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Beautiful Country: A Memoir

Qian Julie Wang (Doubleday)

In this striking debut, Wang reflects on her family’s time surviving in the shadows of the American dream as undocumented Chinese immigrants in 1990s New York City. Through passages that are powerful and poetic, she creates a provocative and timely portrait of a nation failing to deliver on promises of freedom and opportunity.

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Can’t Knock the Hustle: Inside the Season of Protest, Pandemic, and Progress with the Brooklyn Nets’ Superstars of Tomorrow

Matt Sullivan (Dey Street)

The basketball court serves as the stage for social justice in this slam-dunk work from sportswriter Sullivan. Projecting the Brooklyn Nets’ 2019–2020 NBA season against the backdrop of one of the most tumultuous years in recent history, Sullivan passionately recounts how a floundering team became heroic figures in the Black Lives Matter movement; readers will be left stunned.

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Chasing Me to My Grave: An Artist’s Memoir of the Jim Crow South

Winfred Rembert, as told to Erin I Kelly (Bloomsbury)

The effects of racism are strikingly rendered in this mix of art and personal history from the late painter Rembert. The artist lays bare the horrors he encountered working as a field hand in Georgia and juxtaposes them with the hope he found after meeting his wife. “Memory,” he writes, “can take you for a ride.” This is a ride like no other.

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Concepcion: An Immigrant Family’s Fortunes

Albert Samaha (Riverhead)

Samaha unearths his relatives’ past while reckoning with the weight of his Filipino American identity in this sweeping and cinematic memoir. Using historical records, extensive reportage, and family interviews, he brings to bear the reverberating effects of colonialism through a cast of real-life characters whose inextinguishable hope and charisma are impossible to forget.

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The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein (Bold Type)

Particle cosmologist Prescod-Weinstein’s debut is a dazzling introduction to particle physics. In wonder-filled prose, she describes quantum mechanics, string theory, and gravity. She also takes a trenchant stand against the inequalities that run rampant in the field, making a moving plea that the cosmos be accessible to all.

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Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty

Patrick Radden Keefe (Doubleday)

This investigative tour de force from New Yorker staff writer Keefe (Say Nothing) builds a devastating case against the family behind OxyContin, who spent decades whitewashing their image with philanthropic gifts to arts institutions while their deceptive marketing practices, aggressive sales techniques, and denial of evidence of addiction helped plunge America into the opioid crisis.

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Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering How the Forest Is Wired for Intelligence and Healing

Suzanne Simard (Knopf)

“The trees have shown me their perceptiveness and responsiveness, connections and conversations,” writes forest ecologist Simard in this stunning mix of memoir and scientific discovery. She highlights the proof she’s found about tree communication and the struggles she’s faced to receive acceptance in the scientific community. The story is inspiring, and Simard’s findings are awe-inducing.

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Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law

Mary Roach (Norton)

Nature’s a rule breaker in Roach’s witty latest, a showstopping exploration of what happens when nature breaks “laws intended for people.” Fascinating anecdotes abound: bears burglarize restaurants, gulls vandalize a flower arrangement for the Pope, and the lethal rosary pea makes the USDA’s “list of top criminals.”

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The Great Dissenter: The Story of John Marshall Harlan, America’s Judicial Hero

Peter S. Canellos (Simon & Schuster)

This masterful biography intertwines the lives of Supreme Court justice John Marshall Harlan, whose lone dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson influenced Thurgood Marshall’s campaign to reverse decades of racial discrimination, and his rumored half brother, Robert Harlan, who was born a slave, made a fortune in the California Gold Rush, and became a political power broker in Cincinnati.

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The Ground Breaking: An American City and Its Search for Justice

Scott Ellsworth (Dutton)

In this gripping portrait of a community peering into the darkest corners of its past, Tulsa native Ellsworth chronicles the origins and aftermath of the city’s 1921 race massacre, when white rioters marched through a thriving Black neighborhood shooting residents and looting stores while planes dropped incendiary bombs from overhead.

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How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America

Clint Smith (Little, Brown)

The critical questions of how, when, and where to confront the legacies of slavery and racial inequality lie at the heart of Atlantic contributor Smith’s probing and often poetic tour of landmarks—including Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello estate, Angola prison, and the Blandford Cemetery for Confederate soldiers—tied to America’s original sin.

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I Live a Life Like Yours: A Memoir

Jan Grue (FSG Originals)

Norwegian novelist Grue, who was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy at age three, contends with how the disabled are erased by a society that believes “it’s easier not to look too closely” at others’ differences. In rewriting the narrative around living with a wheelchair—and how he was able to achieve his dreams—he shatters cultural stereotypes with trenchant humor and astonishing humanity.

