1. First, Sandra Day O’Connor: An Intimate Portrait of the First Woman Supreme Court Justice by Evan Thomas (Random House)
Appointed in 1981, Sandra Day O’Connor was the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court, and in his robust, sympathetic, and enlightening biography, Thomas makes a compelling case for the importance of this swing-vote justice who was the lone woman on the court for 12 years. Thomas – a prominent editor of Time and Newsweek and author of best-selling books on the 20th century, including Being Nixon and Ike’s Bluff – argues that O’Connor’s mix of ambition, restraint, and self-reliance was forged on her family’s vast Lazy B cattle ranch in Arizona. There, she learned the value of pragmatism that later led her to consider the impact of the court on daily life. Drawing on unprecedented access to O’Connor’s voluminous papers and network of contacts, from former clerks to her fellow justices, Thomas contends that she was the glue that made the court civil; adds juicy tidbits about her law school courtship with future Justice William Rehnquist; details her influence on important issues, particularly abortion; and, in a poignant arc, describes how she grasped her own decline into dementia as she witnessed the court dismantle her legacy.
2. The Age of Disenchantments: The Epic Story of Spain’s Most Notorious Literary Family and the Long Shadow of the Spanish Civil War by Aaron Shulman (Ecco)
In his smart essay “What if I Wasn’t Meant to Be a Novelist” for Literary Hub, Shulman chronicles his failed efforts to publish a novel, but he must have honed those talents at some point since he brings them to this brilliant biography of the outlandish Panero family. Led by its patriarch, who jettisoned his left-wing politics to join with the Nationalists and become Franco’s unofficial, celebrated poet laureate, the family included his affluent, beautiful, unhappy wife and their three sons. Roiled by the revolution, and obsessed with their poetic connections and lineage, the Panero family was informed by its associations with world-famous writers such as Roberto Bolaño, Federico García Lorca, and Pablo Neruda, as well as the gyrations of Spain’s 20th-century politics, as the second generation dealt with its complicated legacy and demons
3. What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance by Carolyn Forché (Penguin Press)
Why would a naïve 27-year-old American poet, who speaks Spanish brokenly and knows nothing about the isthmus of the Americas, accept the invitation of a near-stranger to join him in El Salvador, on the brink of war? And why would this rumored lone wolf/communist/CIA operative/world-class marksman/small-time coffee farmer invite her? Those questions animate Forché’s dramatic memoir about her transformation into an activist for peace, justice, and human rights. Forché vividly recounts how she became enmeshed with the mysterious, politically charged man and with clergy and farmworkers as violence ensued, in a fierce narrative punctuated with short prose poem vignettes that she notes are “written in pencil.”
4. The Parade by Dave Eggers (Knopf)
Eggers’ provocative new novel takes the form of a parable in which an unnamed pair (presumably American) pave an unnamed road to unify an unnamed, war-torn, temperate nation, which, like his other fiction of the last decades, raises questions about social justice, equality, friendship and the costs of wealth. At the center of The Parade are contractors code-named “Four” and “Nine” –- which, of course, add up to the unlucky number 13. Even though the pair engage in some clever repartee and there is a bit of suspense in the story, plot is really beside the point. Eggers argues for empathy and understanding between the contractors and the country in which they are working, and the result is a work of fiction that can be read in a night or two but has an enduring impact that speaks to this particularly fraught, complicated moment in the world.
5. Lot by Bryan Washington (Riverhead)
This debut collection is set in the sprawl of Houston but consists of finely calibrated stories, about half of which are linked by a narrator who has a black mother and a Latino father and is making the transition into adulthood. Washington writes with intensity and wit about black and brown boys navigating life with absent, adulterous fathers, and is sensitive to the dynamics of how urban gentrification plays out in a diverse city. Masculinity and sexuality are front and center in this little world with a wide range of humanity, from undocumented immigrants to hustlers selling drugs or sex, and along the way Washington makes his mark as a writer to watch.