- Rising Out of Hatred by Eli Saslow: Barely a year has passed since violence incited by white nationalists led to tragedy in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the death of Heather Heyer. That anniversary makes Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter Eli Saslow’s Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist all the more timely and important. With the skill of a novelist, Saslow tells the extraordinary story of how the “rightful heir to America’s white nationalist movement” came to repudiate his racist heritage. If anyone could lay claim to an impeccable pedigree in prejudice, it would be Derek Black, the son of the former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard who founded Stormfront, a vicious internet hate site, and the godson of white supremacist David Duke. Starting as a teenager, Black shared a microphone with his father on a radio talk show that relentlessly spewed venom against black people, Jews and other minorities. But Black’s life began its radical transformation when he enrolled at New College of Florida, a small liberal arts institution in Sarasota, in 2010. Not long after his arrival, he befriended Matthew Stevenson, an Orthodox Jewish student who invited him to Friday night Shabbat dinners to observe the Jewish Sabbath. On one of those occasions, Black met Stevenson’s roommate, Allison Gornik, who became the principal agent for upending Black’s worldview. Drawing upon hundreds of hours of interviews with Black, his family and friends, Saslow describes how Gornik methodically engaged Black, who proved to be a bright, intellectually curious young man, in conversations. These discussions exposed the flawed sources and logic of the information and fallacious thinking that fueled Black’s bigotry and his fears of a white genocide. Even more significantly, she patiently persuaded him to make amends for his racist past and the harm he’d inflicted.
- Leadership by Doris Kearns Goodwin: With Leadership: In Turbulent Times, pre-eminent presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin turns her perceptive lens to a question on the minds of many Americans these days: What is leadership? But the “turbulent times” of the title are not, in fact, our own. Instead, Goodwin examines the leadership styles and challenges facing four previous United States presidents: Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson. Goodwin has written about these men in previous works, but her approach here uncovers new insights and understanding–both for readers and for herself. “After five decades of studying presidential history, examining these four men through the lens of leadership allowed me to discover so many new things about them that I felt as if I was meeting them for the first time,” Goodwin reflects. Readers will share that sense of discovery. Goodwin divides her study into three thematic areas: Ambition and the Recognition of Leadership; Adversity and Growth; and The Leader and the Times: How They Led. Within these sections, she devotes a chapter to each president. These chapters are chronological, allowing the reader to better appreciate and understand the historical forces that shaped the four presidents’ growth and decisions. In the final section, Goodwin examines different kinds of leadership: transformational, crisis management, turnaround and visionary. Readers follow Lincoln as he grapples with the Emancipation Proclamation, Teddy Roosevelt as he deals with the coal strike of 1902, FDR through the first hundred days of his presidency in 1933 and Johnson as he approaches civil rights. In an epilogue titled “On Death and Remembrance,” Goodwin reflects on the final days of each president and their legacies for us today.
- The Visitor by Antje Damm: In this German import, originally published in 2015 by Antje Damm and translated by Sally-Ann Spencer, young readers meet the reclusive Elise. Likely agoraphobic, she is scared of many things, including people, and she doesn’t leave her compulsively-cleaned home. One day, when her open window allows for the entry of a paper airplane, it frightens her. With broom in hand, she sweeps the paper airplane into the fire. The next morning, a young boy named Emil arrives to retrieve his plane, and the spark of a friendship is ignited. The boy stays to play, to hear a story (“It was a long time since Elise had read to anyone”), and to have a snack. “It’s fun at your house,” he tells Elise before exiting. After his visit, Elise is a changed person, and she even sits down to make her own paper airplane–one sure to serve as an invitation to her new friend.
