1. 1968: Radical Protest and Its Enemies by Richard Vinen (Harper)
On the 50th anniversary of the momentous year 1968, historian Vinen of Kings College, London, offers up a global perspective on the radical protests that broke out across the industrialized West. While he considers the famous 1968 American uprisings in this fascinating book, he also surveys France, West Germany, and Britain and shines a light on some lesser-known aspects of the unrest – including the role that universities played in supporting challenges to established thought, as well as advocacy for equal rights. Vinen also looks at the long shadow cast by the turmoil of 1968, whose influence is very much still felt in our own uncertain times.
2. City of Devils: The Two Men Who Ruled the Underworld of Old Shanghai by Paul French (Picador)
The underground crime world of 1930s Shanghai comes alive in French’s vivid new book, which focuses on a pair of outlaws who ruled the sleazy, alluring underbelly of China’s seaport city. French, author of best-selling Midnight in Peking, a true-crime thriller about an unsolved murder case, masterfully recreates the aura of the era through the rise and fall of two men: an American orphan and prison escapee who jumped a freighter, smuggled heroin, and became the Slots King of Shanghai; and a young Jewish man from the Vienna ghetto, who created an empire of dance halls and casinos. Together, the two masters of reinvention exploited the racial and class divides and the weakness of Shanghai on the eve of Japanese occupation, and as the “Paris of the Orient” tumbled, so did these colorful characters.
3. The Promise of the Grand Canyon: John Wesley Powell’s Perilous Journey and His Vision for the American West by John F. Ross (Viking)
Powell emerges from this enthralling book as a brave explorer and a true environmental visionary. Ross traces Powell’s boyhood on a Midwestern farm and the loss of his arm fighting on the Union side in the Civil War, through his 1869 Grand Canyon and Colorado River expedition. Elevating this book beyond a (fascinating) adventure story, Ross makes the case that Powell’s ideas about American water distribution and land management and his keen awareness of the Western ecosystem have implications for today, particularly regarding overdevelopment and water scarcity in an age of climate change.
4. Unbeaten: Rocky Marciano’s Fight for Perfection in a Crooked World by Mike Stanton (Henry Holt)
With clumsy feet, stubby arms, and a high-pitched voice and gentle style, Rocco Marciano was a factory town-high school dropout who did not appear poised for greatness. After his professional baseball career did not work out, the unlikely Italian pugilist started winning and became known as the “Brockton Bomber,” ultimately retiring, in 1952, undefeated. Stanton, author of The Prince of Providence: The True Story of Buddy Cianci, America’s Most Notorious Mayor and a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter for the Providence Journal, excels in telling the stories of colorful, and often overlooked, New Englanders. In Unbeaten, he captures the arc of Marciano’s career and retirement, living as a celebrity, but also a cheapskate with Mob ties, until the final chapter of his story: his death in 1969 small-plane crash.
5. Dear Mrs. Bird by AJ Pearce (Scribner)
In 1940 London, Emmy dreams of becoming a “Lady War Correspondent,” but lands instead at a weekly women’s magazine’s “Problem Page,” helmed by Mrs. Henrietta Bird. The overbearing, priggish Mrs. Bird throws away letters she considers improper – anything involving sex, marriage, relationships, or politics – to which the sympathetic Emmy secretly responds. With this premise, Pearce has a beguiling novel that is a clear window into the daily lives of women in wartime Britain. Plucky, upbeat Emmy comes to realize the limits of a stiff upper lip and the tenacity and fortitude required by women on the home front soldiering on – managing food rationing and air raids – as war rages around them.