This article first appeared in The National Book Review.
1. The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge by Michael Punke (Picador)
Think of Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken, but set in the West, just after Lewis and Clark made their trek, and that's The Revenant, a fictionalized account of a grueling historical journey. It won plenty of fans when it was published in 2002, but will no doubt win many more when a movie version opens big this week. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, the real-life trapper and frontiersman who was mauled by a bear and left for dead -- but crawled, staggered, and shuffled his way back to civilization.
2. Of Beards and Men: The Revealing History of Facial Hair by Christopher Oldstone-Moore (University of Chicago Press)
When Paul Ryan, the new Speaker of the House, arrived on the job with a scruffy beard, he added fuel to an already hot fashion trend: male facial hair. Oldstone-Moore, a historian who studies gender and masculinity, has been tracking male facial hairstyles through the ages, from the times of Hadrian and the pre-razor era to Abraham Lincoln 's reputed decision to follow the advice of a little girl who urged him to grow a beard to look more authoritative. It is a well-timed study, in this day when hipsters have become the latest to lay enthusiastic claim to the beard and the mustache.
3. Year of the Goose by Carly J. Hallman (Unnamed Press)
At the center of this satirical debut novel set in contemporary China is Kelly Hui, the Audi-driving, vain, bratty daughter of the founder of the Bashful Goose Snack Company, who works there as Head of Corporate Responsibility (with one employee: herself). This is globalization on steroids, an imagined society full of celebrity hairstylists, a fat camp (which turns into a death camp), animals that talk, and a daddy obsessed with his pet goose. Fortunately, Hallman has just the right eye and writing style to make her raucous tale - of a decadent, slapstick world in which the .1 percent rule - take flight.
4. Operation Thunderbolt: Flight 139 and the Raid on Entebbe Airport, the Most Audacious Hostage Rescue Mission in History by Saul David (Little, Brown)
In July 1976, an Air France flight from Tel Aviv to Paris was highjacked and the terrorists - working with Idi Amin, Operation Thunderbolt persuasively argues -- diverted the plane to Entebbe, Uganda. David, a military historian, describes how while international diplomats dithered, the Israelis planned and executed a high-stakes rescue of more than 100 hostages - though a few lives were lost, including that of Yoni Netanyahu, brother of Benjamin.
5. The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy by Kliph Nesteroff (Grove Press)
Nesteroff, a former stand-up comedian from Vancouver, infuses The Comedians with his passionate love for the stand-up form and its wide-ranging cast of practitioners. This very appealing book, based on massive archival research and more than 200 interviews, stretches from the vaudeville circuit to YouTube and many fascinating (and uproarious) points in between. Nesteroff draws a through-line from the largely apolitical supper-club and vaudeville performers of old to engaged comics like Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor, who were so integral to the 1960s battles for equality, to the laugh-makers of the 21st century.