1. The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek by Howard Markel (Pantheon)
John and Will Kellogg “fought, litigated, and plotted against one another with a passion more akin to grand opera than the kinship of brothers,” writes medical historian Markel, in his insightful and entertaining dual biography of the battling Battle Creek boys. Markel makes the case that the eccentric and visionary Kellogg brothers – a physician who advanced a new vision of “wellness” and the founder of a corn flake company that revolutionized American food -- became the “industrial kings of health.” Raised on the wooded Michigan frontier and in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and rising to extraordinary financial and cultural success, the Kelloggs’ story, Markel argues, is a revealing window into America as it evolved from the Civil War to World War II.
2. Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology by Ellen Ullman (MCD/Farrar, Strauss & Giroux)
Published two decades ago, Ullman’s classic memoir Close to the Machine recounted her experiences in the very new, very male world of algorithms, systems, and code. A digital pioneer and later a novelist, Ullman distinguished herself with her nuanced view of the tech revolution. “To program,” she writes at the beginning of her new memoir, “is to translate between the chaos of human life and the line-by-line world of computer language.” In the book’s forceful conclusion, Ullman raises the role of technology in Trump’s unexpected election, and what she describes as the “unspooling of a thread” that led to disintermediation, the removal of gatekeepers and middlemen in economic and social relationships. “Websites could proclaim whatever truths they wished,” Ullman argues, in this often brilliant book. “Anyone who stood between you and your desires was an interloper.”
3. Eat Only When You’re Hungry by Lindsay Hunter (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Hunter has a gift for dark fiction, rendered with a tender and generous touch. In her new novel, a retired West Virginia accountant, a twice-married, obese, compulsive overeater with a drinking problem, sets off in his RV to find his missing son, a drug addict. In Hunter’s smart twist on the classic American road trip, the novel becomes an instant-gratification junk-food tour through the national underbelly. The journey inspires questions about insatiable needs that extend beyond food, including family ties and the thin line between craving and addiction.
4. Bones: Brothers, Horses, Cartels, and the Borderland Dream by Joe Tone (One World)
Born in a Mexico border town, one brother heads to Dallas, works as a stonemason, cares for his family, and seemingly rejects the lure of the drug trade. The other remains south of the border and rises up through one of Mexico's bloodiest crime and drug cartels. But blood, drugs, and money prove too alluring to keep even a good brother from falling. In his riveting debut book, Dallas Observer editor Tone chronicles these brothers, who became enmeshed in the American quarter-horse racing and breeding industry, eventually attracting the attention of an FBI agent who caught on to their multi-faceted money-laundering scheme. Working with rich material, Tone constructs a powerful narrative that reveals tensions of class and race -- and unbreakable family bonds.
5. Red Light Run: Linked Stories by Baird Harper (Scribner)
The centrifugal force of the eleven connected stories in this collection is a drunk-driving accident that leaves one person dead and lands another in prison. Harper, an acclaimed writer of short-fiction and winner of the Nelson Algren Prize, employs a wide range of narrative voices in telling the stories of those touched by the tragedy. Grief radiates through a Midwestern town that has fallen on hard times, and against this decaying backdrop of a trailer park, casino, and prison, there is also an sudden infestation of beetles. While navigating sadness, broken relationships, and swarming insects, Harper’s wry humanity shines brightly in the stories of this dazzling collection.