The Golden Thread, by Ravi Somaiya (Twelve). This taut investigative history delves into the death of Dag Hammarskjöld, the second Secretary-General of the United Nations, who was killed in a plane crash in 1961, en route from Congo to Northern Rhodesia. The crash was ruled an accident, but Somaiya’s painstaking re-creation of events all but proves the role of foul play. The first half of the book establishes motive, showing how Hammarskjöld’s efforts to rid Congo of foreign influence had thrust him into the center of a Cold War struggle for the country’s mineral resources, including cobalt and uranium, used in nuclear weapons. Contemporary accounts show that Hammarskjöld was mistrusted by the Americans, the Soviets, and the Congolese, and, while there’s no smoking gun here, Somaiya gathers more than enough evidence to justify his plea for the C.I.A. to release pertinent documents that have been too long under wraps.
To Start a War, by Robert Draper (Penguin Press). Draper takes on a monumental and tragic subject––the Bush Administration’s decision to invade Iraq, in 2003––with consummate skill. The old saw is that the Chinese leader Zhou Enlai, when asked what he thought of the French Revolution, replied, “It’s too early to tell.” And yet Draper, by writing now, is able to interview all the crucial witnesses inside the Bush White House and the national-security establishment. His scrupulous reporting and judicious analysis yield a close-to-definitive picture of all the vanity, misdirection, ignorance, and colossal misjudgments that led to the bloodiest American misadventure since the Vietnam War.
Via Negativa, by Daniel Hornsby (Knopf). This novel of troubled faith and unlikely connection features an elderly pot-taking priest, mystically inclined and at odds with Catholic conservatism. On a road trip across the Midwest to confront a pedophile priest who was once his teacher, he encounters a wounded coyote, a runaway teen-ager, and a tattooed bar owner who gives him a gun. He tries to emulate early Christian hermits and ruminates on the “via negativa,” the belief that you can’t know God, only what God is not. If you approach faith any other way, he muses, “you wind up making God in your own image and forget to look for Him anywhere else.”
Life Events, by Karolina Waclawiak (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). When Evelyn, the protagonist of this novel, enters a training program for people to learn “to help other people die,” it seems to be a distraction from her disintegrating marriage and her strained relationship with her aging parents. As the “exit guides” lead their clients through preparations—compiling lists of passwords, writing letters of forgiveness—Waclawiak gives us a sidelong examination of death. Vivid portraits of those who have chosen to end their lives leave a lasting impression, as do Evelyn’s long drives in the California desert, during which she conceives of the wilderness as taking “the land back from people, to turn it back over to vast nothingness.”