5 HOT BOOKS: Preparing for Our Robotic Future, a Tale of Love and Arson, and More

1. Machine, Platform, Crowd: Harnessing Our Digital Future by Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson (W. W. Norton)

The world is changing fast, and MIT's Brynjolfsson and McAfee, authors of The Second Age, have some advice on how to make the disruption less painful and more positive. They identify three overwhelming trends – the rise of artificial intelligence that complements the human mind, the rise of platforms that bring digital goods and services to an essentially limitless audience, and the rise of crowds, whose influence has the potential to surpass companies. What is critical, they argue, is that we harness these forces in ways that increase quality of life and share the benefits broadly.  In this visionary and important book, Brynjolfsson and McAfee are, ultimately, optimists about the vast changes the future has in store.

2. The Graybar Hotel by Curtis Dawkins (Scribner)

An unlikely debut author, Dawkins is a confessed killer and recovering addict, with an MFA degree, who has been serving life without parole in Michigan since 2004. In The Graybar Hotel, Dawkins has delivered a wrenchingly beautiful collection of short stories rooted in the routines of the prison experience.  Neither as politically charged or as absurdly funny as Orange is the New Black, nor as clichéd and violent as much of the other pop culture about prison life, these stories explore the psychological accommodations necessary to survive every day. Unnamed narrators make random phone calls to hear new voices. They watch baseball games and imagine the lives of those in the stands. They make chess pieces from wet toilet paper. “When you’re separated from the people you know and love,” Dawkins writes, “every emotion is multiplied.”

3. Made for Love by Alissa Nutting (Ecco)

Love, money and technology mix in Nutting’s charming screwball comedy of a novel set in the near future. Hazel flees her controlling tech guru and germ-obsessed husband, whose latest scheme involves the first-ever “mind-meld,” in which she will be connected permanently with a brain-chip. She lands with her father (and his sex doll) as a roommate in his senior citizen trailer park.  There’s a zany charm to Made for Love, as Hazel eludes her husband’s high-tech surveillance, deals with her father and his doll, and connects with a suave conman who has a romantic attraction to dolphins.

4. American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land by Monica Hesse (Liveright)

Virginia's Accomack County was once the wealthiest rural county in the nation, but the recession left many buildings abandoned. Over five months that terrified townspeople, a local couple known as the “Bonnie and Clyde of the Eastern Shore” set more than 80 of these buildings on fire.  He was a recovering drug addict who volunteered with the fire department and she was the “queen” of the local nightclub. Hesse initially covered the trial for the Washington Post and then immersed herself in the community. She interviewed over 100 residents to understand not only the culprits’ love affair and their obsession with arson, but also the downward trajectory of the place that produced them.

5. Draw Your Weapons by Sarah Sentilles (Random House)

In her dynamic, impressionistic (and cleverly titled) book, Sentilles focuses on language and images – particularly photography – and considers what role they play in peace and war. Eschewing a traditional narrative, Sentilles focuses on two men – one a World War II conscience objector who makes violins, and the other an Abu Ghraib prison guard who paints detainee portraits. In brief, delicately layered pieces rather than a narrative, Sentilles has created a collage that explores art, violence, and what it means to live a principled life.