- Accessory to War by Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Avis Lang: There seems to be no scientific advancement–regardless of how pure and benign its origin–that doesn’t wind up in military use. And vice versa. That’s basically the theme that ties together Neil deGrasse Tyson and Avis Lang’s Accessory to War, an engaging and well-documented survey of the instruments and organizations that have led human civilization into its current battle for supremacy in space. Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium and ubiquitous explainer of all things cosmic, clearly wishes that war would go away and that space would become a wellspring of common benefit. But he is far too much a rationalist to confuse wishes with reality. He concedes that, to the military mind, space is the ultimate “high ground” that confers battlefield advantage. That being said, military spending on communications, travel and weapon systems does lead routinely to peaceful civilian applications. Think of where we’d be without the constant data that flows from the same satellites that made America’s invasion of Iraq so effective and devastating. Although space is the ultimate focus of this book, Tyson and Lang, his longtime researcher and editor, first take the reader on a tour through history with chapters on early celestial discoveries, the development of ocean navigation, refinements of the telescope and advancements in communications. These accounts are accompanied by chronicles of what was going on concurrently in the world. With a worried eye on the catastrophic consequences of space war, Tyson proposes a more pleasing alternative: “[A]strophysics, a historical handmaiden to human conflict, now offers a way to redirect our species’ urge to kill into collaborative urges to explore, to uncover alien civilizations, to link Earth to the rest of the cosmos . . . and protect our home planet until the Sun’s furnace burns itself out five billion years hence.”
- 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari: If there were such a thing as a required instruction manual for politicians and thought leaders, Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century would deserve serious consideration. In this collection of provocative essays, Harari, author of the critically praised Sapiens and Homo Deus, tackles a daunting array of issues, endeavoring to answer a persistent question: “What is happening in the world today, and what is the deep meaning of these events?” For all the breadth of his concerns, Harari is able to distill the most pressing challenges facing our world down to three: nuclear war, ecological collapse and technological disruption, all of which together “add up to an unprecedented existential crisis.” He explains, for example, how this century will see the development of evermore sophisticated algorithms that will alter everything from the way we work (or don’t, in complex future economies that won’t require many people’s labor) to the way we organize and conduct our political lives. These trends will unfold in a world that clings to what are, in Harari’s opinion, already outdated notions of nationalism and religious belief, which will inevitably create tension and conflict. But Harari doesn’t ignore our current controversies. His concise essays on terrorism and immigration are examples of the fresh thinking he brings to any subject. Harari makes a passionate argument for reshaping our educational systems and replacing our current emphasis on quickly outdated substantive knowledge with the “four Cs”—critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity. In the book’s final piece, Harari argues that the practice of meditation, something he does for two hours daily, offers a productive tool for understanding the human mind.
- The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker: The classics are experiencing a feminist revolution. Emily Wilson’s new translation of the Odyssey–the first to be written by a woman–was published to great acclaim at the end of 2016. Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, a contemporary reworking of Antigone, won the 2017 Women’s Prize. And American author Madeline Miller has just published Circe, her second novel based on classical characters. Joining this group is the award-winning British novelist Pat Barker, whose 14th novel, The Silence of the Girls, is a reimagining of one of the key episodes in the Iliad, told from the perspective of a captured queen living in the Greek army camp during the final weeks of the Trojan War. Briseis was the queen of one of Troy’s neighboring kingdoms when her city was sacked and her husband and brothers were killed. A prize of battle, she becomes the property of Achilles, and she lives in the women’s quarters but is available to him as his concubine and slave. When King Agamemnon demands Briseis for his own, Achilles relinquishes her but, as a show of resistance, refuses to fight the Trojans any longer. In Barker’s retelling, Briseis finds herself torn between the two men, helpless but also uniquely positioned to observe the power struggle whose outcome will decide the fate of the ancient world. The Iliad concerns a war fought over a woman, and women play a major role in the epic poem as nurses, wives and, of course, unwilling sex slaves. Yet the lack of women’s voices in the original text is deafening. In The Silence of the Girls, Briseis is the master of the narrative, telling her story in counterpoint to Achilles, becoming her own subject rather than his object. Her voice is wryly observant and wholly cognizant of the cost that she and other women have paid for the violence and abuses of war perpetrated by men.
