1. The Trial of Lizzie Borden by Cara Robertson (Simon & Schuster)
Lizzie Borden – who, according to the old rhyme, took an ax and gave her mother and father 40 and 41 “whacks,” respectively – has become American mythology, which Robertson brilliantly excavates in her new history of this notorious 1892 crime and the ensuing trial. Robertson, who has a doctorate in English from Oxford and clerked on the Supreme Court, builds her narrative from original letters, trial transcripts, and reports, shedding new light on this turn-of-the-century mystery, and on the peculiar tenor of life in the emotionally fraught Borden household, presenting alternative theories of the crime (and reasons to believe in her guilt and her innocence). In this sensationalized murder and trial in Fall River, Massachusetts – a prosperous mill town where mansions, cotillions, and elegance existed up the hill, while immigrant laborers were crammed into tenements below – Robertson has found an intriguing window into the widening chasms in Gilded Age America.
2. Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America’s Heartland by Jonathan M. Metzl (Basic)
The doctor-author is in and his patient is the disaffected middle- and lower-income white Americans who support political positions that harm their own health and well-being as well as those of their families. Metzl, physician and director of the Center for Medicine, Health, and Society at Vanderbilt University, melds public health research and real-life stories to illustrate, for example, how slashing funds for education increases the high school dropout rate, which correlates with diabetes and smoking, how relaxing gun laws leads to more gun suicides by white men, and how opponents of the Affordable Care Act are among those who would most benefit from it. In this insightful and original book, Metzl interviewed residents of states such as Kansas, Missouri, and Tennessee and is attentive to how racial anxieties manifest themselves in ways that are destructive for all. He notes that even well-meaning initiatives boomerang because they fail to deal with the underlying social issues or explain them in ways that fully resonate.
3. Under Red Skies: Three Generations of Life, Loss, and Hope in China by Karoline Kan (Hachette)
In her wide-angled yet intimate memoir, Kan casts her own story against the backdrop of Chinese history from her perspective as a millennial feminist. With a keen eye, the former New York Times reporter explains how her grandmother survived the Great Famine and then how her daughter – Kan’s mother – defied China’s One-Child Policy by giving birth to the author. Through Kan’s upbringing, it’s possible to grasp not only China’s dramatic changes toward modernization but also the extraordinary pressure toward conformity in a world that is simultaneously modern and rudderless, and still very much defined by its contradictions and repressions that echo through time.
4. American Cipher: Bowe Bergdahl and the U.S. Tragedy in Afghanistan by Matt Farwell and Michael Ames (Penguin Press)
Does the Bowe Bergdahl case reflect the ambiguity of U.S. long-term involvement in Afghanistan? In their fascinating new book, Afghanistan war veteran Farwell and Newsweek and Harper’s contributor Ames investigate the charges of military crimes against Bergdahl, the Idaho-born combat trainee who was dispatched to the Afghan war zone, abandoned his post in 2009, was captured by Islamic terrorists, and was finally released after five years. Farwell and Ames have delivered a nuanced and detailed portrait of Bergdahl, and placed it within the complex experience of the U.S. entanglement in Afghanistan.
5. The Dragonfly Sea by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor (Knopf)
Owuor begins her ambitious novel on Pate, a small island off the coast of Kenya, which is a magnet for the rest of the world. An irrepressible young woman named Ayaana is at its center, and her world opens up as American troops come to combat terrorism, and an “infidel” returns to the island. Owuor renders the world in Technicolor as action moves through Asia and East Africa, and Islamic and African cultural traditions blend together in a poetically rendered mélange.