Required Reading: Titles For Our Times

A leading essayist pens a letter to his son; a doctor writes about the cancer that killed him; a personal history blends with justice; a secret service agent tells tales.

req-reading-1Between the World and Me

Ta-Nehisi Coates
Spiegel & Grau
152 pp.

The Plot In perhaps the most discussed and celebrated non-fiction book of the decade, author Ta-Nehisi Coates delivers a beautiful written and consciously provocative commentary on the history of the country and race in America. The book takes the form of an extended letter to the author’s teenage son.

The Meat Coates is the recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant and, before this book, was already highly regarded for his National Magazine Award-winning Atlantic essay, “The Case for Reparations.” The catalyst for the “Between” publication come when Coates’ son – like so many others – is flabbergasted that a former Ferguson, Missouri police offer is not charged in the killing of an unarmed teenager.

The Twist In this slim, substantive book, Coates quotes people from Richard Baldwin to Nas to Amiri Bakara. In one oft-cited passage since the publication of the book, Coates writes, “Race is the child of racism, not the father.”


Five Presidents: My Extraordinary Journey with Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford

Clint Hill with Lisa McCubbin
Gallery Books
464 pp.

The Plot When John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas, secret service agent Hill threw himself over the President and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. In Five, Hill shares stories about the Kennedys and the other four U.S. Presidents he body-guarded.

The Meat The book ostensibly features the sort of the behind-the-scenes observations that only someone such as Hill could be privy to. Hill and his journalist co-author Lisa McCubbin also mix a large amount of American history into the book, providing context for the more private Presidential anecdotes.

The Twist  The Kennedys – and Jackie in particular – come off as noble and endearing figures. Eisenhower and Ford come off fine. Johnson, and worse still, Nixon, for different reasons, do not come across as the agent’s favorites.


When Breath Becomes Air

Paul Kalanithi
Random House
256 pp.

The Plot A 36-year-old neurosurgery resident reads a CT scan and sees cancer, spread throughout the patient’s body. The catch? The doctor is looking at a scan of his own body. Having a baby and writing most of this book are among his final acts.

The Meat Paul Kalanithi’s meticulous plans were upended by his devastating diagnosis. In his book, he passes along knowledge and ideas about the medical field, and tells stories from his (far too brief) life.

The Twist Paul Kalanithi and his wife Lucy – who finished the book after Paul passed away – discuss whether to start a family. Lucy says, “Don’t you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?” Paul says, “Wouldn’t it be great if it did?”


East West Street: On the Origins of “Genocide” and “Crimes Against Humanity”

Philippe Sands
448 pp.

The Plot A blend of public history and personal history written by a renowned international human rights lawyer whose family comes from the same Ukrainian city as a pair of men who helped frame the international legal framework that led to the prosecution of Nazi leadership at the Nuremberg trials.

The Meat World War II has ended. Nazis are to be tried for their unthinkable atrocities. Two lawyers from Lviv, Ukraine promote competing legal theories by which to frame the trials. Is “crimes against humanity” too individualized? Is “genocide” too collective? The answer matters, then and today.

The Twist Author Sands in the book writes extensively about his own family. In many ways, his 20th-century Lviv relations, and his career these decades later that includes helping try a dictator, have an enormous amount in common with the two main protagonists.