- John Woman by Walter Mosley: To start a Walter Mosley novel is like sitting down to a feast. In this case, the tastiest dish is not the protagonist who gives the book its name, but his mother. Lucia Napoli-Jones is such a vivid, vibrant presence in John Woman that when she leaves early in the book, the reader may spend the rest of it, like her son, longing for her return. Earthy, deeply imperfect, possessed of a rollicking Lower East Side way of speaking and living, she is easily Mosley’s best secondary character since Mouse Alexander. But enough about flamboyant Lucia. John Woman is all about history: its slipperiness, its unknowability and maybe even its ultimate uselessness. John Woman’s autodidactic father teaches him about this, which John in turn teaches to his students after he becomes a college professor. This is all ironic, for John is trying to outrun his history. First, there’s the uneasy relationship between his parents, both of whom he loves with the helpless passion of a young child even into his 30s. John’s real childhood ended abruptly when he was forced to kill someone in defense of himself and his father. Soon after, he’s raped. He then flees, changing identities until he settles on his unusual moniker, which is in part a reference to his rapist. As usual, Mosley’s superpower lies in his slantwise take on the world and his characters, of whom there are dozens, and every one is memorable, even if they speak only a line or two.
- The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris: Perhaps the three scariest words in the history of human imagination were cast in iron atop a gate leading directly into the closest approximation of hell ever erected on earth: Arbeit Macht Frei. “Work sets you free.” The banal words that were nothing more than a cruel and tragic joke for thousands turned out to have a deeper meaning for Lale Sokolov, an Auschwitz survivor and the real-life hero of Heather Morris’ extraordinary debut novel, The Tattooist of Auschwitz. Like the Nobel Prize-winning author Elie Wiesel’s Night, Morris’ work takes us inside the day-to-day workings of the most notorious German death camp. Over the course of three years, Morris interviewed Lale, teasing out his memories and weaving them into her heart-rending narrative of a Jew whose unlikely forced occupation as a tattooist put him in a position to act with kindness and humanity in a place where both were nearly extinct. While Lale’s story is told at one remove–he held his recollections inside for more than half a century, fearing he might be branded as a collaborator–it is no less moving, no less horrifying, no less true. Just as a flower can grow through a sidewalk’s crack, so too can love spring and flourish in the midst of unspeakable horror, and so it is that Lale meets his lifelong love, Gita, when he inscribes the number 34902 on her arm. With the same level of inventiveness, dedication and adoration displayed by Roberto Benigni in Life is Beautiful, Lale endeavors to preserve their love (and safety) amid the horrors. Make no mistake—horrors abound. At one point, Lale is called to identify two corpses seemingly marked with the same number, which is anathema to the camp’s meticulous record keepers. Upon emerging from the crematorium, Lale is greeted by his Nazi handler, Baretski: “You know something, Tätowierer? I bet you are the only Jew who ever walked into an oven and then walked back out of it.” For decade upon decade, Lale’s story was one that desperately needed to be told. And now, as the number of those who witnessed the terror that was Nazi Germany dwindles, it is a story that desperately needs to be read. The disgraceful words that once stood over Auschwitz must be replaced with others: Never forget. Never again.
- The Good Neighbor by Maxwell King: Not only is 2018 the 50th anniversary of the national premiere of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” but–as two feature films and this full-length biography attest–it is also a moment when our culture is feeling particularly nostalgic for the Presbyterian minister in his cardigan sweater and sneakers. Maxwell King, former director of the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media, prepared to write this biography of Fred Rogers by interviewing many people who knew Rogers best–from Rogers’ wife, Joanne, to the attendant who saw him every morning at the gym before his swim and Rogers’ many friends and co-workers. King offers a comprehensive look at Rogers’ life in The Good Neighbor, from his privileged childhood in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, through is difficult college experiences (dropping out of Dartmouth College to pursue a music degree from Rollins College) to his early days in broadcasting and his meticulous work on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” The show was unique in the landscape of children’s television, and Rogers’ fingerprints were on every element. The opening credits feature his hometown of Latrobe; the songs, which he wrote, reflect his deep commitment to social and emotional education; and the puppets embodied characters Rogers first imagined when he was a child. His passions for puppetry, childhood development, faith and music come through clearly. Rogers’ ideas will make readers want to cheer. “There are many people in the world who want to make children into performing seals,” he once said. “And as long as children can perform well, those adults will applaud. But I would much rather help a child to be able to say who he or she is.”