1. The Fighters: Americans in Combat in Afghanistan and Iraq by C.J. Chivers (Simon & Schuster)
Uniquely talented Chivers, a former Marine Corps infantry officer and a New York Times reporter, won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for his Times Magazine story about the complicated return of a veteran after his service in Afghanistan, and with his extraordinary new book he widens his lens for an ensemble drama. Drawing on more than a decade of covering conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq, Chivers focuses on six very different combatants (a Green Beret sergeant, a Navy corpsman, F-14 and helicopter pilots, a Marine lieutenant, and an Army infantryman), chronicles their daily life, and insightfully reveals why they joined up and what befell them upon their return. Weaving these dynamic portraits together, Chivers captures the yearning for a national vision and strategy for the U.S. in the Middle East and for an understanding of why were really there in the first place.
2. Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear by Kim Brooks (Flatiron)
Finally, the parenting advice many of us have been waiting for, and it is by a mother who narrowly escaped arrest for child endangerment. Brooks dashed into Target to purchase headphones for her young son waiting in her locked car. A bystander recorded the brief episode, alerted the police, and she was charged with “contributing to the delinquency of a minor.” Her Salon essay about the incident went viral, and several years later with Small Animals, Brooks embarks on a path of inquiry into the angst of parenting and the perfect storm of class anxiety and obsession with child safety, and an idealized, unrealistic conception of motherhood and childhood that makes for an impassioned, smart work of social criticism and a call for support and empathy.
3. The Last Englishmen: Love, War, and the End of Empire by Deborah Baker (Graywolf)
Baker has assembled a fascinating ensemble drama that elegantly brings to life that slice of time around World War II and the waning days of British control over India when a new world order emerged. Rather than focus on the geopolitics of the era, Baker’s luminous lens is trained on the generation of Indian and English writers, artists, rogues, spies, and explorers who animated Calcutta, and the importance of Mount Everest in their collective imaginations. In starring roles in this great shift were the less famous brothers of poets W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender, vying to make it to the summit of Everest, and both in love with a British painter. This is a fascinating book by Baker, previously a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, who has been recognized for her deep research and powerful insights that make connections between cultures and people long overlooked.
4. Severance by Ling Ma (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
From its ambiguous title to its poignant ending, Ma’s debut novel is an act of wizardry that may sound like a curio cabinet or a genre mashup: Chinese immigration, 21st-century office satire, indictment of global capitalism and apocalyptic Bildungsroman. In Candace Chen, her central character, Ma has created a vivid first-generation immigrant in New York overseeing the Chinese production of specialty Bibles as the world surrenders to Shen Fever – a “disease of remembering” in which its victims buckle under the weight of nostalgia and repeat their old routines, dooming everyone to a zombie-like existence. That’s an ironic touch for a novel that flashes backward and forward, raising big questions about success, fulfillment, and materialism with a light touch and great pathos.
5. Bone on Bone by Julia Keller (Minotaur)
With the seventh in Keller’s series set in Acker’s Gap, West Virginia, county prosecutor Belfa “Bell” Elkins is out of prison (she confessed to murdering her abusive father long ago), and while the novels continue to be compulsively readable and rich with psychological and social insight, the future for this part of the world grows increasingly dire. From her first Acker’s Gap book (A Killing in the Hills), Keller tapped into the toll that drug addiction was taking on the region before it was recognized as a national problem. A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, she draws on the reflexes that she developed working for newspapers and chronicles the arc of Bell’s evolution and efforts to atone for her past. At the same time, Keller empathically captures a community beset by hardship and caught in a downward spiral that she is determined to break.