1. Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry by Imani Perry (Beacon Press)
Not a traditional biography of Hansberry – the first black woman to have a play, the iconic A Raisin in the Sun, produced on Broadway – this is a personal book that Perry considers a “third-person memoir.” A Princeton University professor, Perry provides a genre-defying portrait of Hansberry, who died of pancreatic cancer when she was just 34 and left a raft of unpublished writing and a legacy that mirror Perry’s own history, identity, and passions. Sharing with the playwright a dedication to social justice and Chicago connections, Perry fills the gaps in Hansberry’s story with background on her radical advocacy, relationships with figures ranging from Amiri Baraka to W.E.B. Du Bois and James Baldwin, concealment of her lesbianism, and her marriage to Jewish leftist Robert Nemiroff. It was Nemiroff who ensured that her unpublished archive would be preserved so that as decades passed, a young writer like Perry could marvelously evoke Hansberry’s life and be enriched by her example.
2. The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century by Deborah Blum (Penguin)
Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle exposed the contaminated flesh and horrifying working conditions in the meatpacking industry, and now Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Blum spotlights the pioneering efforts by an uncompromising scientist determined to protect consumers from dangerous chemicals in food. Harvey Wiley’s campaign to eradicate, for example, formaldehyde from milk, copper sulfate from canned vegetables, and ground-up bugs from brown sugar led to the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. Blum chronicles that battle expertly, capturing a full spectrum of characters including reformer Jane Addams, suffragist and social justice advocate (and Wiley’s wife) Anna Kelton Wiley, and Monsanto Chemical Co. founder John Queeney. Blum deftly places the work of Wiley’s Department of Agriculture Bureau of Chemistry against the backdrop of an era of technological advances that held the potential for both safety and destruction.
3. The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth by Ken Krimstein (Bloomsbury)
Cartoonist Krimstein brings brilliant political theorist Arendt to life in his artful and compelling biographical collage of the German-born writer of The Origins of Totalitarianism, one of the seminal works of the 20th century. Krimstein, author of Kvetch as Kvetch Can: Jewish Cartoons and contributor to The New Yorker and The Wall Street Journal, captures in words and images the trajectory of Arendt’s life, from her research on Nazi propaganda that landed her in a French work camp to her affair with professor and Nazi sympathizer Martin Heidegger to her travels though Czechoslovakia, Switzerland, and Portugal before coming to the United States and Princeton University. Krimstein depicts Arendt as a brave but flawed woman, operating on the world stage with figures such as Walter Benjamin and devoted to life as a “virulent truth teller.”
4. An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green (Dutton)
Green is host of slightly nerdy, info-packed shows on his YouTube channels Crash Course and SciShow and is the younger of the Vlogbrothers, the chatty video sensation he launched with older brother John Green, author of best-selling novels for young adults such as The Fault in Our Stars. In his debut novel for adults, Hank Green delivers a smart and funny work of mystery and science fiction. It stars art school grad April May, who becomes a celebrity after discovering a 10-foot-tall robotic sculpture and roping in her video camera-toting classmate to introduce “Carl” to the world. From this premise, Green delivers not only a hilarious tale but a provocative one that contends with essential questions about celebrity, identity, and what is real when images seem to be curating reality.
5. The Caregiver by Samuel Park (Simon & Schuster)
Park’s New York Times essay, “I had a 9 Percent Chance. Plus Hope,” published months before his April 2017 death of stomach cancer at 41, is included with his remarkable novel. Park’s passing lends poignancy to his saga of an undocumented woman from Brazil who finds work as a caregiver to a wealthy Los Angeles woman, and boundaries blur and the power dynamic between the two evolves into a painful struggle. Park has a special gift, as he also demonstrated in This Burns My Heart, his previous novel, for rendering fraught relationships between women with tenderness and humanity.