1. Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor by Steven Greenhouse (Knopf)
As the longtime labor reporter for the New York Times, Greenhouse brought his considerable talents to the front lines of working people in America, and in Beaten Down, Worked Up he delivers a remarkable chronicle of how unions weakened as corporations acquired more power. “Millions of Americans know little about what unions have achieved over American history,” Greenhouse writes in his compelling narrative, a rich mix of personal stories of how anti-labor Republican officials and right-wing billionaires quashed unions and workers. Perhaps reflecting his early years as a Times foreign correspondent, Greenhouse looks abroad and sees ways that American workers can be empowered, and even finds hope on the domestic horizon, like fast-food workers fighting for a higher minimum wage.
2. Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion by Jia Tolentino (Random House)
“The best young essayist at work in the United States.” “A key voice of her generation.” “Joan Didion of our time.” Tolentino’s essays in The Hairpin and Jezebel won her a place in the secret handshake club, and the New Yorker vaulted her into the millennial stratosphere, but this collection of original essays may win her the broader audience she deserves. Her urgent yet casual tone and her beguiling mix of off-kilter and profound insights in Trick Mirror feel entirely fresh. Looking for a place to start? Not interested in barre exercise or her teenage stint filming the reality TV show Girls v. Boys in Puerto Rico? Try “The Cult of the Difficult Woman,” which crackles and burns with brilliant, subtle insight.
3. Lincoln’s Spies: Their Secret War to Save a Nation by Douglas Waller (Simon & Schuster)
Rather than focusing on the war waged by generals on the battlefield, Waller tells the story of the Civil War through the espionage and counterespionage carried out by Union agents who operated in the critically important Eastern Theater, which stretched from Virginia through Maryland and Pennsylvania. Waller, a veteran Time and Newsweek correspondent, zeroes in on Allan Pinkerton of agency fame; New York lawyer George Sharpe; Lafayette Baker, who secretly ran counterespionage out of the War Department; and Richmond society maven Elizabeth Van Lew, an ardent opponent of slavery. Waller draws fascinating portraits of these spies who worked behind the scenes to defeat the Confederacy.
4. In the Country of Women by Susan Straight (Catapult)
“You are the apex of the dream,” writes Straight in her enchanting and fierce memoir, addressing her three daughters. Her family was originally from Switzerland and Colorado and her basketball-star ex-husband’s family endured generations of enslavement and Jim Crow. Straight draws on her talents as a fiction writer to evoke the powerful women in her family’s past, especially her mother-in-law, in a rich, global ancestry. “In the country of women, Straight writes, “we have maps and threads of kin some people find hard to believe.”
5. Summerlings by Lisa Howorth (Doubleday)
The swampy summer of 1959 in his neighborhood bordering Washington, D.C. stayed with 8-year-old John like “surreal footage that seemed more and more like a movie with every passing day,” writes Howorth in her deeply affecting novel focusing on that moment in childhood when perceptions seem both clear and murky. While on his escapades with the other boys in his enclave, John senses the Cold War tensions around him as they played out in a neighborhood of international families, suspicious of one another. Howorth makes politics personal in her intimate and charming story of boys who want to make their neighborhood more like Beaver Cleaver’s, and, taking their cue from the Marshall Plan, which they knew vaguely about from their Weekly Readers, they come up with their “Beaver Plan” for neighborhood reunification – and they meanwhile have to deal with stuff like splinters and spiders.