These are five books people are talking about this week -- or should be:
1. Madam President: The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf by Helene Cooper (Simon & Schuster)
In her wonderful memoir The House at Sugar Beach, which was a National Book Critics Circle finalist, Cooper chronicled her childhood in Liberia and her family’s flight after a military coup. Cooper, a New York Times reporter who covered the George W. Bush and Barack Obama presidencies, turns now to Liberia’s transformation under Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the Harvard-educated global bureaucrat who “upended centuries of male political dominance in one of Africa’s most devastated places” and was elected president. As Cooper recounts, a grassroots movement that built momentum among female voters elevated Sirleaf to power. More than a biography of one woman’s ascendance, Madam President encompasses the larger, woeful history of a nation that has progressed far but still has far to go.
2. The Death and Life of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan (W. W. Norton)
In this literary clarion call, Egan makes a compelling case that the Great Lakes, a 94,000-square-mile natural resource, are a catastrophe in the making. Drawing on his years of reporting on the Great Lakes for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Egan has written a compelling book that explores centuries of exploitation and considers strategies that could rescue this fragile ecosystem. Egan chronicles the impact of the building of the Erie Canal and St. Lawrence Seaway, which upended a natural balance and led to the dangerous proliferation of invasive species like “Junior Mint-sized zebra and quagga mussels.” Egan’s narrative reflects a nuanced understanding of history and science, which is matched by his keen perceptions about public policy.
3. The Hearts of Men by Nickolas Butler (Ecco)
The opening of this extraordinary novel seems to be a simple story about a pathetic Boy Scout at Camp Chippewa, but Butler elevates it into a panoramic work of the American imagination and an exploration of the male psyche. The Hearts of Men is told in four parts that span three generations. The narrative reaches back to a morally upright World War I-veteran Scoutmaster, who is eventually succeeded by a once-lonely Boy Scout in his charge, whom he has steered to West Point and who eventually ends up in Vietnam. Butler’s keen insight into his characters is matched by his story-telling talent and capacity for creating a riveting drama full of big questions about integrity and honor.
4. Six Encounters with Lincoln: A President Confronts Democracy and Its Demons by Elizabeth Brown Pryor (Viking Books)
Pryor, a high-level American Foreign Service officer and eminent Civil War historian, who won the 2008 Lincoln Prize for Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters, died tragically in a 2015 car crash. She had spent years submerged in letters, diary entries, and newspaper articles from the 1860s, focusing on first-hand and contemporaneous accounts of interactions with Abraham Lincoln, and left behind a completed manuscript that wove together the episodes that became this extraordinary book. Brown carefully examines Lincoln’s interactions with little-known contemporaries, which provides a new and illuminating way of looking at his life and his presidency. Her stories about Lincoln crossing paths with a wide swath of Americans is a sharp reminder that, as Brown puts it, “Lincoln’s republic was a government of, by, and for only some of the people.”
5. Lover by Anna Raverat (Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
A wife is blindsided by the discovery of a philandering husband’s email that exposes his exchange with a woman writing to “Prince Charming.” Lover may sound like yet another work of fiction narrated by a slightly off-kilter wife, but it really is a clever novel full of sharp social observations about the shallowness of the contemporary world and its myriad clichés. Narrator Kate is “Director of Business Innovation” at a third-tier hotel chain, in charge of “The Guest Experience.” She is surrounded by yes-men, and a scheming boss. Set in London, Lover is a little Bridget Jones and a whole lot of Maria Semple. " A badly run hotel is like a marriage that’s not being cared for: it might look all right to a casual observer, but there are signs,” muses Kate. “The ghost trees, the blood-streaked drip in the kitchen, the small turn in the stairway."