1. Doing Justice: A Prosecutor’s Thoughts on Crime, Punishment, and the Rule of Law by Preet Bharara (Alfred A. Knopf)
The former federal prosecutor for the Southern District of New York, appointed by Barack Obama in 2009 and fired in 2017 by Donald Trump, settles no political scores in his nuanced and conversational call for “truth, dignity and justice.” His casual and compelling style will be familiar to those who see him on CNN, where he is a senior legal analyst, or who listen to his “Stay Tuned With Preet” podcast. Those who read his book will find Bharara a wonderful storyteller, relating cases as famous as the Times Square terrorism threat and corruption by prominent New York State officials, as well as more obscure ones, like the kidnapping of an infant. Bharara is enough of an idealist to make the case that disagreements and disputes should be resolved with, of all things, reason and evidence. “Much of what passes for argument in the public square these days,” he writes, “would be laughed out of court.”
2. Zora and Langston: A Story of Friendship and Betrayal by Yuval Taylor (W.W. Norton & Company)
The rewards of friendship too often elude the biographer’s gaze, but in his rich and nuanced story of “collaborators, social and literary gadflies, and very close companions” Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, Taylor evokes this pair as they launched their careers and developed their ideas. Taylor doesn’t sugarcoat the relationship between the two stars of the Harlem Renaissance as they drove through the rural South collecting folklore, working on a play, and winning financial support from an affluent white woman who became their patron. Drawing from their letters and his own close, perceptive readings of their work, Taylor relates their painful falling-out, while also recognizing that “Zora and Langston’s friendship played a vital role in establishing the identity of African American literature in its time – and throughout its future.”
3. What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker: A Memoir in Essays by Damon Young (Ecco)
In his introductory essay, “Living While Black Is An Extreme Sport,” Young describes this collection as a “series of attempts to find some solidity and lucidity in the relentless absurdity of existing while black in America.” But in addition to the humor that informs his insightful and compelling memoir, Young hits a full range of emotional notes as he recounts his upbringing in Pittsburgh and his economic instability or, as he calls it, “post-traumatic brokeness disorder,” and navigates basketball, barbershops, and shifting notions of masculinity. Young, co-founder of the website Very Smart Brothas, senior editor at the Root, and a GQ columnist, writes with wonderful wit about his anxiety, neuroses, acid reflux, and love of food covered by or infused with bacon. Finally happily married with a young daughter, he realizes: “Blackness forces you to love harder.”
4. Don’t Label Me: An Incredible Conversation for Divided Times by Irsad Manji (St. Martin’s Press)
Manji – a refugee from Africa, a Muslim who happens to be gay, and an advocate for liberal Islam – calls for a new kind of diversity that depends on respectful and thoughtful listening. The founder of the Moral Courage Project, which “means doing the right thing in the face of your fears,” argues against dishonest diversity and attachment to identity labels. As she articulated recently on Real Time with Bill Maher, and in this cogent, persuasive book, Manji calls for relating, not berating – because evolution of the social system depends on honest conversation without fear of offending others.
5. Women Taking by Miriam Toews (Bloomsbury)
Toews, one of Canada’s most celebrated novelists, who was recently profiled in The New Yorker, has written a brilliant novel that should finally bring her the wide American audience she deserves. The book is inspired by real events in a fundamentalist Mennonite community in Bolivia, in which women and girls were drugged and raped by men in the colony but have only blood and bruises rather than memories. Rather than focus on the crimes, Women Talking gives voice to the victims. In what could be a stage drama, Toews spotlights the small chorus of women, from teenagers to grandmothers, over two days of deliberations about their futures, which are recorded by the schoolteacher, a man shunned by the community, but necessary because the women are illiterate in this patriarchal society.