1. No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters by Ursula K. Le Guin (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Wildly imaginative and prolific Le Guin, winner of the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, has gathered about 40 of her blog posts – punchy mini-essays, really – in this beguiling collection. Her canny, unpredictable musings segue from the coy and coercive quest for TGAN (The Great American Novel) to her prescient 2012 observations about “spin and illusion, hot air and hogwash” in politics, and threaded throughout are annals of Pard, her “utterly sweet and utterly nutty” tuxedo-marked cat adopted from the Humane Society. A particularly annoying query about “spare time” in her 60th college reunion questionnaire prompted her to scoff that she didn’t know about “spare time” because she was “occupied by living.”
2. Queen Victoria’s Matchmaking: The Royal Marriages that Shaped Europe by Deborah Cadbury (PublicAffairs)
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle wouldn’t have had a chance with matchmaking Queen Victoria, who schemed for her more than 40 grandchildren to marry into royal lines throughout Europe and thus extend the reach of Britain’s constitutional monarchy. Cadbury (of the famous chocolate family), a BBC producer and author of fine histories such as Chocolate Wars, dug deeply into the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle for her research and focused not only on the geopolitics of the marriages but also on the shenanigans of adultery, sexually transmitted diseases, and generally bad behavior. These marital alliances elevated the queen on the world stage, and Cadbury engrossingly chronicles them against the backdrop of power struggles on the eve of World War I.
3. Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone by Juli Berwald (Riverhead)
Who knew that weird, ancient, brainless, blobby – and sometimes deadly – jellyfish could be so fascinating? Berwald’s inquisitive nature and passion electrify Spineless, which is not only about jellyfish, but also climate change, marine science, and the ocean’s complexity. It is also Berwald's personal account of traveling – mostly with her family – around the globe to see these creatures in action and figure out if they, by clogging power plant intakes, ruining fisheries, and stinging vacationers, are doing real damage or if they’re the ones in danger. The book is also a story of one woman's passion. “There’s a fire in our bellies when we are young,” Berwald writes, reflecting on her years studying jellyfish. “As we age, our fire continues to burn, though sometimes the live coals become buried under the ashes. The jellyfish helped me dig down to a fire inside.”
4. Here in Berlin by Cristina Garcia (Counterpoint)
The narrator, a nameless Cuban-American woman called Visitor, is weighed down by the demise of her second marriage and a rupture from her vicious mother, and in a backwash of memories lives “unoccupied, disconnected, alone, invisible” in Berlin for a few months. With verve, the Visitor reports impressions of her encounters as she adapts to the city, and magically Garcia’s short chapters become a compulsively readable, kaleidoscopic novel depicting a multicultural Berlin in the shadow of World War II, transformed by history as well as newcomers from Cuba, Angola, and Russia. “Here in Berlin,” she reflects toward the end of her stay in the city, “the Visitor had listened to others’ histories and was finally released from her own.”
5. The Saboteur: The Aristocrat Who Became France’s Most Daring Anti-Nazi Commando by Paul Kix (Harper/HarperCollins)
Born into French nobility, forgotten Resistance fighter and spy Robert de La Rochefoucauld is the subject of this fascinating biography by Kix, deputy editor of ESPN: The Magazine. A teenager when the family estate was taken over by German officers, La Rochefoucauld joined the Resistance and eluded Nazis by dressing as a nun, a lumberjack, or a factory worker. He was captured and tortured several times and, although sentenced to death, he escaped. Drawing extensively on archives and interviews with descendants to document de La Rochefoucauld’s bravery, Kix also reports, less inspiringly, on how, late in life, his heroic protagonist testified in defense of a Vichy official accused of deporting Jews from France.