The Washington Post

Ten books of fiction and nonfiction we love, so far


An Unnatural History

By Elizabeth Kolbert

Henry Holt. 319 pp. $28

New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert’s “Field Notes From a Catastrophe” (2006) presented a powerful account of how climate change was disrupting lives around the planet. In “The Sixth Extinction,” she delivers a fascinating and frightening excursion into how humans are bringing about their own demise. The alterations on the planet initiated by humans build on one another, accelerating change in ways that make it all but impossible for most species to adapt quickly enough. As the great environmentalist Rachel Carson put it, “. . . time is the essential ingredient; but in the modern world there is no time.” Humans change the world more than other species do, and now the most urgent question is whether they can take responsibility for what they do. “The Sixth Extinction” is a bold and at times desperate attempt to awaken us to this responsibility. — Michael S. Roth


American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap

By Matt Taibbi

Spiegel & Grau. 416 pp. $27

Matt Taibbi, a reporter known for exposés in Rolling Stone, offers a searing indictment that America’s wealth gap has corrupted the nation’s system of justice, fostering a “legal schizophrenia” that harshly prosecutes the poor but practices selective leniency on Wall Street. He takes readers inside not only investment banks, hedge funds and the blood sport of short selling, but also into the lives of the needy, minorities, street drifters and illegal immigrants to juxtapose justice for the poor and the powerful. “Every day on Wall Street,” Taibbi writes, “money is stolen, embezzled, burgled, and robbed. But the mechanisms of these thefts are often so arcane and idiosyncratic that they don’t fit neatly into the criminal code, which is written for the dumb crimes committed by common stick-up artists and pickpockets.” — Hedrick Smith


By Hillary Rodham Clinton

Simon & Schuster. 635 pp. $35

Hard Choices” begins and ends in the empty voice of a campaign speech. But between, it contains a clear and at times riveting account of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s four years as secretary of state. The meaty middle of the book does something more than chronicle the frequent-flier miles: It provides evidence that Clinton displayed good judgment as secretary of state and understood some important issues earlier than her boss, President Obama. While she has been a good representational diplomat, she was not as good in the transactional part of the job. In these many hundreds of pages, there are very few deals concluded, agreements signed, policies brought to fruition. Clinton was perhaps too much the politician to take such huge risks. — David Ignatius


A Memoir

By Gary Shteyngart

Random House. 349 pp. $27

Gary Shteyngart, the best-selling Russian-born American novelist, has produced a touching, insightful memoir that is “a Nabokovian torrent of memory for a country that no longer exists.” In his novels, he delights in raining misfortune on his antiheroes’ heads as they navigate the farcical obstacle courses of their lives. In his memoir, the pathetic dweeb is Shteyngart himself. Real name Igor, a.k.a. “Little Failure,” “Weakling,” “Jew-nose” or — due to his bad asthma — “Snotty.” There are plenty of laugh-out-loud passages. But the memoir is also an astute examination of the immigrant experience, especially that of Eastern European Jews, and the process by which turning Shteyngart’s own misery into art has helped save him from his family’s “cornucopia of insanity” and his own shortcomings. — Lisa Zeidner


America’s First Woman in Space

By Lynn Sherr

Simon & Schuster. 374 pp. $28

Lynn Sherr’s biography of America’s first woman in space is riveting, beautifully written and rich in detail, largely because of the cooperation of family and colleagues in sharing reminiscences and correspondence. Sherr, an ABC News reporter who covered the U.S. space program during Ride’s stint as an astronaut, effectively goes beyond Ride’s familiar public facade — the bright smile and twinkling blue eyes — and reveals a complex woman who could be easy-going one day, hard-hearted the next and inscrutable about her love life. When Ride died in 2012, her obituary got worldwide attention for revealing she had had a female partner for 27 years, an arrangement known to only a tight circle of friends. Ride’s many strategies to keep this side of her life secret form a thread that stretches throughout the book, which seems so sad given the happiness the couple shared and the swift changes now underway for marriage laws across the nation. — Marcia Bartusiak


