1. Silver, Sword, & Stone: Three Crucibles in the Latin American Story by Marie Arana (Simon & Schuster)
In a remarkable feat, Arana has written an epic, sweeping history of Latin America made vivid and immediate by telling her story through contemporary figures who embody the “silver, sword, and stone” of the title. She ingeniously organizes her book around these enduring obsessions in the region – the lust for precious metals (silver), the culture of authority and power (sword), and organized religion, particularly the Catholic Church, the region’s most trusted institution (stone). Another focus: the iniquities that are at the heart of the Latin American narrative. “Until Latin America understands how its people have been shaped, sharpened, and stunted by those iniquities,” Arana writes, “the crucibles of silver, sword, and stone will continue to write its story.”
2. Inconspicuous Consumption: The Environmental Impact You Don’t Know You Have by Tatiana Schlossberg (Grand Central)
The idea of climate change may not have entered the public consciousness in 1964 when the song “It’s a Small World” debuted at the New York World’s Fair, but that infectious tune could very well could be the soundtrack of Schlossberg’s practical, charming new book. Schlossberg adeptly guides readers toward understanding the unlikely implications of how the manufacture of everyday acquisitions, from the water-intensive production of blue jeans to extraction of metal for lithium ion batteries for phones and laptops, exact environmental and human costs. Beyond individual choices, though, Schlossberg’s sophisticated understanding of the world’s complexity and her conversational style rally readers to vigilance about corporate and governmental oversight in this small world.
3. Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil by Susan Neiman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
In her nuanced and perceptive book, philosopher Neiman considers how a nation comes to terms with its history and the implications of its failures to do so. Neiman lives in Berlin, is Jewish, and grew up in Atlanta; from her unique perspective she compares how Germany grappled with its role in the Holocaust and how the American South faced – or didn’t – the Civil War and the horror of slavery. One thing she finds is that the descendants of the Wehrmacht and those of the Confederate Army once made the same claims. Neiman grounds her articulate argument in the ways Germany has confronted its past and maintains that contemporary American conflicts – over Confederate monuments and reparations, for instance – reflect America’s failure to deal with its own history by educating the public about intolerance and grappling in a real way with its past.
4. Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven but Nobody Wants to Die: Bioethics and the Transformation of Health Care in America by Amy Gutmann and Jonathan Moreno (Liveright)
Recent medical breakthroughs from gene editing to drug development have raised important ethical issues for patients and those who love them, as well as for policymakers. Gutmann, who is president of the University of Pennsylvania, and Moreno wrestle with those questions in their lucid exploration of bioethical decisions affecting American medical care. Their clear, short and conversational, jargon-free chapters, which weave in stories from their own medical care, will prompt readers to be prepared and take control of their medical decision-making on choices such as organ donation and transplantation, physician-assisted suicide, as well as questions of business ethics and cybersecurity. Gutmann chaired President Barack Obama’s Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, for which Moreno was senior adviser. Together, they make a case for assessible and affordable health care, as they argue near the end of their compelling book: “The justice of American health care reaches far beyond medical matters to the very political and socioeconomic structure of our society.”
5. A Door in the Earth by Amy Waldman (Little, Brown)
Waldman follows her acclaimed 2011 debut novel, The Submission, with a knockout that deftly entwines the political and personal, set it in a vastly complicated context with finely nuanced emotional detail. Waldman, a former South Asia bureau chief for the New York Times, focuses on a recent college graduate who has been inspired by the bestselling memoir of an American ophthalmologist who recounted his own heroic efforts to launch a women’s clinic in rural Afghanistan – which may evoke associations with Greg Mortenson’s discredited account Three Cups of Tea – to return to her birthplace and find purpose in the world. From that beginning, Waldman throws open her smart novel, extending it beyond the perceptions of one American to capture an array of perspectives, from the village commander to the midwife, and exposes the tragic consequences of unbridled idealism, the dark side of American intervention, and the fantasies and lies that sustain an ongoing war.