1. Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire: A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character by Kay Redfield Jamison (Alfred A. Knopf)
The delicate connection between bipolar disorder and creative genius is the underlying question animating this fascinating biography of one of America’s greatest poets. Jamison previously considered this relationship through the lens of her own life in her bestselling An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness, which explored her own struggle with manic depression. For this book, Robert Lowell’s family released medical records of the poet’s hospitalizations, which began in 1949 and continued throughout his life, touching on psychotherapy, electroconvulsive shock therapy, and drug prescriptions. The great strength of this work is the ability Jamison, a MacArthur Fellow and psychologist, demonstrates to understand not only Lowell’s disease but his poetry.
2. Jack and Norman: A State-Raised Convict and the Legacy of Norman Mailer’s ‘The Executioner’s Song’ by Jerome Loving (Thomas Dunne Books)
Norman Mailer won a Pulitzer Prize for The Executioner’s Song, a “real-life” novel about notorious killer Gary Gilmore, who was executed in 1977. Through writing the book Mailer developed a bond with another convicted murderer, Jack Henry Abbott, who contacted the famous author and convinced him he could explain what was going in in Gilmore’s head. In this fascinating book, Loving, a professor of literature at Texas A & M, recounts how Mailer eventually won Abbott’s release from prison, and helped him get his prison novel, In the Belly of the Beast, published. Abbott soon murdered again and returned to prison. With access to Abbot’s letters, Loving tells the whole riveting tale of homicide, prison life, literary celebrity, and the complexity of human relationships.
3. Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy by Tressie McMillan Cottom (The New Press)
Cottom, a former admissions counselor in the for-profit college world, bites down hard on the hand that once fed her. Now a sociology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, she estimates that more than two million students are enrolled in for-profit colleges, which she argues take advantage of vulnerable students, loading them down with debt and questionable credentials. That conclusion is hardly a shock, but she makes an eloquent case for the human toll of an educational sector that both thrives on economic inequality and perpetuates it.
4. Divided We Stand: The Battle Over Women's Rights and Family Values That Polarized American Politics by Marjorie J. Spruill (Bloomsbury)
In this provocative historical account, Spruill brings another perspective to the history of American women. She focuses on the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston, Texas, and the resulting split that separated feminists and female conservative activists. Spruill argues that ideological differences emerged when Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisholm and other feminists adopted a plan that endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion rights, and what conservative women regarded as a liberal agenda. Spruill, a professor at the University of South Carolina and author of New Women of the New South, contends that the conference gave Phyllis Schlafly a major boost in building a movement of conservative women and launching a “pro-family” movement.
5. Setting Free The Kites by Alex George (G. P. Putnam’s Sons)
Middle school is fertile ground for awkward and painful coming-of-age stories, and at the center of this engaging tale are two very different boys enduring those years on the coast of Maine. The narrator is the cautious one, who has been bullied in school but is rescued by a newcomer, an ebullient and fearless adolescent. George renders small-town life artfully, with charm and humor, and a large dollop of quirkiness, notably the narrator’s family business, an Arthurian legend-themed amusement park called “Fun-A-Lot,” whose slogan is "Olde England in New England."