1. Songs of America: Patriotism, Protest, and the Music That Made a Nation by Jon Meacham and Tim McGraw (Random House)
Meacham, a journalist and biographer who won the Pulitzer Prize for American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, and Grammy winner and actor McGraw collaborated on this unique and charming book. This inspiring book synthesizes American history and music as it moves through the centuries from the Revolutionary War era and “The Star-Spangled Banner” to Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising” after 9/11, and is especially moving as it captures the soundtrack of the civil rights movement. There are some iconic protest songs such as “This Land Is Your Land” and “We Shall Overcome,” but also classic ones associated with the American spirit, such as “Over There,” “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” and “Yankee Doodle.” With big names like Meacham and McGraw, and a national tour, it’s not a surprise that Songs of America has rocketed onto the best-seller list.
2. Writing to Persuade: How to Bring People Over to Your Side by Trish Hall (Liveright)
In her warm, wise, and persuasive style, Hall, a former editor of the New York Times op-ed page, lays out her “Fifteen Principles of Persuasive Writing” on which she has come to rely. In her No. 1 recommendation, “Listen to people,” she elaborates: “Despite our culture of selfies, persuasion is not about you; it’s about them.” In No. 11, which precedes “Abandon jargon” and “Prune ruthlessly,” one finds the essence of her book: “Tell stories.” Following her own advice, Hall’s book works as a memoir in short stories, with elaboration ingeniously punctuating the text in the form of thought balloons, beginning with her childhood as an avid reader in rural Pennsylvania, to college in California, and eventually to the Times, collecting stories about famous op-ed contributors such as Angelina Jolie, Vladimir Putin, Woody Allen, and Tom Hanks that elevate her book beyond the classic writing guide.
3. This America: The Case for the Nation by Jill Lepore (Liveright)
In anticipation of Independence Day, Lepore’s short, bracing book makes a brilliant case for liberalism. Following These Truths, her remarkable single-volume history of the United States, Harvard historian and New Yorker staff writer Lepore responds to the recent resurgence of nationalism, arguing that patriotism and liberalism are a rebuttal to the chorus calling to make America great again. Lepore makes the distinction: “Patriotism is animated by love, nationalism by hatred.”
4. The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo (Doubleday)
In her delicious debut, Lombardo has whipped up a contemporary variation on Little Women in a novel focusing on the Sorenson sisters, raised by their genial physician father and relentlessly cheery mother in an affluent, competitive Chicago suburb, over four decades beginning in the 1970s. Generous and empathic, Lombardo writes with wit in this compulsively readable drama of foible and tragedy stemming from infidelity, illness, and unplanned pregnancies, as the fractious sisters zigzag to adulthood. As one sister puts it about her family life: “It’s a vast hormonal hellscape. A marathon of instability and hair products.”
5. The Gone Dead by Chanelle Benz (Ecco)
In her gripping novel, Benz sparks the drama when Billie James returns to the Mississippi Delta and inherits the shack once inhabited by her father, a gifted but overlooked poet who had abandoned her and her mother years before. With deft assurance, Benz threads together the mysteries of both the accident that killed Billie’s father and the three-decade rumor that as a young child she had disappeared before his death. As Billie tries to learn the truth and gets to know the neighbors and residents of the town, she comes to understand the legacy of slavery, the civil rights movement, and Freedom Summer in the complicated web of history.