1. Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year-History by Kurt Andersen (Random House)
Listeners of Andersen’s Peabody Award-winning public radio show Studio 360 know he is a brilliant connector of cultural dots. In Fantasyland, Andersen traces America’s weakness for fantasies back to its origins. He then follows our collective national gullibility up to contemporary “magical thinking, anything-goes relativism, and belief in fanciful explanation.” From the Salem witch trials through Dr. Oz and Oprah to the more unhinged political unreality of Alex Jones and Rush Limbaugh, Andersen’s dots reveal a world in which opinions and feelings are considered the equal of facts and truth – and Trump’s election seems like an inevitable consequence.
2. Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A. by Danielle Allen (Liveright)
Cuz will break your heart. A tragic and true tale, it’s a powerful indictment of the parastate that incarcerates black boys and men, and an eloquent call for justice, reform, and humanity. Allen’s bright, winsome cousin Michael was convicted of a felony and sent to adult prison – not a juvenile detention center – at 16. He served 11 years and was murdered a few years after his release. As “cousin on duty,” Allen, a Harvard professor and author of Our Declaration, oversaw his re-entry. She was a formidable ally, but against the toxic combination of South Central L.A. and a deeply flawed criminal justice system even she was, in the end, no match.
3. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (Scribner)
Ward’s wrenching and devastatingly beautiful novel, set on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, which focuses on a multi-generational family, burdened by the Jim Crow past, is winning her comparisons with Toni Morrison. Ward’s previous novel, Salvage the Bones, dealt with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and won a well-deserved National Book Award. Now she has constructed a brilliant ensemble drama from a range of perspectives, but all of them informed by massive disappointment, poverty, and injustice. At the emotional core of this extraordinary novel is 13-year-old Jojo, a sensitive African-American boy who is forced to be wise beyond his years.
4. Reclaiming Gotham: Bill de Blasio and the Movement to End America’s Tale of Two Cities by Juan Gonzales (The New Press)
Co-host (with Amy Goodman) of Democracy Now!, Gonzalez argues that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is leading a new urban-centered movement to end income inequality and promote opportunity for all. A long-time New York Daily News columnist who crusaded against malfeasance and corruption, Gonzalez chronicles de Blasio’s unlikely rise to City Hall and his first years in office. While not uncritical of de Blasio’s missteps, Gonzalez depicts the Mayor as a visionary reformer whose election was a watershed moment, which has inspired grassroots activists in American cities and across the globe.
5. Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, and Consent on Campus by Vanessa Grigoriadis (Houghton Mifflin)
Blurred Lines begins with the story of “Mattress Girl,” the Columbia University student who carried her mattress around campus to protest the administration’s handling of her alleged rape. In this extensively reported book, Grigoriadis moves beyond that sensational case into the difficult thicket of campus sex and a culture influenced by alcohol, drugs, privilege, politics, and hormones. Along the way, she delivers pertinent facts, and plenty of them. Like, know about the “Red Zone?” That is the few weeks before the academic year when a disproportionate number of sexual assaults occur.