1. Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult by Bruce Handy (Simon & Schuster)
“Curious George and The Little Engine That Could have their moments but Goodnight Moon is a transcendent masterpiece,” writes Handy in his paean to children’s books. Handy, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, proceeds chronologically through childhood, beginning with picture books, and on through A. A. Milne, Beatrix Potter, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Mildred D. Taylor. Handy is empathic but not sentimental, and this beautifully written and designed book never lacks for fresh insights. “E. B. White,” Handy writes his afterword, “was correct about Charlotte’s Web being an ‘appreciative’ book – leave it to the coauthor of The Elements of Style to find such a lovely and perfect adjective – and I hope to have written one as well.”
2. Ghost of the Innocent Man: A True Story of Trial and Redemption by Benjamin Rachlin (Little, Brown)
In this compelling tale of crime and punishment (of the wrong person), Rachlin explores a horrible case of wrongful conviction and ultimate exoneration. Willie Grimes maintained his innocence in his 1988 trial, but was convicted on flimsy evidence and served over 20 years behind bars. By twinning Grimes’ story with the establishment of North Carolina’s Innocence Inquiry Commission, which was responsible for overturning the conviction, Rachlin enlarges the book’s scope, making it not merely a chronicle of a serious miscarriage of justice, but a broader indictment of a flawed system, and the prison industrial complex, that made it possible.
3. Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World by Suzy Hansen
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
“This is a book about an American living abroad in the era of American decline,” writes New York Times Magazine contributing writer Hansen in her fascinating new exploration of our nation’s place in the world. She arrived in Turkey in 2007 on a fellowship, aware of the cliché that Istanbul was a bridge between east and west, and of its long history as a model of progress and modernity. Hansen artfully conveys her own initial lack of awareness of the world, and her realization that she had internalized American exceptionalism into her own identity, and she introduces readers to people and places in Turkey, Afghanistan, Greece, Egypt, Iraq, and Iran, who add valuable perspective. “For all their patriotism,” Hansen writes, “Americans rarely think about how their national identities relate to their personal ones.”
4. Things That Happened Before the Earthquake by Chiara Barzini (Doubleday)
In this twist on the Hollywood dream, Italian parents with stars in their eyes uproot the family from Rome after the father’s success making a TV commercial for canned meat. They end up in predominantly middle-class Van Nuys, not Beverly Hills, right after the 1992 Rodney King riots. It is far from what they imagined, and Barzini, a sharp cultural observer, captures the family’s sense of displacement. At the center of this enjoyable novel is a daughter who watches her father and mother get swept up in California craziness of various sorts, while she tries to navigate her way through a gang-ridden high school and a culture of sex and drugs, in the days leading up to the 1994 Northridge earthquake.
5. Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (Riverhead)
“Isma was going to miss her flight,” begins Shamsie’s timely novel, which was recently long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. Isma, a Muslim Londoner of Pakistani descent, with a student visa, had been detained. A modern-day Antigone set in London, Amherst, Massachusetts and the Middle East, Home Fire’s wide range of characters -- from the home secretary of London to Isma’s brother who had joined a Syrian jihadist group -- are enmeshed in vexing conflict with one another. Shamsie registers these tensions delicately, and propels her powerful and suspenseful novel toward a dramatic ending.