1. Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth by Sarah Smarsh (Scribner)
In What’s the Matter with Kansas? Thomas Frank wrote about citizens of the Sunflower State who voted against their self-interest. Smarsh offers a fierce yet compassionate rejoinder, writing with elegance and insight about her extended family trapped in a cycle of poverty. Born in Kansas to a teen mother who moved 48 times before starting high school, Smarsh was fortunate to live in a stable environment with her maternal grandmother, who was on her seventh husband. Smarsh, who became a first-generation college student and then a journalist, writes about feeling like “white trash” and patiently details the hidden injuries of class and how she made a life for herself.
2. American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment by Shane Bauer (Penguin Press)
In a remarkable feat of immersive journalism, Mother Jones reporter Bauer went undercover as a $9-an-hour guard at a for-profit prison in Louisiana, and his powerful and sickening book delivers a damning indictment of the corporate incarceration industry. Armed with a hidden camera and recorder while working as a guard, Bauer reports on the horrific mistreatment of prisoners and registers his own subtle paranoia and the dehumanization that overtook him in that environment. While this business has boomed in recent decades as these companies continue to cut costs on health care, food, and educational programs, Bauer enriches this woeful story by adding deep historical perspective, deftly tracing the roots of the private prison industry to the 19th century and the use of prisoners as slave labor after the Civil War.
3. These Truths: A History of the United States by Jill Lepore (W.W. Norton)
An alternative title for Lepore’s great, sweeping narrative history could be American Contradictions, because she has a gift for zeroing in on those revelatory moments of conflict over the fundamental truths articulated by our founders. For Lepore, a Bancroft Prize winner, history professor at Harvard, and staff writer at The New Yorker, neither the generals and titans of industry nor the huddled masses tell the story. She has written a brilliant work of history from Columbus to Trump by focusing on an array of wildly different characters who shaped history by battling over political equality and natural rights, from muckrakers Ida B. Wells and Nellie Bly, to activists as different as Frederick Douglass, Phyllis Schlafly, and Margaret Fuller.
4. Tigerland: 1968-1969: A City Divided, a Nation Torn Apart, and a Magical Season of Healing by Wil Haygood (Knopf)
High school athletics might be a blurry lens through which to see the civil rights movement, but in the supremely talented hands of Haygood, the Tigers of an all-black Columbus, Ohio, school prove to be an ideal way of understanding that fraught time. Haygood, perhaps best known for the movie The Butler, focuses on the powerhouse basketball team of underfunded East High and its Cinderella-story baseball team, and relates the challenges and hardships of these “black boys in a white world.” Haygood vividly depicts East High’s idealistic white coaches and its first black principal, who adroitly reshaped the school by elevating standards, promoting discipline, and making it a safe harbor for all the students, not just the athletes, at an emotionally charged moment in history.
5. The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish by Katya Apekina (Two Dollar Radio)
This sharp novel opens with 16-year-old Edith thinking: “Mom is in St. Vincents, resting. She’s recently done something stupid and I’m the one who found her.” Apekina’s kaleidoscopic work of fiction, set in Louisiana and New York, has Edith and her younger sister Mae at its center, but its scope expands to their larger, broken family. The narrative segues back and forth in time, punctuated by letters, psychiatric notes, phone conversations, and even an interview with the girls’ father, a best-selling author who found fame writing about the civil rights movement and turned to appropriating the stories of others. Apekina adroitly employs the perspectives of a wide range of characters to expose complicated dynamics that propel this novel with a keen sense of urgency.