5 HOT BOOKS: Vaccine Scientists, a History of Rorschach Tests, and More

These are five books people are talking about this week — or should be:

1. The Inkblots: Herman Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing by Damion Searls (Crown)

The Rorschach test, the psychological examination in which a subject’s perceptions of ink blocks are interpreted and analyzed, has become a universal cultural shorthand since it was devised a century ago. In this fascinating new book, Searls draws on a newly discovered archive and tells how Rorschach developed the test in a Swiss asylum.  With a deep knowledge of the works of both Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, Searls offers up deep insights into the workings of the Rorschach test and traces how its popularity has shifted and evolved over the years — particularly after it took hold in the American psyche.

2. Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life by Yiyun Li (Random House)

In times of despair, Li read Katherine Mansfield’s notebooks to distract herself, and she draws her memoir’s title from a line in one of Mansfield’s entries. “What a long way it is from one life to another,” Li writes, “yet why write if not for that distance, if things can be let go, everybody before replaced by an after.” Li is an extraordinary fiction writer, a MacArthur Fellowship winner who possesses dazzling insight and felicity with the English language – especially noteworthy because she moved from Beijing, after her army service, to the United States in 1996 to study immunology, and turned to fiction-writing to improve her English. In this brilliant, eloquent memoir – about making a life that matters — Li reflects in flashes on her childhood in China and coming of age as a writer. She was hospitalized twice after suicide attempts, and another time for a recovery program. Through it all, reading revivified her. Ultimately, one author in particular seems to radiate in Li’s gaze: William Trevor. “To write is to find a new way to see the world, and I did not doubt,” she writes, “as I was reading Trevor, that I wanted to see as he does.”

3. The Vaccine Race: Science, Politics, and the Human Costs of Defeating Disease by Meredith Wadman (Viking)

A generation ago, Rubella, known as German measles, was a major cause of horrible birth defects, but in 1962, a Philadelphia biologist made a discovery that led to a vaccine to prevent the disease. The cell line he identified led to more vaccines that protected against other diseases, like polio and chicken pox. In this impressive, dramatic new book, Wadman relates the stories of how scientists made these advances, even when powerful bureaucracies and egos threatened to get in the way. Wadman, a journalist who specializes in covering biomedical research, explains clearly how these diseases developed, and then how vaccines responded to them. She expands the reach of the book with some insightful forays into ethical issues involved in medical research, particularly experimentation using human fetal tissue.

4. Shining City by Tom Rosenstiel (Ecco)

While our nation’s capital may seem dramatic enough these days, here comes a thriller that uses Washington as the backdrop for some serious, old-fashioned skullduggery. Rosenstiel, onetime reporter for Newsweek and the Los Angeles Times, founder of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, and most recently executive director of the American Press Institute and senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, centers this sharp debut novel on a confirmation battle over a new Supreme Court justice. Rosenstiel brings his deep experience to this story of a political fixer and his team hired to guide this nominee through the confirmation process.  The would-be justice is a provocative iconoclast, inspiring tensions on both sides of the aisle, and anxieties are ratcheted up when, in classic thriller fashion, the bodies begin piling up.

5. Running by Cara Hoffman (Simon & Schuster)

Three fascinating young people are at the center of this fever dream of a novel, which has the velocity of a bullet train.  The story spans decades and crosses the world, but it all begins simply, when three young people forge a deep emotional connection in 1980’s Athens. Each is an outsider, but they’re drawn to one another as smart, adventurous characters, comfortable living a little precariously. They work as “runners,” shills of a sort who work the trains selling unsuspecting, disoriented tourists rooms at low-end hotels.  For delivering these guests, the runners receive kickbacks in the form of a few drachmas and a place to crash. Hoffman sketches her characters adeptly, but she does not stint on the action. She has written a suspenseful, dramatic novel that hinges on a radical and violent act that echoes through time, and into the character and souls of her protagonists.