1. On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope by DeRay Mckesson (Viking)
“I learned hope the hard way,” writes Mckesson at the start of his powerful memoir and manifesto, recalling a hot day during the 2014 Ferguson, Missouri protests as the activist was stepping into his role of “record[ing] and interpret[ing] as much as possible everywhere we protested so that we could consistently tell the truth to the outside world.” He documented the violence in Ferguson, posted it on social media, and gave birth to the Black Lives Matter movement. With this inside look into the movement, his childhood as the son of drug addicts in Baltimore, and the creation of a national database on people killed by police, the host of the podcast Pod Save the People delivers a powerful book that demonstrates that he is not only an influential activist, but an important literary voice for equality in America.
2. The Browns of California: The Family Dynasty that Transformed a State and Shaped a Nation by Miriam Pawel (Bloomsbury)
In the Brown family, Pawel has found an ideal lens to view 20th-century California. Pawel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of a biography of Cesar Chavez, places father-and-son governors Pat and Jerry Brown at the center of the narrative of California’s exuberant expansion and its historical gyrations with wildly different men at its helm. Pawel’s focus on the Brown family extends to influential sisters, wives, and mothers who embrace politics, but most poignant and enduring is the relationship of gregarious father and enigmatic son, who influenced American political life for generations.
3. Arthur Ashe: A Life by Raymond Arsenault (Simon & Schuster)
This definitive biography of tennis star Arthur Ashe, delivers more than a sports book, artfully making a case for Ashe’s importance as a civil rights icon. With the deep understanding of American history which he so deftly brought to bear in his earlier books on the Freedom Riders and Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial, Arsenault chronicles Ashe’s rise from the segregated tennis courts of his childhood in Richmond, Virginia, on through the barriers he faced on the amateur circuit, to becoming one of America’s most admired athletes. Arsenault explains how Ashe, who died of AIDS before he turned 50, evolved into an activist against apartheid in South Africa and AIDS, and illuminates Ashe’s historical significance in a marvelous work of social history.
4. Bitwise: A Life in Code by David Auerbach (Pantheon)
In this engaging memoir and social history, Auerbach describes working as an engineer for Microsoft and Google in their early phases while studying graduate-level literature and philosophy on the side. The experiences enhanced one another, becoming as necessary as food and water, and in Bitwise he writes fluidly about how coding shaped him as a person. Auerbach has a charming touch, and he is a patient, encouraging teacher, which is illustrated -- among many memorable stories -- by his playing “Flight of the Valkyries” as he marveled over his young daughter’s determination to walk, which reminded him of the effort and joy he found in getting a piece of code to work perfectly.
5. Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen by Sarah Bird (St. Martin’s Press)
In her engrossing and marvelous novel of post-Civil War America, Bird draws inspiration from a forgotten footnote of history – a remarkable emancipated woman who disguised herself as a man and served with the legendary “Buffalo Soldiers,” the African-American cavalry and infantry units. From the perspective of Cathy Williams – who used the pseudonym William Cathay – Bird shows her subject's evolution from slave to soldier, and demonstrates how the limits on her freedom post-emancipation represented another form of enslavement. Bird conveys with epic sweep how Williams’s origins as the granddaughter of an African queen buttressed her strength and verve, whether on the frontlines fighting for westward expansion or, more personally, in the joys and heartbreak of life as an iconoclastic, irrepressible American hero.