1. Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics by Stephen Greenblatt (W.W. Norton)
Donald Trump’s name may not appear in the pages of Greenblatt’s Tyrant, but he dominates the book anyway. Greenblatt, a Pulitzer Prize winner for The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, and a finalist for Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, looks at the Bard’s depiction of rulers in some of his most famous plays – notably, none of them comedies. He notes the personality features of an aspiring tyrant: “the limitless self-regard, the law-breaking, the contempt for ‘losers,’ the pleasure in inflicting pain, the compulsive desire to dominate. Pathologically narcissistic and arrogant, these unscrupulous leaders have no interest in improving the lives of the poor and proclaim their longing for the pristine past before weaklings led it astray." Their promise, as Greenblatt writes, to “make England great again” reminds readers that Shakespeare was not only a brilliant playwright but also a prophetic one.
2. Asperger’s Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna by Edith Sheffer (W.W. Norton)
In her original, compelling new book, Stanford University history professor Sheffer establishes a link between autism and Nazism and provides a new way to understand the Third Reich, and the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. Impeccably researched through medical notes and contemporaneous accounts, Sheffer's book focuses on pediatrician Hans Asperger, once championed for his work with children lacking social skills, who absorbed the Nazi regime’s obsession with purity and perfection. Psychiatry and “sociability” became categories of persecution, and Sheffer, in well-documented detail, relates how Asperger sent “inferior children” to a Vienna clinic where the treatment was euthanasia.
3. The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner (Scribner)
For two-time National Book Award finalist Kushner, The Mars Room could be the charm. Her new novel, disquieting, passionate, and ambitious, channels the voice of Romy Hall, a former lap dancer at a San Francisco strip club called The Mars Room. Romy is serving two life sentences in a Central California prison, based loosely on one known as Chowchilla, the largest women’s facility in the world. After spending much time with inmates there, the author renders incarcerated life exquisitely and critiques the judicial system, yet she is far more than a stenographer. Kushner, profiled recently in The New Yorker, magically elevates the story of Romy and the swirl of those in her orbit into a profound exploration of freedom.
4. Into the Raging Sea: Thirty-Three Mariners, One Megastorm, and the Sinking of El Faro by Rachel Slade (Ecco)
How a container ship equipped with supposedly sophisticated navigation and communications systems vanished east of the Bahamas during Hurricane Joaquin in 2015, leaving 33 crew members dead, was a mystery, and journalist Slade jumped on the story. Built on extensive interviews as well as conversations captured on El Faro’s data recorder, Into the Raging Sea digs into the modern shipping industry and finds that countless bad decisions – many to please shareholders of the shipping company – placed ships and workers at great risk. She argues that with global warming, cutbacks to the National Hurricane Center, and lack of oversight of the aging merchant marine fleet, a disaster like El Faro could happen again.
5. Motherhood by Sheila Heti (Henry Holt)
This super-smart novel reads like a memoir and could well be titled Indecision, as it’s a meditation on what it means to become a mother. The lines between author and narrator are indistinct in this plotless novel, an ongoing conversation of a 39-year-old woman with herself as she deals with the meaning of her life as she chooses whether to bear a child, while her biological clock ticks. Punctuated by photographs, pauses, and bits of dialogue, like any conversation, Motherhood could be a work of philosophy or just a contemplation of life, and its originality makes it fresh, alive, and full of conundrums that extend beyond procreation decisions.