1. Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America by Eliza Griswold (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
“Exploiting energy often involves exploiting people,” writes Griswold in her powerful and deeply humane new book that focuses on the financially stressed rural southwestern Pennsylvania town of Amity and its neighbor, depopulated Prosperity. With her gifts as a poet and her journalistic tenacity, Griswold immerses herself in the lives of the “Hoopies,” the insider name for the hillbillies or hill jacks at this edge of Appalachia. At the emotional heart of this profoundly moving book is Stacey Haney, a nurse and single mother who realizes that her farmhouse, downhill from a pond polluted by fracking waste, has led to the life-threatening illnesses of herself and her children. Reminiscent of Jonathan Harr’s A Civil Action, Griswold's story traces the birth of Haney’s activism and how she galvanized other residents, enlisted lawyers, and, with mixed effects, reckoned with the fracking industry on behalf of those paying the human cost of America's thirst for energy.
2. Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous by Christopher Bonanos (Henry Holt & Co.)
From Ellis Island and the Lower East Side and originally what is now Ukraine, where he began as Usher Fellig, the man who took the name Weegee and declared himself “the world’s greatest living photographer” is the subject of Bonanos’ wonderfully vibrant new biography. Bonanos, city editor of New York magazine and author of Instant: The Story of Polaroid, captures the self-mythologizing Weegee with his Speed Graphic beating the competition to depict the accidents and disasters — as well as high society — of 1940s New York with his distinctive noir touch. Bonanos ferrets the truth out of Weegee’s unreliable 1961 autobiography, tracks the pioneering photographer’s descent in his later years and makes a compelling case that Weegee’s enduring images “functioned as little one-act plays, both comedy and drama.”
3. Autumn in Venice: Ernest Hemingway and His Last Muse by Andrea di Robilant (Alfred A. Knopf)
In 1948, Hemingway had not published fiction in a decade. Visiting Venice with his wife, he fell in love with young Adriana Ivancich, newly graduated from finishing school. Di Robilant, whose family moved in Hemingway’s circle, credits Adriana with sparking the writer in his later years, drawing from archives, letters and her own memoir to make his case that she was Hemingway’s inspiration for a character in his later Across the River and Into the Trees. In convincing style, he explains that Adriana and her family joined Hemingway in Cuba and that their platonic relationship lifted him out of his frustrations, envy, and unhappiness to write The Old Man and the Sea. But the relationship came at a cost. The Nobel Prize winner committed suicide in 1961, and the once-young woman who adored him did likewise two decades later.
4. One Life at a Time: An American Doctor’s Memoir of AIDS in Botswana by Daniel Baxter (Skyhorse)
In his previous memoir, The Least of These My Brethren: A Doctor’s Story of Hope and Miracles on an Inner-City AIDS Ward (1997), Baxter recounted his experience as a physician in Hell’s Kitchen, treating patients in a crowded, dirty hospital. Five years later, he set off for Botswana, where 24 percent of the population was infected with HIV. Baxter candidly relates learning from his patients in his eight years there and reproaching himself for being a “self-appointed, putative do-gooder,” unable to grasp the idea that a gravely ill person was considered “an albatross, a burden” and that he couldn’t impose the American idea of “the value of each human life” in a world where resources were so limited. In his bittersweet memoir, Baxter emerges as a deeply empathic humanitarian who listens carefully to the stories of others.
5. The Book of Essie by Meghan MacLean Weir (Alfred A. Knopf)
The youngest daughter of a famous evangelical preacher, teenage Essie has grown up on Six for Hicks, a reality television show run by her canny, merciless mother, and when she gets pregnant, the empire is at risk. In this sly, smart novel, Weir tells the story through the perspectives of three well-drawn characters. Essie, desperate to segue out of the show and escape, agrees to marry high school athlete Roarke, whose family needs the Hickses’ money to avoid bankruptcy and who is not as macho as he seems. The brilliantly named Liberty Bell, a high-profile conservative blogger whose sister died in a standoff between her cult and law enforcement, has been hired to persuade the world that Essie and Roarke's contrived romance is a true one. Weir’s sense of what’s behind tabloid scandals carries an emotional punch in this shrewd look at American pop culture and its discontents.