1. The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels in America by Isaac Butler and Dan Kois (Bloomsbury)
Tony Kushner’s revolutionary epic Angels in America premiered on Broadway 25 years ago, brilliantly portraying America at the dawn of the AIDS crisis and simultaneously transforming understanding of the gay experience. In their superbly paced, enthralling oral history of this now-classic work of theater, Butler and Kois splice interviews with more than 200 figures including Kushner, Meryl Streep, critic Frank Rich, director Oskar Eustis, and Kushner’s husband, writer Mark Harris, into an extraordinary narrative of the origin and evolution of a groundbreaking work of genius.
2. They Knew Lincoln by John E. Washington with an introduction by Kate Masur (Oxford University Press)
The perfect gift to celebrate the February 12 birthday of President Abraham Lincoln: a beautiful new edition of John E. Washington’s out-of-print book, originally published in 1942 and endorsed by Carl Sandburg, which brings together the firsthand accounts of African-Americans who knew Lincoln. Masur’s insightful, robust introduction to this unique book makes a compelling case that those with everyday interactions with the 16th president shaped his view on slavery and race and “may have intentionally sought to help Lincoln see the world in a more racially egalitarian way.”
3. The Château by Paul Goldberg (Picador)
Fired journalist Bill Katzenelenbogen heads to Florida to investigate the mysterious death of his college roommate, a plastic surgeon known as “The Butt God of Miami Beach,” and moves in with his father, Melsor, a refusenik Russian Jewish poet and a fan of “Donal’d Tramp.” Melsor was indicted for Medicare fraud in New York (a crooked ambulette service), but now is campaigning against corruption at his Florida condo, enlisting his son to help overthrow a condo board planning a huge special assessment. Add Russian prostitutes, some old ladies who may be terrorists, and some possible Nazis, and Goldberg’s absurd novel smartly evokes America in the age of Trump.
4. White Houses by Amy Bloom (Random House)
In her intensely moving and engrossing White Houses, Bloom exquisitely reimagines the complex, intimate relationship between first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and journalist Lorena Hickok, from the perspective of “Hick.” While Roosevelt has been a much-studied and revered figure in history, Bloom has vivified Hickok, from her climb from an impoverished life on the Great Plains to work as a housemaid, making her way to Chicago journalism and a prominent post covering politics for the Associated Press until she moves into the White House and works in the Roosevelt administration. Against the backdrop of that inspiring era in history, Bloom artfully, and with great psychological acuity, depicts the passions and convictions of these very different women – one who made her way with “propriety” and the other with “brass knuckles.”
5. Berlin 1936: Sixteen Days in August by Oliver Hilmes, translated by Jefferson Chase (Other Press)
In 16 chapters, this multidimensional view of each day of the notorious 1936 Olympic Games is a brisk read and a fascinating view of prewar Germany. Hitler used the games to legitimize the Third Reich’s growing power, and Hilmes mixes a wide range of perspectives, from the senior Nazis to the artists and intellectuals who were awed by the spectacle, and Jewish citizens sensing terrible danger ahead. Famous figures such as Jesse Owens and Leni Riefenstahl make the narrative sparkle, but Hilmes’ portrayal of ordinary citizens illuminates this moment in history with an intensely palpable sense of foreboding.