1. The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War by Andrew Delbanco (Penguin Press)
Two halves of the United States coexisted in the young republic, and in his compelling new history, Delbanco, a Columbia University American studies professor, brilliantly illuminates how the nation fell apart and how fugitive slaves exposed the idea of the “united” states as a lie. He focuses on the Fugitive Slave Act, which made the public and personal indistinguishable and “transformed the lives of both ordinary and eminent Americans and eventually touched virtually all.” Vividly written, Delbanco’s narrative calls up echoes from antebellum America that eerily resonate today: the splintering of the two major political parties, black protest of slavery and jails, and public discourse infused with insult and invective. Most of all, Delbanco eloquently writes, this period “reminds us at every turn of how enduring the devastative effects of America’s original accommodation with slavery were – and are – on the lives of black Americans.”
2. Born to be Posthumous: The Eccentric Genius and Mysterious Life of Edward Gorey by Mark Dery (Little, Brown)
In his fascinating biography, Dery makes a case for Edward Gorey as a “seminal figure in the postwar revolution in children’s literature that reshaped ideas about American children and childhood.” A keen cultural critic, Dery brings an analytical eye to the creations of the avant-garde illustrator and writer whose work inspired bizarre Victorian melodrama that manifests today in goth fashion, Tim Burton’s films, and Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events books. Dery elucidates how Gorey evolved from his childhood into an Anglophile who embraced the world of Oscar Wilde and the “ennui-stricken social satire of the ’20s and ’30s,” and how this eccentric genius, who described himself as “undersexed,” lived his life and marked the world.
3. In Extremis: The Life and Death of the War Correspondent Marie Colvin by Lindsey Hilsum (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
British journalist Hilsum describes Colvin, a London Sunday Times foreign correspondent who was killed in Homs, Syria, in 2012, as “the most admired war correspondent of our generation.” Although they had known each other for over a decade, Hilsum didn’t know whether to consider her American-born friend reckless or brave, and that question animates this engrossing biography. Colvin grew up in suburban Long Island, attended Yale University, and launched her career with local news in Trenton, New Jersey, before making it as an international reporter, particularly in dangerous places like Chechnya, East Timor, Iraq, and Sri Lanka, where she lost an eye to shrapnel. With access to Colvin’s personal notes and diaries, as well as interviews with her friends, lovers, and colleagues, Hilsum grapples with what drove the war reporter to extremes. In this era when being a journalist is so dangerous, perhaps this biography and A Private War, the film version of her life starring Rosamund Pike, will raise interest in this fascinating, tragic woman who exposed suffering around the globe.
4. The Breakthrough: Immunotherapy and the Race to Cure Cancer by Charles Graeber (Twelve)
The 2018 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine was just awarded to two cancer immunology researchers, and Graeber’s fascinating new book traces the ups and downs through modern Western medicine, beginning in the 19th century, of engaging the body’s immune system to kill cancer. Graeber’s previous work The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness, and Murder distinguished him as a gifted narrative writer who takes on medical matters with sophistication and clarity. In The Breakthrough, he weaves human stories with accounts of scientific progress, looking beyond the “cut, burn, and poison techniques” – surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy – to focus on the myriad ways the immune system can attack cancer, and provides hope that a cure might not be beyond imagination.
5. Evening in Paradise: More Stories by Lucia Berlin (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
In his foreword to Evening in Paradise, Berlin’s first son, Mark, wrote: “Ma wrote true stories; not necessarily autobiographical, but close enough for horseshoes.” The same can be said for A Manual for Cleaning Women, a selection of more than 40 stories published in 2015 which elevated her into the literary stratosphere, in the company of Anton Chekhov, Raymond Carver, and Grace Paley. Now a second collection brings more than 20 remaining stories that bear Berlin’s trademark deft wit, wide scope, and that same knife in the heart, regardless of setting in Chile or El Paso, country estate or Greyhound bus depot. Berlin died in 2004, and her life of glamor and hardship inspires fascination and curiosity, so a bonus is a simultaneously published Welcome Home: A Memoir with Selected Photographs and Letters by Lucia Berlin, edited and with a foreword by her son Jeff, also from Farrar, Straus & Giroux.