1. Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan by Steve Coll (Penguin Press)
This dramatic, meticulous, and gripping explanation of America’s longest war – the one in Afghanistan, 17 years old and counting – is exceptional on many levels: its account of the United States’ frenemy status with Pakistan, which won’t give up support for the Afghan Taliban no matter the cost; its careful, insightful rendering of what went on inside the intelligence community for the past two decades; and its rich, nuanced explication of the power dynamics and political players in South Asia, notably India and Pakistan. "Directorate S" is the center of Taliban and Islamist influence and protection inside Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s dominant intelligence agency. After his Pulitzer Prize-winning Ghost Wars, Coll delivers a second volume on the hostilities in South Asia that reads like a terrifying thriller and makes clear just how difficult it will be to find a path forward.
2. High-Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing by Ben Austen (Harper)
Austen spent seven years immersed in Cabrini-Green, Chicago’s infamous housing project, which was created to be an ideal home for working-class families in need of a leg up but after decades of decline came to be known as one of the most dangerous places in America. Cabrini was ultimately razed and its residents dispersed as part of the city’s “Plan for Transformation.” Austen recounts the travails of four of the project’s residents, crowded into mostly high-rise buildings that stood like filing cabinets in the sky, zeroing in on traumatic moments such as the death of Dantrell Davis, the 7-year-old boy killed in gang crossfire while walking to school with his mother, and 9-year-old Girl X, who was raped, tortured, and left for dead in a building stairwell. Austen writes with an empathy and eloquence that should win this book a place on bookshelves beside Alex Kotlowitz’s unsurpassed classic of the genre, There Are No Children Here.
3. The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border by Francisco Cantú (Riverhead)
Cantú arrived for work as a U.S. Border Patrol agent on the Arizona desert as an idealistic newcomer, an international relations major just out of college, and in this beautifully written and emotionally wrenching memoir he comes to terms with his five years in deserts, border towns, and detention centers. A Fulbright fellow and Whiting Award winner, Cantú recalls growing up on the U.S.-Mexico border where his mother, a second-generation Mexican-American, worked as a park ranger. He not only details his nightmares and distress about his role in the immigration system, but also chronicles the brutal conditions for migrants and the thousands who die trying to cross the border -- and perhaps most unrecognized, the mental toll exacted on the agents.
4. A False Report: A True Story of Rape in America by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong (Crown)
More vivid and urgent than any Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episode, this account by Pulitzer Prize-winning ProPublica journalists focuses on the rape at knifepoint of a Seattle teenager fresh out of the foster-care system and the investigation that followed. Miller and Armstrong tell how the victim was forced to recant, leaving the case dormant for several years until two detectives connected the dots to a serial rapist, hunted him down, and brought him to justice. Veteran reporters Miller and Armstrong vividly portray the characters in this serpentine drama and empathetically detail how the investigation of sex crimes and the treatment of victims have evolved. The result is a chilling true-crime story that is also a powerful critique of a flawed system.
5. The Friend by Sigrid Nunez (Riverhead)
Don’t be fooled by this sly novel’s title, or by the handsome black-and-white Great Dane on the cover. This is no dog book or even a fuzzy story for dog-lovers. It is, rather, a brilliant work of fiction about the writing, reading, and literature of grief. The Friend features an unnamed narrator whose best friend and mentor commits suicide, leaving her (a cat person) with his grieving dog, Apollo – the only named character – in her rent-controlled, no-dogs-allowed apartment, where the mentor's Wife Three dumps him. This intense, ingenious tale unfolds inside the narrator’s scattered, literary head, and evolves as she becomes obsessed with Apollo’s care while they connect in their grief -- and the huge hound proves worthy of his name.