1. The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead (Doubleday)
A recent Time magazine cover heralded “America’s Storyteller: By Mining the Past, Novelist Colson Whitehead Takes Readers into an Uneasy Present.” Like Whitehead’s groundbreaking The Underground Railroad, which won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, The Nickel Boys is a rare book that simultaneously climbs the bestseller lists, receives literary acclaim, and, most elusively, shifts the national conversation. While The Underground Railroad was a fantastical imagination of the railroad as physical rather than metaphorical that revealed enslavement in its hellacious iterations, The Nickel Boys is rooted in the horrific abuse and corruption of the now-shuttered Dozier School for Boys in Florida. The last time an American fiction writer graced the cover of Time was 2010, when the magazine headlined Jonathan Franzen a “Great American Novelist.” Whitehead very much deserves that acclaim.
2. They Called Us Enemy by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott, and Harmony Becker (Top Shelf Productions)
Once best known as Hikaru Sulu on Star Trek, Takei has built on his celebrity and become a magnetic and effective activist for LGBTQ rights and fair treatment of immigrants and, most recently, against President Donald Trump’s immigrant detention facilities along the Mexican border. His deeply moving graphic memoir recalls his childhood experience in World War II when his family, including his father, a longtime U.S. resident, and his mother, a Sacramento-born American citizen, were classified as “Alien Enemy” and forced from their home to live behind barbed wire in Japanese American internment camps at Rohwer, Arkansas, and then Tule Lake, California. In the tradition of the extraordinary March, the graphic trilogy by U.S. Rep. John Lewis, Takei’s manga-style book is a visual, intellectual, and profoundly emotional reading experience.
3. On the Clock: What Low Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane by Emily Guendelsberger (Little, Brown)
Guendelsberger’s book is an irreverent, droll account of two years she spent working in the low-wage service sector: fulfilling orders at an Amazon warehouse in Louisville, Kentucky; handling high-volume telephone traffic at Convergys in Hickory, North Carolina; and serving unrelenting customers at a McDonald’s in San Francisco. In the tradition of Barbara Ehrenreich’s pioneering Nickel and Dimed, Guendelsberger reports from the front lines at a time when the pressures on low-wage workers has intensified. “Nearly everyone with influence in this country,” she writes, “is incredibly insulated from how miserable and dehumanizing the daily experience of work has gotten over the past decade or two” – and she makes an impassioned plea to imagine another future.
4. Beneath the Tamarind Tree: A Story of Courage, Family, and the Lost Schoolgirls of Boko Haram by Isha Sesay (Dey Street Books)
The Islamist militant group Boko Haram abducted 276 schoolgirls from a small town in Nigeria in 2014, and while some escaped or were released, more than 100 remain missing. Former CNN correspondent Sesay exposes the story of the kidnapping and the international response to it, but she also made the most of her extraordinary access to more than 20 survivors. Sesay’s deeply reported account details Boko Haram’s opposition to Western-style education for girls and its efforts to convert these Christian girls to Islam. The result is a harrowing story of captivity, but Sesay’s connection with the survivors also allows her to convey their passion for education which somehow sustains them as they deal with the trauma of their ordeal.
5. Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner (Random House)
As one of the “Most Anticipated” novels of the summer makes its way onto the best-seller lists, it may be clear to fans of New York Times Magazine staff writer Brodesser-Akner’s celebrity profiles (Gwyneth Paltrow, Bradley Cooper) that she brings the same casual tone and eye for internal contradiction, and generous humanity, to her imagined characters as she does to real ones. Fleishman Is in Trouble introduces readers to a middle-aged dad (yes, that’s Fleishman), who gets dumped by his high-powered wife and heads into divorce — and delights in a new world of online dating. But the most interesting character is the novel’s narrator, Libby, an old friend of Fleishman’s from their year abroad in Israel who has her own issues. Through Brodesser-Akner’s magical sensibility, what seems at first to be yet another novel about middle-age malaise turns into something more profound and universal.