1. Strangers Tend to Tell Me Things: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Coming Home by Amy Dickinson (Hachette Books)
Freeville, N.Y. is a village of 520 people, and Dickinson’s family roots there trace back to 1790. It is a place, she explains, that nurtures two kinds of people: “those who stay and those who leave.” Dickinson, author of the “Ask Amy” advice column, and panelist on the NPR quiz show Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me….! left, and then returned — and stayed. In her beguiling memoir, Dickinson captures the full spectrum of human experience, from her mother’s death to a love affair with a man named Bruno. For another writer, the return home could be treacly stuff, but Dickinson rescues the narrative with her characteristic irreverent charm and comedic timing. “The elevator pitch goes like this,” Dickinson writes: “Withering writer meets hunky contractor. Sparks fly!” Best of all, Dickinson establishes a bond with readers, through candor and humor. No Brady Bunch blended family business, here — Dickinson wryly reports that “life in Bruno’s household in the early days felt like a continuous date at a Slovenian cocktail party.”
2. You Say to Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn by Wendy Lesser (Farrar, Straus Giroux)
The powerful 2003 documentary My Architect was the life of famed architect Louis Kahn as seen by Nathaniel Kahn, his youngest son. The elder Kahn left behind a wife and children (including Nathaniel) born to other women with whom he was in long-term relationships. In this extraordinary biography, cultural critic Lesser seems to inhabit Kahn’s life and art and enriches our understanding and appreciation of a complicated genius. Lesser’s deep archival research and extensive interviews with Kahn’s friends, foes, colleagues, and rivals, are revelatory, but this biography is distinguished by its focus on Kahn’s work as a “public” architect whose “best buildings are works of art that, to be fully appreciated, need to be experienced by a body moving through space.” For that reason, the biography is punctuated by a series of “in situ” descriptions of what it is like to move through some Kahn’s greatest structures, like the Kimbell Art Museum or the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, India.
3. Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power by Howard French (Alfred A. Knopf)
In this masterful new book, French fuses a deep understanding of China’s history and original reporting to anticipate China’s growing role in the geopolitical world order. A past Asia correspondent for The New York Times, and now on the faculty of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, French makes the case for a more informed American policy toward China. “A China that is treated as an equal with much to contribute to human betterment, but met with understated but resolute firmness when need be, is a China that will mellow as it advances in the decades ahead, and then most likely plateau,” French argues. “That is a China that will grow more secure in its greatness, a China we can live with.”
4. Teeth: Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Care in America by Mary Otto (New Press)
A Hollywood smile signals success, and the social pressure to have perfect teeth has led to a booming cosmetic dentistry industry. Yet as Otto illustrates in this fascinating book, millions of Americans lack access to basic dental care, and many end up in the emergency room with dental problems. Otto, once with the Washington Post and now involved with oral health for the Association of Health Care Journalists, explains how dentists came to work mostly in solo practices and how this ‘cottage industry’ has resisted incorporation into managed care. The result, she argues is “enduring tension between the need of all Americans for dental services and the lack of services available to millions of us” — a state of affairs that leaves the uncared for not only with health problems but the social stigma of bad teeth.
5. The Idiot by Elif Batuman (Penguin Press)
Selin, the language-loving narrator of Batuman’s wonderfully smart and engaging debut novel The Idiot, is a taller-than-average Turkish-American, who is a Harvard freshman on the cusp of adulthood. Batuman’s 2010 The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them demonstrated a brilliant associative mind, and an eye for the richly absurd details of life, and she deploys these talents again in The Idiot. On her first day of college in 1995, Selin stood in line behind a folding table and waited to receive an email address – and she pondered the onslaught of new and perplexing technologies. “I didn’t understand how the email address was an address or what it was short for,” Selin recalls. “‘What do we do with this, hang ourselves?’ I asked, holding up the Ethernet cable.”