1. Conan Doyle for the Defense: The True Story of a Sensational British Murder, a Quest for Justice, and the World’s Most Famous Detective Writer by Margalit Fox (Random House)
Fox, a New York Times senior writer whose elegantly written obituaries are a window into contemporary life, finds extraordinary resonance in the Edwardian age. In her riveting new book, she focuses on Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle’s nearly two-decade investigation into a real-life miscarriage of justice. Oscar Slater, a German Jewish expat gambler living with a prostitute, was convicted of murdering an elderly woman in her Glasgow home but eventually exonerated. Fox argues that anti-Semitism and class bias led the police to profile Slater as an outsider and twist the evidence to fit their prejudice, and she extends the tragic tale to Slater’s elderly sisters in Germany who were targeted in a different way, rounded up by the Nazis and sent to Treblinka and Terezín.
2. Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America by Alissa Quart (Ecco)
In the tradition of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, this is a devastating report on middle-class American families struggling to stay afloat, based on interviews with families across the country about their burdens of child care costs, student loan expenses, low wages, and rising rent/mortgages. Quart eloquently relates these families’ psychological and socioeconomic predicaments, and amplifies those personal stories with research confirming significant and growing income inequality. Quart, executive editor of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, presents a set of reasonable and ambitious policy initiatives, such as free preschool, subsidized elder care, guaranteed universal basic income, rights for adjunct professors, and the elimination of federal support of for-profit schools, in an effort to make the American dream more of a reality than a fantasy for the middle class.
3. Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over by Nell Irvin Painter (Counterpoint)
Many dream of second acts, but how many would relinquish a chaired professorship at Princeton University and launch into a full-scale re-education and reinvention? That’s just what Painter, one of the nation’s most prominent historians – author of the definitive biography of Sojourner Truth and the best-selling The History of White People – did when she returned to school at age 64 for a BFA at Rutgers and an MFA at the Rhode Island School of Design, and finally became an artist. Painter’s memoir, enhanced by her artwork as she progresses, bursts with explosions of self-knowledge as she deals with ideas of beauty, value, and identity in her ongoing journey. “Like artists the world over,” she writes, “my bayoneted, hand-to-hand struggle against insecurity and for self-confidence never ends.”
4. Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us by Will Storr
(The Overlook Press)
While its title may seem as though it is appropriate for the self-help shelf, Selfie is an illuminating excursion into cultural history, tracing how the concept of “the self” evolved from its ancient Greek origins to its contemporary roots in the slavish celebration of self-esteem. Storr has written several novels and as a journalist has reported from around the world, contributing to newspapers such as the Guardian, and now draws on his talents to become an engaging tour guide through selfie culture. In his insightful and engaging book, he explains how society became preoccupied with its own image and how the individual quest for self-perfection, driven by the engine of social media, sets an unattainable standard that ultimately undermines rather than nurtures self-esteem.
5. Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg (One World)
Increasingly unhinged footnotes, academic satire, queer history, and recently discovered diaries of a notorious 18th-century thief in London, whose legend inspired Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, are among the ingredients of this ambitious debut novel. In a labyrinth of plotlines, Rosenberg features a “guy by design, not birth,” testosterone elixir, a mysterious manuscript, a sex worker, university politics, the police state, imperialism, and a dash of love. A renegade trans scholar is the beating heart of this energetic genre-bending novel, which suggests that society’s most marginalized figures are the ones with the most to say.