These are five books people are talking about this week -- or should be:
1. Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in America by James Forman, Jr. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Foreman -- a Yale Law School professor and a onetime public defender in Washington, D.C. -- is a child of the civil rights movement. His parents met on the front lines of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and his father became one of the movement's most prominent leaders. While Foreman appreciates what was accomplished in that era, his new book focuses on what was left undone. “The nation’s prison population was growing darker,” he writes. “In 1954, the year of Brown v. Board of Education, about one-third of the nation’s prisoners were black.” Four decades later, that number was approaching 50 percent. Foreman digs down deep on the racial politics of crime and punishment in Washington, D.C., and notes a stark reality: a large percentage of the lawmakers writing the gun and drug laws, which locked so many black youth away, and the police, prosecutors, and judges enforcing them, were themselves black. In this important book, Foreman takes on the fundamental question: “What was going on? How did a majority-black jurisdiction end up incarcerating so many of its own?”
2. Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann (Doubleday)
In 1920s Oklahoma, after the discovery of oil, some members of the Osage Indian nation were considered the wealthiest people per capita in the world. Then, they were destroyed. This horrific and little-known episode in American history, called the “Reign of Terror,” is chronicled eloquently and forcefully in this new history, which vividly reveals how avaricious whites deceived and manipulated the Osage people to gain control of the oil rights, and then ultimately killed them. New Yorker staff writer Grann (The Lost City of Z) exposes these criminal acts, and unravels the knotted web of government corruption that supported the racist depravity. While the FBI tracked some of the killers, Grann goes much further, locating new documents and sources to expose the full range of the horrors.
3. No One Is Coming to Save Us by Stephanie Powell Watts (Ecco)
No One Is Coming to Save Us has been called a modern-day The Great Gatsby, high praise indeed – yet in some ways, the comparison sells this original debut novel short. Watts tells the story of an African-American family in a beleaguered North Carolina town, the trajectory of which changes sharply when a financially successful man, J.J. Ferguson, returns home to build a mansion on a hill. Pinewood, N.C., which has declined precipitously since the furniture industry that was once its lifeblood moved to Asia, is dominated by a cast of richly drawn women, with the men – other than the affluent Ferguson – ambling along in a desultory way. Jim Crow is alive and well in Pinewood, and its dark pull imbues this powerful novel with a Gatsby-like sense of tragedy in a world far away from the Long Island Sound – and helps to make Watts’s debut an emotionally resonant, highly original, exploration of the American Dream.
4. A Colony in a Nation by Chris Hayes (W. W. Norton)
In this smart history, Hayes, the host of MSNBC’s All In with Chris Hayes, twists an old Richard Nixon phrase, and provides a new perspective to the fight for social justice. Following up on his last book, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, about the implosion of powerful American institutions, Hayes takes on criminal justice, focusing on America, the nation with the world’s highest incarceration rate. He draws from his own personal experiences – he was caught with marijuana, for instance, with no consequences – and blends them with the political commentary and social analysis for which he is known on his popular television show. Hayes argues that America can be divided into two parts: the “Nation,” the affluent, white elite, and the “Colony,” largely urban, overwhelmingly black and brown, and poor, with an increasing number of poor white people mixed in, who lead lives of discrimination and subjugation.
5. Double-Bind: Women on Ambition by Robin Romm (Liveright)
Between Leaning In, Pussy Hats, and Fearless Girl, it might seem as though women are confidently forging ahead with no underlying apprehensions of seeming “aggressive” or “strident.” But tap into the psyches of individual women, and ambition is a vexed notion. Romm’s provocative and fascinating essay collection points to a perpetual "double-bind" of “success paired eternally with scrutiny and retreat.” Readers will be spared essays by CEOS on the joys of breastfeeding or dressing for success. Instead, this wise and satisfying collection explores a variety of aspects of ambition, with advice on how to embrace it with confidence. Romm, a fiction writer, memoirist and teacher, has marshaled an intellectually wide-ranging contributors roster. Roxane Gay and Cristina Henriquez reflect on their experiences being ambitious women of color. In “The Chang Girls,” Lan Samantha Chang, director of the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop, recounts how she and her sisters “were launched into our American lives on the rocket fuel of my parents’ hope and desperation.” And actress and fiction writer Molly Ringwald writes of asking her 12-year-old daughter what her biggest ambition was. She replied: “’Not to stress about ambition. . . . I just want to be happy.’” Maybe, Ringwald muses, this new generation is really on to something.