5 HOT BOOKS: Do Bad Brains Create Murderers?, Dictionary Stories, and More

1. The Brain Defense: Murder in Manhattan and the Dawn of Neuroscience in America’s Courtrooms by Kevin Davis (Penguin Press)

Can neuroscience determine guilt or innocence? That is the question Kevin Davis explores in his provocative, insightful new book, The Brain Defense. To explain the relationship between brain studies and violent crimes, Davis, author of Defending the Damned: Inside Chicago's Cook County Public Defender's Office, and American Bar Association Journal editor, focuses on a 1991 case in which a 65-year-old man knocked his wife unconscious and threw her from the window of their 12th floor apartment. Although he confessed, an MRI revealed a huge cyst in his left frontal lobe which the lawyer claimed explained the murder.  With a sophisticated understanding of both medicine and the law, Davis uses this case as a launching pad for a deeper exploration of new research on brain disease and injury and how the legal system has responded.

2. The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti (Dial Press)

This coming-of-age story/literary thriller has characters and scenes that are so distinctive and memorable the pages seem to glow.  Throw in a love interest, add a bit of the ancient myth of Hercules, and the result is an astonishing sophomore novel.  Tinti tells the story of a charming father-daughter duo — much like Ryan and Tatum O'Neal in Paper Moon — through alternating chapters.  Loo moves from childhood through adolescence while her gun-toting father Samuel Hawley, a long-time criminal, gets 12 chapters, one for each of the scars left by bullet holes in his body. Tinti, co-founder and executive editor of the literary magazine One Story, which publishes one work of short fiction a month, begins The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley with a crackling opening sentence, “When Loo was twelve years old her father taught her to use a gun,” and the adventure begins.

3. Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan (Restless Press)

Much attention has been lavished on the new architectural wonders of Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates. But it has largely been left to the fiction writers to imagine who builds, cleans, and serves in those new buildings. Temporary People, a collection of 28 linked stories that together form a novel, puts faces and names to the faceless, nameless guest workers in the U.A.E., and explores the problems that result when foreign nationals are over 80% of a country’s population. The book —  which won the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing — is an overcrowded bazaar of voices and styles, with each chapter stylistically reflecting wildly different characters, foreign laborers in this glittering land of plenty. The result is a hallucinatory, entirely vivid, and engrossing reading experience.

4. The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution: Why Economic Inequality Threatens Our Republic by Ganesh Sitaraman (Alfred A. Knopf)

“The number one threat to the American constitutional government today is the collapse of the middle class,” declares Sitaraman, professor at Vanderbilt Law School and long-time advisor to Senator Elizabeth Warren, as he opens his provocative and compelling book about the explosion of income inequality. Fusing philosophy, history and economics, Sitaraman rejects the idea that the threats to America are the rise of presidential power, a growing national security state, Washington gridlock, or a polarized electorate. Instead, he offers up a challenge: “Will we accept oligarchy and the threat of demagogues and tyrants? Or will we work to restore the economic preconditions for our republic?”

5. Word by Word: The Secret Lives of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper (Pantheon Books)

“Lexicography is an intermingling of science and art,” writes Stamper in her irreverent, engaging memoir, a behind-the-scenes view of life at Springfield, Mass.-based Merriam-Webster, the oldest dictionary maker in America. The most important job requirement, she says, is sprachgeful, which means “a feeling for language.” Stamper also has a keen eye for good stories, and they abound as she wryly recounts battles over words like “irregardless” and her own role as “America’s foremost ‘irregardless’ apologist.”  Chapter by chapter, Stamper focuses on how dictionaries evolve, a not always pretty process, we see, as her employer resorts to layoffs.  It’s a bittersweet tale, and Stamper renders it gallantly. “English bounds onward, and we drudges will continue to chase after it,” she writes, “a little ragged for the rough terrain, perhaps, but ever tracking, eyes wide with quiet and reverence.”