1. Mr. Straight Arrow: The Career of John Hersey, Author of Hiroshima by Jeremy Treglown (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
“Public service: It has a quaint ring, along with modesty, truthfulness, decency,” writes Treglown in his lucid, compelling book about John Hersey, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and war correspondent known for his long essay Heroshima. Hersey was guided by his own moral imperative The New Yorker devoted an entire issue to his 1946 report on the anguished experiences of six Japanese survivors of the American bombing of Heroshima on August 6, 1945, which was published as a book still in print today, and which set the standard for a new kind of immersive journalism. Treglown, biographer and former editor of The Times Literary Supplement, covers Hersey from his birth in China to his death in Key West, Florida, but trains his eye on Hersey’s work, conscience, and evolution from a child of missionaries to Sinclair Lewis’s secretary, to a committed, idealistic journalist and fiction writer with a moral imagination.
2. A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II by Sonia Purnell (Viking)
Just as she rescued the wife of Winston Churchill from obscurity in Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill, British biographer Purnell has brought to life Virginia Hall, an affluent woman from Baltimore who became a great American spy, critical to the anti-Nazi resistance effort. Hall, who had a prosthetic leg due to having accidentally shot herself while bird-hunting in Turkey, went on to extraordinary feats of bravery, including hiking over the Pyrenees to escape the Nazis after she was featured on “Wanted” posters across Europe. Hall’s great gift, which Purnell details suspensefully, was her talent for recruiting a network of spies and guerrilla fighters critical to winning France’s liberation and ending the war.
3. The Presidents: Noted Historians Rank America’s Best – and Worst – Chief Executives by Brian Lamb and Susan Swain (PublicAffairs)
As public affairs network C-SPAN celebrates its 40th anniversary, longtime on-camera interviewers Lamb (chairman, founding CEO) and Swain (co-CEO) have ranked American presidents, with accompanying, minimally edited interviews with historians. In first place is Abraham Lincoln, supported by Harold Holzer, and second is Ron Chernow on George Washington. Finishing up the top 10 is Lyndon B. Johnson, with Robert A. Caro making the case. And Donald Trump? “Not yet rated.” But C-SPAN advisers Douglas Brinkley, Edna Greene Medford, and Richard Norton Smith conferred in a round table on the current president. “To Trump, this is all a performance, and every episode is a news cycle,” observes Smith. “None of us is a prophet, but it’s hard to believe that it’s a formula for a successful governance.”
4. The Other Americans by Laila Lalami (Pantheon)
In post-Iraq War America, a Moroccan immigrant is killed in a hit-and-run in front of his restaurant in the Mojave Desert. This incident sparks Lalami’s astonishingly powerful novel, told by interlocking narrators as the investigation into the death progresses, including the undocumented man who witnessed the crime, the victim’s daughter, her high school bandmate, and an African-American police officer. Lalami was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for The Moor’s Account, a novel about a Moorish slave in the 16th century, but now she turns her attention to the polyglot of contemporary life, and characters who feel outside American identity.
5. Courting Mr. Lincoln by Louis Bayard (Algonquin)
In his engrossing new historical novel, Bayard renders 1840’s Springfield, Illinois, as an emotionally dynamic milieu that shaped the awkward beanstalk who became the great 16th president. Bayard, who has demonstrated his gifts for reimagining the literary past in earlier novels like Mr. Timothy (a thriller about adult Tiny Tim from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol) and The Bluest Eye (a murder mystery featuring Edgar Allan Poe during his West Point years), turns to a moment in antebellum America when young Abraham Lincoln, Mary Todd, and Joshua Speed were enmeshed in an increasingly awkward dynamic. That Lincoln and roommate Speed shared a bed (as was customary in the day) has prompted “Was Lincoln gay?” questions in recent decades, but Bayard, insightful and perceptive, goes beyond that simple question to explore the deeper mysteries of Lincoln’s heart, portraying him, his future wife, and friend in all their complexity.