Wil Haygood (Alfred A. Knopf)

You could argue that Martin Luther King Jr. may have been the civil-rights movement’s spiritual compass, but Thurgood Marshall was its driving force. As the attorney behind the epic Brown vs. Board of Education case, which desegregated public schools, and countless other legal victories, Marshall, a Baltimore native, paved the way for more equal standing between blacks and whites. But it was his 1967 Supreme Court nomination, Haygood writes, that shook the country to its core. The ensuing five days of confirmation hearings—the longest of any nominee at that point—forced Congress, and the Americans watching, to admit painful truths about race’s role in our history. Haygood—a Washington, D.C.-based writer who wrote the article that was the basis for the 2013 film The Butler—expertly weaves narrative from the hearings with background details on those influencing the proceedings. Particularly eye-opening—and infuriating—is a chapter that delves into the lynching carried out by then-Senate Judiciary Committee chairman James Eastland’s father. Showdown leaves you with a deeper understanding of this titan of American history, and all it took for him to succeed.

See our interview with writer Wil Haygood.

It Shouldn’t Have Been Beautiful
Lia Purpura (Penguin Poets)

Each of Lia Purpura’s verses reads like a spontaneous gem, almost as if she has been struck with a moment of inspiration during everyday life and has paused to scribble down her thoughts. But don’t think that makes her poems any less profound. In short stanzas that are absent of flowery language and dramatic metaphors, Purpura—writer in residence at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, whose work has appeared in The New Yorker and The Paris Review—provides poignant insight into our existence, and all its mysteries and uncontrollable circumstances. Take “Regret,” where she envisions the feeling as a place. “It was expensive there / once, very costly, / but not / until now.” In “Desire,” she writes, “It’s not enough, / but it is, because / too much / would topple / all I could hold.” This collection feels as if each verse should be savored, then contemplated, and her words will have you musing on their greater meanings long after reading.

Alpha Docs: The Making of a Cardiologist
Daniel Muñoz, M.D., and James M. Dale (Random House)

We’ve all wondered about the high-stakes environment of The Johns Hopkins Hospital, where talented, young physicians are put through their paces, determining what area of medicine they will pursue—and if they are qualified, talented, and persistent enough to stay the course. We get an intriguing inside view of the pressure, sleepless nights, and beeping pagers through the story of Daniel Muñoz, once a resident in internal medicine and later a cardiology fellow at Hopkins, who is now an attending cardiologist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, TN. We journey with him through his rotations and watch him grow, both as a doctor and as a person who is determined, he writes, not to develop an “elitist pride” that can come with the stress of the environment. One of the book’s most compelling passages shows how Muñoz learns to tell a woman that her husband should be taken off life support. This is where his story is most effective—showing the human impact of this challenging work.