1. Ben Hecht: Fighting Words, Moving Pictures by Adina Hoffman (Yale University Press)
In this deeply insightful biography, Hoffman writes that the onetime Chicago journalist, best known for co-writing The Front Page, was one of Hollywood’s most prominent, well-compensated screenwriters, but that his interests and influence extended more broadly to politics, literature, and journalism. Ben Hecht, the latest entry in Yale University Press’s invaluable Jewish Lives series, notes that in 1939, Hecht made himself – as he said – “look on the world with Jewish eyes,” and that world events turned him into a Jewish radical and avid Zionist. Hoffman renders Hecht fully in this slender, elegant biography, capturing him as a Jewish American before the identity was commonplace. She writes that “Ben Hecht embraced, even celebrated, being an alloy: novelist and journalist, screenwriter and activist” who “had thrilled to the parabolic flight and risk of the artist on his trapeze.”
2. Landfall by Thomas Mallon (Pantheon Books)
In this post reality-TV world where political figures are scripted to be “authentic,” fiction may be the closest we’ll get to reality when it comes to American politics. Mallon’s tenth novel focuses on the second term of President George W. Bush, which might seem rather pallid subject matter compared to novels like Finale (Reagan) or Watergate (Nixon), but in his brilliant mashup of real figures (like salty, caustic first mother Barbara Bush, unctuous Condoleezza Rice, and acrid, manipulative Donald Rumsfeld), Mallon deftly propels the narrative forward on the political stage and behind closed doors. Mallon makes the geopolitical horrors of Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq War compelling backdrops for a mystifying president and the personal dramas unfolding all around him.
3. Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster by Adam Higginbotham (Simon & Schuster)
In his account of the April 1986 nuclear explosion at the Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station in Ukraine, Higginbotham reveals the failing Soviet bureaucracy that led to the disaster, and vividly captures not only the plant’s flawed design and careless planning, but the human toll of the catastrophe. Midnight in Chernobyl is a master class in reporting., as Higginbotham, a relentless investigator, locates recently declassified documents, technical literature and logbooks, maps, and government records. Most important, his account stretches across a broad swath of society, relating the stories of the pioneering surgeons and hematologists and their patients, as well as the engineers, electricians, machinists, and ordinary citizens who were witnesses to the horror of Chernobyl three decades ago, under a cloud that has yet to lift.
4. Nobody’s Looking at You: Essays by Janet Malcolm (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Fashion designer Eileen Fisher’s mother frequently reminded her daughter that “nobody’s looking at you,” which Malcolm made the title of her profile of Fisher, one of the profiles, essays, and reviews previously published in the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books assembled in this marvelous collection. Fisher’s mother’s observation could very well be applied to Malcolm herself. Whether writing about legendary New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell or Tolstoy’s dream logic in Anna Karenina or even John Roberts’ Supreme Court confirmation hearings, Malcolm stays very much out of the way. Her curiosity is boundless, her insights clear and original, but what really elevates her is that while she is present on the page, she resists intrusion or self-reference, keeping her keen gaze ever forward-looking.
5. Cherokee America by Margaret Verble (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Following her Pulitzer Prize finalist Maud’s Line, this is Verble’s second novel. At the heart of her epic and ambitious sophomore work of fiction is Aunt Check, or Cherokee America Singer, a fierce mother of five and the matriarch of a family of farmers of Cherokee descent. The Civil War has ended and formerly enslaved people move to Indian Territory in search of work on Check’s potato farm, which she is running after the death of her husband. Tensions escalate in the wake of the murder of a Cherokee man, and jurisdictional conflicts arise over protected Native land, just as property and people begin to disappear amid chatter that the fields are rich in gold.