5 Hot Books: A New Take on Prohibition, Writings of an Internet Activist Who Died Tragically

The following article first appeared in The National Book Review

1. My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (Random House)

In this new novel by the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Olive Kitteridge, from which the Emmy Award HBO miniseries starring Frances McDormand was adapted, Strout returns to the small town setting that has marked so much of her fiction, beginning with her debut novel Amy and Isabelle. Strout writes with special insight into the lives of prickly people, often middle-age women. This time, she applies her psychological acuity to the story of an estranged mother and daughter coming to terms with the past.

2. The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America by Ethan Michaeli (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

From a former copyeditor and investigative reporter at The Chicago Defender, an important new history of the legendary African-American newspaper that was founded in 1905. Michaeli tells the story of how the Defender galvanized Chicago's black electorate, and exposed news of segregation, lynchings, and other atrocities across the city's South Side, and the nation. This prodigiously researched work is a testament to the courage of Defender writers through the century, a chronicle of the influence of an important institution -- and a sweeping history of black America.

3. Navel Gazing: True Tales of Bodies, Mostly Mine (but Also My Mom's, Which I Know Sounds Weird) By Michael Ian Black (Gallery Books.)

Black, a multi-faceted comedian known for his MTV sketch show The State, and his children's books Naked! and I'm Bored, follows his funny, cranky report on marriage and fatherhood, You're Not Doing It Right: Tales of Marriage, Sex, Death and Other Humiliations, with a new memoir about the indignities of middle-age. Black recounts his less than idyllic childhood and how his mother -- who is missing a bellybutton, hence the book's title -- divorced his absent father and dated women, but called her partners "sisters" to keep up appearances. Black's joke-filled memoir feel less like family nostalgia, more like highly personal stand-up comedy.

4. The Boy Who Could Change the World: The Writings of Aaron Swartz, Introduced by Lawrence Lessig (The New Press)

A brilliant young man who was both a technical genius and a gifted activist, Aaron Swartz committed suicide in 2013, at the age of just 26, after being aggressively prosecuted for allegedly downloading copyrighted scholarly material. His story was told powerfully in the documentary "The Internet's Own Boy," and now we hear him in his own words. Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig, Swartz's friend and mentor, introduces this collection of blog posts, essays, and lectures by a young man who believed in the moral imperative of making knowledge available to the poor and the powerless.

5. The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State by Lisa McGirr (W.W. Norton & Company)

Instead of the familiar story of flappers, jazz clubs and gangsters, Harvard historian McGirr argues that Prohibition's greatest legacy was an expansion of government crime fighting. She sees in Prohibition the roots of an expanded prison system, a more aggressive F.B.I. and a more powerful state -- and connects today's war on drugs to the onetime battles over alcohol. This nuanced, counterintuitive perspective has propelled The War on Alcohol onto the bestseller lists.

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