A Great Improvisation by Stacy Schiff

The rage for books about the Founding Fathers is turning into a rage for one founder in particular, Benjamin Franklin. Reading Pulitzer Prize winner Schiff's absorbing account of Franklin's crucial attempt to win French support for the American Revolution, you see why. Droll and sly, Franklin--now the subject of five books in three years--charmed and outmaneuvered his decadent European hosts at every turn. Time has only burnished his charisma.

Nice Big American Baby by Judy Budnitz

Budnitz is a riveting young short-story writer whose weird fairy tales burrow toward truths we may or may not want to see. A pregnant woman, presumably Mexican, is so desperate that her baby be born in the United States that she carries him for years until she can finally sneak across the border. A woman's parents get lost on the way to visit and career into an unnamed evil. Budnitz has misgivings about America's place in the world. But she avoids even the names of countries, burning away anything that will distract from the primal questions of who we are and what we owe each other. One reviewer recently advised Budnitz to write realistic fiction--a patronizing suggestion, as well as a naive one. She already does.

Nature Noir by Jordan Fisher Smith

Recounting 14 bizarre years as a park ranger in a Sierra Nevada wilderness, Smith kicks things off with an indelible image: a boozed-up nature lover lobbing a baby at a moving car. In Smith's account, it's a dead heat as to which was more malign: nature--with floods and throat-choking droughts--or its guests. He writes about the natural world with more grace than anyone since Edward Abbey.