1. Playing with Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics by Lawrence O’Donnell (Penguin Press)
In the tradition of Theodore H. White’s The Making of a President series, O’Donnell casts a new light on the dramatic 1968 campaign and its larger resonances. O’Donnell, once an aide to Senator Patrick Moynihan and now an MSNBC television host, begins his fast-paced, character-driven narrative in the make-up room of The Mike Douglas Show, where executive producer Roger Ailes, who went on to found Fox News, forged a bond with Richard Nixon, then just another loser in a crowded Republican field. With the cadence and tone of his nightly show, O’Donnell cuts to the draft, to Vietnam, and most poignantly to telegenic Bobby Kennedy, writing – before the assassination that changed everything – that “Johnson and Nixon and the others believed that Bobby held history in his hands.”
2. Heather, The Totality by Matthew Weiner (Little, Brown)
This engrossing novella’s opening line -- “Mark and Karen Breakstone got married a little late in life” – introduces the leader to the narrator’s coolly observant eye. On Park Avenue, the Breakstones’ leggy 14-teen-year old daughter Heather has grown increasingly aware of the wealth disparity around her, and catches the eye of an unhinged construction worker. As is to be expected from Weiner, who gave the world the television phenomenon Mad Men, the dialogue is crisp, and a keen sense of class dynamics and nuanced characters propel Heather, The Totality toward its haunting conclusion.
3. The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World by Maya Jasanoff (Penguin Press)
Joseph Conrad, a Polish-born sailor who settled in England, anglicized his name, and wrote novels like Heart of Darkness lived “globalization” before the word existed. But as Harvard history professor Jasanoff writes, “Conrad’s pen was like a magic wand, conjuring the spirits of the future” as he traveled from imperial Russia to the Caribbean and the Congo, experiencing convergence of technological innovation, nationalism, and immigration. To fully understand Conrad and his fiction, Jasanoff followed his path around the world “with the compass of a historian, the chart of a biographer, and the navigational sextant of a fiction reader” and returned to stylishly make the case for Conrad’s fiction as prophecy.
4. Radio Free Vermont: A Fable of Resistance by Bill McKibben (Blue Rider Press),
Environmentalist and writer McKibben, whose 1989 The End of Nature, a battle cry about the danger of climate change, was so prescient, has delivered a delightful debut novel. With a wry, light touch, he has imagined the slightly dorky, easygoing staff of “Radio Free Vermont,” with its slogan “underground, underpowered and underfoot,” and a genial and principled host who seems like a cross between Garrison Keillor and Paul Harvey. These underground podcast-loving rebels plan actions like freeing middle-schoolers for the afternoon to enjoy “Ethan Allen Day” and replacing the beer on a Coors truck with local ale, in their earnest determination to free Vermonters from big-anything, and encourage them to live small, buy local, and join the resistance.
5. The Wine Lover’s Daughter by Anne Fadiman (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Clifton Fadiman, editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster, radio host of ''Information Please,'' and Book of the Month Club judge was a witty intellectual, but in her charming memoir, his daughter recalls a very different passion. “Aside from books, he loved nothing – and no one – longer, more ardently, or more faithfully than he loved wine,” writes Fadiman, writer-in-residence at Yale, essayist, and author of the award-winning The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. At the turn of the century, for a Jewish boy from Brooklyn eager to find his way in a world of sophistication, wine was a companionable, and elevating, subject to be mastered. “Wine,” she writes, “was both civilized and civilizing.”