1. Audience of One: Donald Trump, Television, and the Fracturing of America by James Poniewozik (Liveright)
As Michael J. Arlen’s brilliant Living-Room War illustrated how television reduced space between the battlefield of Vietnam and the Democratic convention floor in Chicago, Poniewozik, the New York Times chief television critic, argues that Donald Trump’s decades-long performance evolution into a reality TV antihero is key to understanding not only how he was elected president but also how he occupies the White House. In his extraordinarily insightful book, Poniewozik explains how Trump’s obsession with television informs his mood and priorities, and shows how “being real” became more important to his base than being honest. Audience of One is sober but irresistible reading that makes painfully clear that without TV, there is no Donald Trump.
2. Transaction Man: The Rise of the Deal and the Decline of the American Dream by Nicholas Lemann (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
In The Organization Man in 1956, journalist William H. Whyte recognized the paradigmatic corporate man as the conformist, deeply allied with his corporation, and now Lemann has updated, recast, and transformed that archetype in his astute and fascinating Transaction Man. Lemann, a New Yorker staff writer and past dean of the Columbia Journalism School, has a gift for focusing in his books like The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America on fundamental shifts in the social landscape. Here he has taken on the corporate culture that has emerged during this period of gyration and stratification in the global economy. Lemann vividly portrays the economists and crusaders involved with hostile takeovers, junk bond trading, and heavily leveraged buyouts, and enriches his narrative with an intimate depiction of how these economic shifts destabilized Chicago Lawn, a neighborhood that suffered dramatically after the bankruptcy of GM and which is not far from Park Forest, the suburb depicted by Whyte.
3. The Testaments by Margaret Atwood (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday)
More than three decades after the publication of her brilliant classic of speculative fiction The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood is returning readers to its oppressive theocracy of Gilead with its Handmaids, Wives, Marthas, Commanders, and Aunts. Advancing from Hulu’s successful miniseries starring Elisabeth Moss, Atwood’s new novel is told in the voices of three women, including the enigmatic tormentor Aunt Lydia, and the pop culture phenomenon takes new shape as the totalitarian state may show signs of weakening. Meanwhile, women march in handmaid garb as resistance, Amazon claims that because of a technical error a small number of books were released before the embargoed publication date, and The Testaments is shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
4. The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us by Paul Tough (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
In his earlier books, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character and Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why, and his journalism in The New York Times Magazine in particular, Tough has distinguished himself as a wise voice in the often jargon-filled world of education, child development, and community-building. In his new book he writes about how college, once seen as a great meritocratic equalizer, now is a credential that widens gaps in this stratified society. Tough’s insight is grounded in his deep reporting, which took him from Ivy League seminars to community colleges, 4-H meetings, and massive state universities. He gets to the roots of the immense barriers faced by students from low-income and working-class families at every step of the process, from preparation and application to retention, because ironically, if they get to college at all, the poorest students end up in colleges with the least inclination or ability to help them leave with a diploma.
5. Out of Darkness, Shining Light by Petina Gappah (Scribner)
To say that this novel is about British colonial exploration in Africa narrated by forgotten historical figures may be an accurate summary, but it would fail to reflect its author’s sly wit and sharp rendering of the past. Zambian writer Gappah’s fictional account of the journey to return the remains of missionary and explorer David Livingstone, as well as his papers, journals, and maps, across Africa and back to England, forms the trajectory of her story, but the brilliance of the novel is in its telling. The harrowing journey is narrated by an enslaved, hypercritical, scolding cook and a repressed, formerly enslaved translator trained by Christian missionaries who reads the allegedly anti-slavery Livingstone’s journals along the way and gradually reveals the truth of their oppression.