1. The Beneficiary: Fortune, Misfortune, and the Story of My Father by Janny Scott (Riverhead)
A reporter with the New York Times team that won a Pulitzer Prize for its 2000 series on racial experiences and attitudes in America, and author of a biography of Barack Obama’s mother, Scott brings her journalistic skills to this perceptive social history of the Gilded Age on Philadelphia’s Main Line and insightful investigation into her own father. With wit and understated elegance fitting her subject, Scott recovers this history of her family – with a grandmother who was the inspiration for Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story and a charming but rather absent father in existential angst, mirthfully known as “the Duke of Villanova” – and bares the hidden injuries of privilege. “He was a beneficiary of abundant good fortune, that’s a fact,” Scott writes of her father. “But good fortune doesn’t necessarily drop from the heavens unencumbered.”
2. The Problem of Democracy: The Presidents Adams Confront the Cult of Personality by Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein (Viking)
John and John Quincy Adams may not be the stage sensation of Alexander Hamilton, as crucial to America’s foundation history as George Washington, or as charismatic as Thomas Jefferson, but the father-and-son presidents speak to our times in a way that seems uncanny. Professors of history at Louisiana State University who co-authored Madison and Jefferson, Isenberg and Burstein find an eerie prescience in the warnings of the Adams presidents, who cautioned that democracy would be ruled by those with the “deepest purse” and that democracy’s great risk was demagoguery. This fascinating book is a dual biography spanning pre-Revolutionary America to the early 19th century and illuminating their happy marriages, but it is also keenly astute about political theory, politics of the day, and the twisted roots of American democracy.
3. The Death and Life of Aida Hernandez by Aaron Bobrow-Strain (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Professor at Whitman College and founding member of the Walla Walla Immigrant Rights Coalition in Washington state, Bobrow-Strain draws from his deep expertise and experience about the U.S.-Mexico border to dramatize the arbitrary cruelty of the American immigration system. The porous boundary between Agua Prieta, Mexico, and Douglas, Arizona hardens over time, and the vulnerable, undocumented girl identified by Bobrow-Strain as “Aida Hernandez” becomes a mother, is deported to Mexico, and eventually struggles to reconnect with her son. Bobrow-Strain follows Hernandez through years of her nightmare that extended to immigrant detention centers and courts, and he enriches the story with the perspectives of others in her orbit, particularly her social worker, who had been an undocumented immigrant herself.
4. Afternoon of a Faun by James Lasdun (W.W. Norton)
In this smart psychological thriller for this #MeToo moment, with a narrator trying to stay neutral about the accusations against his friend, a British television journalist in New York is contending with a forthcoming memoir by a woman accusing him of sexual assault four decades earlier. Lasdun, a gifted stylist, maintains suspense as the narrator receives evidence and grapples with questions of his friend’s guilt or innocence. But he also knows the accuser and comes to consider her allegations and reflect on the ambiguity of relationships. With a keen instinct for irony and a resistance to cliché, Lasdun sustains the momentum of this tightly written novel right until its end.
5. The Limits of the World by Jennifer Acker (Delphinium)
Acker’s rich and rewarding debut novel features a generational cultural gap in a family’s immigration from Nairobi to Columbus, Ohio, but reworks the traditional narrative. Acker is a brainy writer, making associations with British colonialism and touching on philosophy at Harvard, religiosity, and morality, but she also writes with great heart. The founder and editor in chief of The Common, who teaches at Amherst College, Acker has written a novel full of characters wrestling with ethical questions and has updated the immigration saga with a gaze that looks back to Kenya and carries its own urgent suspense.