1. The White Darkness by David Grann (Doubleday)
Grann, a simple, elegant prose stylist and investigative journalist with a remarkable eye for a story and narrative superpowers, wrote an engrossing February 2018 story in The New Yorker which is now republished with exquisite illustrations in a small, beautifully designed book. Though he’s known most recently for Killers of the Flower Moon, his best-selling saga of horrific crimes and abuse of Native Americans, Grann’s newest book is closer kin to his The Lost City of Z, a tale of obsession in the wilderness. The White Darkness focuses on a retired British army officer on a quest to fulfill explorer Ernest Shackelton’s mission to reach the South Pole. The officer, Henry Worsley, died while attempting to trek alone, pulling his provisions by sled, across more than 1,000 miles of Antarctica. Grann begins with this image: “The man felt like a speck in the frozen nothingness. Every direction he turned, he could see ice stretching to the edge of the Earth.”
2. Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon (Scribner)
“I wanted to write a lie,” writes Laymon in his profound memoir in the form of a letter to his mother. “I was eleven years old, five-nine, 208 pounds when you told me to stand still and act like your husband.” Fierce and tightly woven, Laymon’s life narrative grapples with income inequality, racial dynamics, over-incarceration, and the consequences of addiction – to drugs and gambling but also to food. He ballooned to 300 pounds, then starved and exercised to lose 130 pounds before falling back into the destructive dynamic. Born and raised in Mississippi, Laymon is now professor of English and creative writing at the University of Mississippi. His mother, who went on to earn her Ph.D., had high expectations for her son’s achievement, behavior, and body, a body he bears along with the weight of racism, violence, and the heavy burden of his history.
3. Of Love & War by Lynsey Addario (Penguin Press)
Photojournalist Addario’s stunning collection of more than 200 intimate and powerful images reflects the scale of human suffering around the world, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa. It is also a testament to her courage: Addario, a MacArthur Fellow and Pulitzer Prize recipient, who was kidnapped and sexually assaulted in Libya, is a rare woman to do this work. Through her work, which has been prominently featured in the New York Times, National Geographic, and Time, she reveals not only points of conflict but intimate moments from a perspective distinctly hers – girls in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, pregnant women – documenting them with her distinctive mix of urgency and empathy.
4. Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side by Eve L. Ewing (University of Chicago Press)
In her fascinating book, a blend of sociology and personal experience, Ewing explains why people are so committed to schools described as “failing,” and what those attachments really mean to those fighting for them in the third-largest school system in the nation. A very talented poet and an assistant professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration, Ewing addresses the city’s 2013 closures of over 50 public schools whose students were predominantly poor and African-American, zeroing in on three schools in the historic neighborhood where she taught after college, including one school whose planned closure prompted a monthlong hunger strike in protest. “This, we insist is our home. Broken though it may be, it remains beautiful, and we remain children of this place,” Ewing writes in her scholarly yet passionate rallying cry of a book. “We insist on a right to claim it, to shape it, to keep it. We took the freedom train to get here. Might as well do the work to get free.”
5. Trinity by Louisa Hall (Harper)
In this brilliantly imaginative, kaleidoscopic novel about Robert Oppenheimer, who developed the atomic bomb, the weapon to end use of weapons, poet and fiction writer Hall reckons with one of the most controversial and contradictory figures of the 20th century. Through a series of “testimonials” from seven characters – ranging from the Princeton secretary who worked for Oppenheimer and the FBI agent who was after him to a young WAC at Los Alamos, New Mexico, to his real-life love in San Francisco – Hall’s nuanced Oppenheimer comes into focus, and so has an imaginary world bursting with secrets, dilemmas, betrayals, and lives wrestling with ideals.