1. Attention: Dispatches from a Land of Distraction by Joshua Cohen (Random House)
Those who have not paid attention to publications such as Bookforum and Harper’s over the past two decades may have missed Cohen’s fiercely original essays that contend with life in the digital age. Like his far-reaching and associative fiction, for which Granta included him among its Best of Young American Novelists, this essay collection deals with the implications of scrolling through information so fast that we can click “like” or “dislike” and ignore what we cannot quickly assimilate. In this big, challenging, and provocative work of social criticism, Cohen artfully illustrates how selfhood fragments by “searching for porn one moment, searching for genocide the next,” and insightfully notes that when “we feel overcome by this assault, when the sheer variety of its indecency has worn us into boredom, we withdraw and distract ourselves.”
2. The Cut Out Girl: A Story of War and Family, Lost and Found by Bart van Es (Penguin Press)
An Oxford professor whose grandparents took in Jewish children entrusted to them by their parents during the Holocaust, van Es writes elegantly about his family and a girl who passed as their own. With original photographs threaded throughout his engrossing memoir, van Es excavates this history and tracks down this girl, now a woman in her 80s living in Amsterdam, whom his family had cut out of their lives in the years after the war. She shares her harrowing story of degradation and abuse connected with the family that had also kept her safe, and she and van Es wrestle with the persistence of anti-Semitism in Dutch society and the lingering effects of the Nazi occupation.
3. The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life by David Quammen (Simon & Schuster)
Science writer Quammen distinguished himself with books such as The Song of the Dodo, in which he advanced fascinating discoveries about biogeography and extinction. In his new book, Quammen brings his distinctively lucid and conversational style to challenge the widely accepted idea of the “tree of life,” which he argues is better understood as a web. He focuses on the scientists who have been revising Darwinism, arguing that genes and traits are not only passed vertically through branches, but also transferred horizontally even between humans and other living things, which ultimately lead to new and fascinating views of the origins of life.
4. The Shakespeare Requirement by Julie Schumacher (Doubleday)
Schumacher won the Thurber Prize for American Humor for Dear Committee Members, her hilarious epistolary novel featuring Jason Fitler, an increasingly unhinged literature professor at a third-tier university in the upper Midwest. In Schumacher’s new wickedly smart, socially keen campus novel, that little man of letters is now chair of the underfunded, dysfunctional English department, fending off a crusade to abolish the humanities while dealing with the empire-building Econ department and a cost-cutting administration with a new “Statement of Vision.” When a faculty Shakespeare scholar insists that the vision statement must include a Shakespeare requirement for English majors, a public crisis explodes into a “Save Our Shakespeare!” movement in this sharp, funny, and generous satire of the politics of higher education.
5. Cherry by Nico Walker (Knopf)
In the prologue, the unnamed narrator is getting dressed in a half-dark room, looking for a shirt without bloodstains and pants without cigarette burns in the crotch, and thinking: “All heroin chic, like I were famous already.” With an unforgettable voice, the narrator relates his hellacious military service in Iraq, PTSD, and descent into addiction with desperation and propulsive intensity, sustained by a dark humor and associative structure evocative of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. A New York magazine headline declared, “Nico Walker’s Cherry Might Be the First Great Novel of the Opioid Epidemic.” Despite the acclaim for Walker’s debut, don’t look for him to appear in person at your local bookstore – he is serving an 11-year sentence in a Kentucky federal prison after pleading guilty in a four-month bank-robbing spree.