1. The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World by Charles C. Mann (Knopf)
In his engrossing new book, Mann brilliantly profiles two men – a Nobel Prize-winning agronomist and a prominent ornithologist – who were barely acquainted but were largely “responsible for the creation of the basic intellectual blueprints that institutions around the world use today for understanding our environmental dilemmas.” Their views were contradictory: One believed in vastly increasing food production, and the other was concerned about overpopulation. In this ambitious dual biography, Mann – a master of narrative history, which he demonstrated in his earlier histories 1491 and 1493 – sees these 20th-century scientists as advancing conflicting ideas between growth and conservation that are resonant today.
2. Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz by Omer Bartov (Simon & Schuster)
In this fascinating and tragic tale, Bartov focuses on how the East Galician town of Buczacz – today part of Ukraine – was transformed from a site of coexistence, where Poles, Ukrainians, and Jews had lived together peacefully for centuries, into a site of genocide during World War II. Bartov, a history professor at Brown University, journeyed to the archives in Buczacz, where his mother was raised, and uncovered first-person accounts of the communal violence that took place after the Germans conquered the region. In his detailed and painful account, Bartov explains how the Nazis incrementally wiped out the entire Jewish population of Buczacz and, with Ukrainians, eliminated Polish people from the region. This resonant and cautionary history demonstrates how the peace was incrementally disrupted, as rage accumulated and neighbors and friends felt pitted against one another.
3. The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin (Putnam)
A traveling psychic tells each of the Gold family’s four siblings – impressionable adolescents – the day on which they will die, and from this fascinating premise, Benjamin has created a smart novel about fate and prophecy. While these siblings may not be convinced of the veracity of the fortuneteller’s forecast in 1969 on New York’s Lower East Side, their lives are shaped by her pronouncement as they fan across the country and try to find a place in the world in the decades that follow. Benjamin artfully traces the arcs of their lives in this suspenseful and ingeniously plotted novel with a resonance that has led it to the best-seller lists.
4. Our Lady of the Prairie by Thisbe Nissen (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
The Bridges of Madison County cast midlife romance in the heartland in a sepia hue, and now there’s a retort in the form of Nissen’s sharp, smart, generous novel. Against the backdrop of the Bush-Kerry election campaign, 50-year-old professor Phillipa’s marriage is falling apart, she falls passionately in love with a man she first mistakes for actor Ed Harris, and her once bulimic, addicted, and unstable daughter is finally straightening out and is set to marry a young Amish man whose parents were killed when their buggy was hit by an SUV. A tornado warning threatens the wedding ceremony, and the storm is a metaphor for the destabilization of the charming – but quirky – characters Nissen lovingly renders.
5. Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, the Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence by Patrick Sharkey (W.W. Norton)
New York University sociologist Sharkey argues that cities have been attracting residents since the 1990s, largely because urban crime has dwindled. Armed with statistical studies, Sharkey contends that cities are safer not only because community leaders and residents have become more active and vigilant, but also because intensive policing, aggressive prosecution, and higher rates of incarceration have reduced crime. In his fascinating and provocative book, Sharkey contends that schools are safer and the life expectancy of black men has risen, but that local news reporting focuses so much on crime that citizens are not presented with the data to understand the dramatic improvements in urban life.