guard, once again demonstrates her talent for immersive reporting and compassionate narrative as she depicts her youthful subjects doing the hard, and occasionally exhilarating, work of adapting to life in America.
4. Hellfire Boys: The Birth of the U.S. Chemical Warfare Service and the Race for the World’s Deadliest Weapons by Theo Emery (Little, Brown)
In this illuminating account, Emery zeroes in on a little-known and sparsely documented moment in the history of chemical warfare that unfolded in a Washington, D.C., neighborhood once known as “Death Valley” or “Arsenic Alley.” A dump there, filled with World War I munitions loaded with mustard agent and other chemicals, was tied to the mysterious “American University Experiment Station” and a group of men who were on the cutting edge of military science in 1917. Emery’s prodigious research took him to the National Archives for records on the testing of mustard gas on dogs and humans, to Europe for reporting on the places where the weapons were used, and to the living descendants of the engineers-turned-soldiers who left a complicated and largely unexplored legacy of chemical weaponry.
5. Improvement by Joan Silber (Counterpoint)
Silber, whose fiction debuted in 1980, may finally be having her moment, winning comparisons to Alice Munro, the Canadian short story writer whose economical, emotionally piercing fiction has won her much acclaim and the Nobel Prize in Literature. Silber’s extraordinary new novel, with a single mother and her eccentric aunt at its center, is kaleidoscopic as it spans decades and stretches from New York to Berlin and Turkey. Her wildly different characters intersect, and as she subtly details the quotidian stuff of life, she raises questions about fate and chance, power and redemption, and, finally, the universal need for connection.