1. Sh*tshow!:The Country’s Collapsing... and the Ratings Are Great by Charlie LeDuff (Penguin Press)
Hunter S. Thompson seems to be LeDuff’s spirit animal in these three years of dispatches, beginning with his pitch to then-Fox News CEO Roger Ailes on what became The Americans with Charlie LeDuff, a television series “showcasing everyday people who were trying to get by as the country and their way of life disintegrated around them.” A gonzo journalist with an unlikely pedigree, LeDuff was part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times team, who left for the Detroit News, then a local TV station. He now works at a greasy spoon restaurant and has become an authority on the city, as he demonstrated with Detroit: An American Autopsy. In his new book LeDuff casts his gaze more widely and in his very personal, stylized prose reports on boiling rage – black and white – across America, from Ferguson and Flint to the oil fields of North Dakota and the Mexican border. The cumulative effect is of a national full-body MRI.
2. Harvey Milk: His Lives and Death by Lillian Faderman (Yale University Press)
This latest volume in the excellent Jewish Lives Series is a biography of the trailblazing Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in California, who was murdered by a colleague on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1978. Faderman, a distinguished scholar of LGBT history recognized for her landmark The Gay Revolution, traces Milk’s colorful life empathetically from his days as a lost soul trying to make a living in teaching, sales, finance, and theater to eventually finding his voice as an activist in the Castro District. Milk died when he was just 48 years old and in office less than a year. Faderman re-creates the early days of battles over gay rights and reflects on how Milk became a martyred icon.
3. Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston, Deborah G. Plant (Introduction), and Alice Walker (Foreword) (Amistad/HarperCollins)
Nearly a century after she wrote it, Hurston’s previously unpublished manuscript is now on the best-seller lists. Taking its title from the barracks in which enslaved Africans were kept before they were forced onto slave ships, Barracoon is based on Hurston’s 1931 interviews with Cudjo Lewis, the last known survivor of the Middle Passage, who recounted the dramatic and tragic story of his capture in West Africa and sale as a slave in Alabama, where he was eventually emancipated. Hurston, recognized for her powerful 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, gives a raw, emotional account of Lewis’ loss and displacement that is profoundly resonant, and a testament to Hurston’s courageous early work as an anthropologist determined to record this important history.
4. A Theory of Love by Margaret Bradham Thornton (Ecco)
Thornton has followed her luscious debut novel, Charleston, with a sophomore work that is just as richly evoked, but with a scope and nuanced intelligence that evokes a contemporary version of the world of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. While a city was a character in her earlier novel, Thornton this time turns her perceptive eye to a married couple, a journalist and a financier lawyer, as they swirl among Bermeja, London, St. Tropez, and Tangier, in an intellectual and emotional volley as their power balance shifts. Thornton deftly portrays the wife as an insightful, enterprising journalist who is also deeply naïve about her husband’s financial dealings and status, while he grows increasingly unaware as their relationship disentangles.
5. Lost Empress by Sergio de la Pava (Pantheon)
Like the protagonist in his debut novel, A Naked Singularity, de la Pava is a Manhattan public defender, and his knowledge of the criminal justice system and urban politics informs his new work, which is a wild act of imagination. Like a series of high-speed trains, Lost Empress tracks multiple story lines through Paterson, N.J., ranging from a female football strategist who by all rights should inherit the Dallas Cowboys but is stuck with her family’s indoor franchise, the “Paterson Pork,” to an intellectual at Rikers Island who ends up in Bellevue. De la Pava’s novel bursts with energy, heart, and passion, and he creates a world out of all kinds of language, including sermons, transcripts, phone calls, handbooks, and legal briefs. The result is a completely inventive, occasionally absurd, but consistently dynamic and absorbing work.