5 HOT BOOKS: The Rise of Marijuana in America, Rethinking Vietnam, and More


1. Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America by Emily Dufton (Basic)

As a few states, including the most populous, California, have legalized recreational marijuana, and medical marijuana has been broadly legalized, Grass Roots provides a fascinating and comprehensive history of the changing politics of pot. Dufton focuses on marijuana activism and advocates such as poet Allen Ginsberg, who mobilized the movement for normalization and decriminalization, and the backlash led by Nancy Reagan, who energized parents to resist the creeping spread of weed into their homes and families. In her well-titled book, Dufton illuminates how activists engaged ordinary citizens at the “grass roots” on both sides of the cannabis debate, as America seems to be moving inevitably toward full marijuana legalization.  

2. The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook by Niall Ferguson (Penguin)

Ferguson, one of the most prominent, intellectually provocative, and contrarian historians at work today, argues that the world is shaped by the interactions of entrenched hierarchies and disruptive upstart “networks.” Drawing from myriad disciplines, from economics and sociology to neuroscience and organizational behavior, Ferguson contends that the importance of social networks has been traditionally overlooked and that his book is a corrective. With a broad sweep, he looks at these networks from the 15th century and the printing presses that challenged the Catholic Church and monarchy, to Silicon Valley today, where informal social networks disrupt traditional ways of doing things.

3. The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam by Max Boot (Liveright)

In his story of prominent American adviser and intelligence officer Edward Lansdale, Boot presents a revisionist account of the Vietnam War. Boot contends that that the conflict would have taken a different course -- “less costly and potentially more successful” -- if Lansdale’s vision of building a viable South Vietnamese state that could win the hearts and minds of its own people had been pursued. Instead, Boot argues, the U.S. deemphasized this political strategy and simply sent massive numbers of combat troops to Vietnam. Boot, a military historian, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of the bestselling Invisible Armies, not only offers a compelling new interpretation of the war, but also brings to life the colorful and complicated Lansdale, juggling marriage and family and a love affair in the Philippines along with his military career. 

4. This Could Hurt by Jillian Medoff (Harper)

Medoff’s novel of corporate manners set amid the Great Recession focuses on a struggling company’s human resources department, chaired by its mother hen, the impeccably dressed, widowed, and childless Rosa Guerrero, who is pressured by senior management to cut her shrinking department of oddballs  For Rosa, her work is not “just a job” -- it’s “running air traffic control during a typhoon” where she has to “guide each pilot to safety but protect the people on the ground and maintain the airport’s profitability.” Medoff -- who recently expounded on her own day job in an essay for LitHub, "If It Wasn’t for My Corporate Office Job, I Couldn’t Be a Novelist” -- has written a charming and clever novel whose portrait of the absurdity of the world of big business rings disturbingly true.

5. The Girls in the Picture by Melanie Benjamin (Delacorte)

With The Swans of Fifth Avenue about Babe Paley and glamorous New York high society, and The Aviator’s Wife about Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Benjamin has established herself as a beloved historical novelist who brings to life women who have languished in the shadows of their powerful husbands. With The Girls in the Picture, she turns to two best friends and pioneers in early Hollywood: actress Mary Pickford, known as “America’s Sweetheart,” and screenwriter Frances Marion, winner of two Academy Awards. Over the decades, and in chapters that alternate between the duo, Benjamin conveys how their relationship grew more vexed and complicated as they each navigated the dramas of ambition, disappointment, and love in the fledgling movie industry.