1. The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote by Elaine Weiss (Viking)
In this riveting narrative, Weiss focuses on the summer 1920 cliffhanger in the Tennessee legislature, as the last state necessary for ratification of the 19th Amendment came through, giving women the right to vote. That victory was preceded by seven decades of ceaseless agitation by dedicated suffragists, and Weiss argues that the women devoted to the cause, known as the “Suffs,” transformed society, even as the battles transformed how the women came to think of themselves. Weiss provides a multidimensional account of the political crusade, including the suffragist effort to enfranchise the nation’s black citizens, and she recognizes the persistence of the opposition – the “Antis” – who saw women in the voting booth as a route to national moral collapse. The result is a vivid work of American history.
2. The House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea (Little, Brown)
While battles over President Donald Trump’s wall and DACA roil national politics, Urrea, born in Tijuana to a Mexican father and an American mother, has delivered a resonant, epic novel of the de La Cruz family over a weekend in their San Diego neighborhood. The dying patriarch, “Big Angel,” buries his nearly 100-year-old mother but rallies to assemble his huge family for his last birthday party. His Mexican-American family members, living on the border between two cultures, cross sometimes long and rickety bridges to come together through their resilient, loving connections – even when they’re squabbling. An artist of conversational banter, Urrea tells an engrossing, intimate story that is a joy to read.
3. Too Afraid to Cry: Memoir of a Stolen Childhood by Ali Cobby Eckermann (Liveright)
In short, anecdotal, tightly focused prose chapters, punctuated by her lyrical verse, Australian Aboriginal poet Eckermann has delivered a personal, damning account of her experience as a child, removed from her family and raised by a white Lutheran couple. As one of the thousands of children known as the Stolen Generation, Eckermann survived sexual abuse, addiction, and racism, and the metaphor of an “icy wind” runs through her excruciatingly beautiful book as she writes that “the ice block had turned to stone, and now there was no moisture left inside me.” After a stint in rehab, and years of creative writing classes and a volume of poetry, the Adelaide resident’s fortunes turned in 2017 when she won the Windham-Campbell Prize from Yale University, which carried a cash award of $215,000.
4. Fatal Discord: Erasmus, Luther, and the Fight for the Western Mind by Michael Massing (Harper)
In this fascinating dual biography of revolutionary rivals, Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus (1467-1536) and German theologian Martin Luther (1483-1546), Massing captures the dramatic conflicts vexing 16th-century Europe and pre-Reformation theology. While Erasmus appealed to reason, Luther contended that only faith led to redemption, and in this conflict, Massing convincingly argues that these opposing values and worldviews led to a fissure that continues to frame Western thought. Massing, a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books and recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship in 1992, makes intellectual history crackle in this deep exploration of the tempestuous world of the mind that set the stage for Protestantism (and thus pluralist Christianity), and modern democratic thought.
5. Census by Jesse Ball (Ecco)
In the brief preface to his extraordinary novel, Ball notes that his older brother had Down syndrome and writes: “It’s not like what you would expect.” In Ball’s eighth work of fiction, a dying father takes his disabled son on a census-gathering trip to points from A to Z, and in this picaresque journey through the living rooms of homes across the country, they encounter the dramatic breadth of human experience, from hostility to generosity. What could be a sentimental or treacly parable Ball transforms into a thrilling, imaginative work that explores both the limits and powers of language and empathy.