1. Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century by George Packer (Knopf)
Packer’s truly great Our Man is in a class with Ronald Steel’s 1980 Walter Lippmann and the American Century, biographies bigger than these outsized, complicated men at the center of political life and the span of the American empire. While Lippmann was a journalist and Holbrooke a diplomat, Packer perceptively enlarges Holbrooke’s story, identifying the “blind spot behind his eyes that masked his inner life” and the mix of idealism and egotism in his quest for influence on the world stage that reflected the American story. From Vietnam to the Balkans and Afghanistan, Packer draws from extraordinary access to Holbrooke’s personal papers and from extensive interviews with friends, foes, and allies. While scrupulously documented, this exceptional biography pushes the boundaries of traditional biography in a form that speaks to readers and reflects Packer’s own work as a novelist (for example, Central Square, 1998) and his National Book Award-winning The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America.
2. No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us by Rachel Louise Snyder (Bloomsbury)
“Domestic violence is like no other crime,” writes Snyder in her powerful new book. “It’s violence from someone you know, from someone who claims to love you.” Snyder, winner of the J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award, brings rigor and passion to her investigation of domestic violence, focusing not only on the victims and perpetrators, but also on how these crimes are prosecuted – if at all – and programs spanning rehabilitation for batterers and support for the women and families destroyed. In forceful, urgent prose, Snyder illuminates the cycle of violence and its legacy, and her deeply reported, vividly drawn case studies become short portraits that capture the dramatic stories of how family dynamics play out and how trauma echoes through society.
3. The Guarded Gate: Bigotry, Eugenics, and the Law That Kept Two Generations of Jews, Italians, and Other European Immigrants Out of America by Daniel Okrent (Scribner)
In this big, engrossing social history, which resonates today, Okrent sheds light on a particularly shameful part of the early 20th century, when American xenophobia ran highest. With the keen eye he brought to his previous book Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, Okrent focuses on the exclusionary immigration laws of the period. He fully employs the journalistic skills he honed as managing editor of Life magazine and editor at large at Time Inc. to expose the powerful, unholy alliance between educated, upper-crust Bostonians and New Yorkers and the scientists who celebrated eugenics, which led President Calvin Coolidge and Congress to promote immigration quotas and, in 1924, the most restrictive immigration law in the nation’s history.
4. Rough Magic: Riding the World’s Loneliest Horse Race by Lara Prior-Palmer (Catapult)
It may be Triple Crown season in the United States, but around the world there are more bizarre equine sports than a two-minute gallop around a track: One of them is the 1,000-kilometer Mongol Derby, advertised as the “world’s longest and toughest horse race.” Cue Prior-Palmer, a 19-year-old London-born au pair in Austria, who became the first female and youngest-ever winner of this arduous, 10-day competition. In short, finely written chapters, Prior-Palmer chronicles what happened after her spur-of-the-moment decision to enter the derby, in which contestants ride a new pony at each stage – a “Pony-Express-style format that mimicked Chinggis Khan’s postal system but seemed far more like a perfect hodgepodge of Snakes and Ladders and the Tour de France on unknown bicycles.”
5. The Farm by Joanne Ramos (Random House)
In her debut novel, Ramos updates Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale with a twist on income inequality, the rise of the 1 percent, and how class and race play out in a fertility economy. At Golden Oaks Farm, a luxurious center in the Hudson Valley, surrogate “hosts” are separated from their own families to grow perfect babies for the super-affluent. Ramos delivers a big social novel, empathetically and compellingly told from an array of perspectives, from a young Filipina immigrant who has left her baby with her cousin in Queens and her roommate, a privileged white recent college graduate (a “premium host”), to the canny Farm manager set on monetizing the business. The novel raises questions about equity and inheritance in a way that is enduring and yet razor-sharp about this era.