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Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres

Kelefa Sanneh (Penguin Press)

Surveying the history of pop music through the genres that have defined it, New Yorker writer Sanneh provides fascinating insights into the iconic sounds of everyone from Eminem to Aretha Franklin. His dazzling criticism blends the cultural and political, illuminating how genre mirrors the “very American” tendency to “define ourselves as much by what we hate as what we love.”

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A Most Remarkable Creature: The Hidden Life and Epic Journey of the World’s Smartest Birds of Prey

Jonathan Meiburg (Knopf)

Meiburg’s enthusiasm is infectious in this evocative study of caracaras, birds of prey found in South America. They’re “one of the strangest and most wonderful animals on Earth,” he writes as he lyrically sheds light on their habits and striking intelligence.

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People Love Dead Jews: Notes from a Haunted Present

Dara Horn (Norton)

Novelist Horn’s piercing intellect and caustic wit enliven these meditations on the “many strange and sickening ways in which the world’s affection for dead Jews shapes the present moment.” Surveying Holocaust memorials, media coverage of anti-Semitic crimes, Jewish heritage sites in the Chinese city of Harbin, and other topics, Horn punctures shibboleths and provokes genuine soul-searching.

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Pessoa: A Biography

Richard Zenith (Liveright)

Translator Zenith untangles the many personae of Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa in this expert biography. He considers Pessoa’s rich intellect, the literary movements he spearheaded, and the mass amount of his work that went unpublished before his death in 1935, bringing the elusive and exceedingly eccentric poet into full view.

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Punch Me Up to the Gods: A Memoir

Brian Broome (Mariner)

Structuring his starkly gorgeous debut around Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem “We Real Cool,” Broome recalls his fraught coming-of-age as a young Black gay man in Ohio in the early ’80s. As he interrogates his own understanding of manhood amid the swirling racism around him, he delivers with devastating clarity a searing indictment of the relentless pressures Black men face in society today.

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Pure America: Eugenics and the Making of Modern Virginia

Elizabeth Catte (Belt)

Historian Catte’s lacerating and exquisitely crafted study of the links between present-day economic and racial inequalities and the history of eugenics in America has its roots in the transformation of a Virginia hospital where 1,700 people were involuntarily sterilized between 1924 and 1967 into an upscale hotel and condominiums.

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Read Until You Understand: The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature

Farah Jasmine Griffin (Norton)

In this majestic mix of literary criticism and memoir, African American studies professor Griffin offers illuminating takes on the works of such writers and artists as James Baldwin, Miles Davis, and Toni Morrison. She tells her own story of falling in love with literature along the way, and extracts urgent lessons from each work.

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The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century

Amia Srinivasan (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Oxford University philosopher Srinivasan foregoes easy answers and calls on the feminist movement to be “relentlessly truth-telling, not least about itself” in these incisive, up-to-the-minute essays on incel culture, consent, digital pornography, the slogan “Believe all women,” and other issues at the intersection of sex and power.

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Shooting Midnight Cowboy: Art, Sex, Loneliness, Liberation, and the Making of a Dark Classic

Glenn Frankel (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Frankel goes behind the scenes of a classic in this colorful study of the only X-rated movie to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. His rich analysis of Midnight Cowboy makes for an eye-opening cultural history of New York in 1969, and a fascinating look at the cast and crew that brought the film to life.

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Truffle Hound: On the Trail of the World’s Most Seductive Scent, with Dreamers, Schemers, and Some Extraordinary Dogs

Rowan Jacobsen (Bloomsbury)

James Beard Award–winning journalist Jacobsen brings readers along on a joy ride deep into the forests of France, Hungary, Italy, and beyond as he hunts down the history of the elusive and captivating truffle. The book is as potent as its subject’s intoxicating aroma, and is packed to the gills with deception, intrigue, and accounts of illegal trading.

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Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future

Elizabeth Kolbert (Crown)

Kolbert follows up The Sixth Extinction with a powerful and carefully observed account of the many ways humans have changed nature already, and how they’re responding to those changes. With razor-sharp reporting, she sheds light on the people working to fix, solve, and reverse the damage that humans have already done, covering what she calls “the control of the control of nature.”

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Warmth: Coming of Age at the End of Our World

Daniel Sherrell (Penguin Books)

Climate activist Sherrell’s insightful and incendiary meditation on the looming climate crisis takes the form of a cautionary tale told to his hypothetical future child. His writing swings between hope and despair as he considers how humanity can harness both to move forward in a world that’s warming.

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Why Didn’t You Just Do What You Were Told?: Essays

Jenny Diski (Bloomsbury)

This posthumous collection from novelist Diski is full of striking originality. She trains her sharp eye on pop culture, literature, and her own life, covering death, Howard Hughes, and fashion, among other topics. Diski never lets herself off the hook, and her incisive humor and relentless curiosity are striking.

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