By Anthony Doerr

Scribner. 530 pp. $27

Doerr’s two protagonists are children who have been engulfed in the horror of World War II. One is Marie-Laure LeBlanc, the blind daughter of the widowed master locksmith at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. The other is Werner Pfennig, an orphan in Germany whose passion for science and gift for radio mechanics earn him a place at a nightmarish training school for the Nazi military elite. His path and Marie-Laure’s converge in 1944, when Allied forces have landed on the beaches of Normandy and Werner’s unit is dispatched to trace and destroy the sender of mysterious intelligence broadcasts. Cutting back and forth in time, Doerr creates nearly unbearable suspense. Every piece of back story reveals information that charges the emerging narrative with significance, until at last the puzzle-box of the plot slides open to reveal the treasure hidden inside. — Amanda Vaill


By Smith Henderson

Ecco. 470 pp. $26.99

Far from big cities or either coast, Henderson’s characters are the poor and working poor in sparsely populated towns that few escape. For these people, who spend every cent they earn, a layoff, an illness, even a car-repair bill can collapse a whole family, and the ones most violently upended by those misfortunes are children. Pete Snow knows such children well. A social worker in Montana in the early 1980s, he takes on the case of a scurvy 11-year-old boy whose dad is a violent fundamentalist living in the woods. Can Pete win the anarchist’s trust before he sparks a deadly confrontation with government officials? Henderson ties that conflict to the broader currents of American culture. The result is a story simultaneously intimate and grand, written in a style athletic enough to capture a spectacular range of harrowing events. — Ron Charles


By Francine Prose

Harper. 456 pp. $26.99

Inside the smoky pages of this historical novel, you’ll find an oasis of ribald humor, sexual transgression and military intrigue. Prose’s inspiration came from a Brassaï photograph from 1932. It shows Violette Morris, the once-celebrated French athlete and cross-dresser who later betrayed her country to Hitler and tortured Resistance members for the Gestapo. Deadly serious and hilariously gossipy, “Lovers at the Chameleon Club” comes to us as a collection of documents written by people with wildly different perspectives and motives. The interlocking voices re-create Paris as it devolves from the decadence and gallows humor of the 1930s to the terror and bravery of the Occupation. You’ll be entranced by the way Prose plumbs the enigma of evil, the puzzle of history and the mystery of valor. — Ron Charles


By Kenneth Mackenzie

Text Classics. 345 pp. Paperback, $14.95

First published in Australia in 1937 when the author was in his early 20s, this forgotten classic depicts school life, loneliness and sexual yearning. Charles Fox has spent his childhood with his widowed mother on a station in Australia, living a carefree, Edenic life. At 14, he is sent, unhappily, to a prestigious private boarding school, where he’s taunted by older students. But his joy for learning is fostered by a lonely English and classics teacher, who finds himself attracted to Charles. Among the marvels of Mackenzie’s semi-autobiographical novel are its evocations of the Australian landscape. The coolness of shady pools and groves, the parched ground’s thirst for rain, the aching for release from the long tyranny of desire — all these counterpoint the bustling scenes at school, adding a feverish, urgent poetry to the novel’s tone of strangely wise benevolence. — Michael Dirda


By Jean Hanff Korelitz

Grand Central. 439 pp. $26

This compelling psychological suspense tale reminds us that smart women sometimes can make the most foolish choices. Grace Reinhart Sachs is a marriage counselor who listens to couples in crisis all day long. She’s hip to the faintest whiff of marital infidelity and duplicity — unless it involves her own husband, Jonathan, a pediatric oncologist who’s tirelessly devoted his skill and compassion to his young patients and their families. Turns out, Jonathan also may have been devoting other parts of himself to vulnerable females at the hospital. When the attractive mother of one of his patients is murdered, the police identify Jonathan as the prime suspect. In addition to suspense, “You Should Have Known” serves up witty and pointed observations about the higher reaches of society in contemporary Manhattan. — Maureen Corrigan


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