10 New Books We Recommend This Week
Mysteries can help a plot gallop along even when the book you’re reading isn’t strictly speaking a “mystery,” plucked from the crime shelves of your local library. That’s certainly the case for three of the novels on this week’s list: In one, an immigrant searches for her missing husband, in another the return of a prodigal daughter brings buried family secrets to light, and in the third a hard-boiled Sam Spade-ish cryptozoologist stalks mystical creatures through the streets of a Chinese city.
Also up this week: a debut novel about generations of a logging family in Northern California, a riff on E. M. Forster’s “Maurice” that imagines where fate might have carried the lovers after that novel’s ending, and a fond fictional look at the intersecting lives of some scruffy London characters. In nonfiction, we recommend a contemplative and genial self-help book about time management, as well as two books probing current affairs: one about QAnon, the other about the political era spawned by 9/11. Finally, and happily: The former poet laureate Rita Dove returns with an excellent collection of new work, her first in 12 years, “Playlist for the Apocalypse.” The title comes from a poem about Shakespeare — who, as Dove would have it, shrugs at our mortal concerns: “As for the world / going to hell (alas! alack! whatever), / ditch the dramatics. He’s already done / a number on that handbasket.”
Senior Editor, Books
PLAYLIST FOR THE APOCALYPSE: Poems, by Rita Dove. (Norton, $26.95.) Dove’s new book of poems is “among her best,” our critic Dwight Garner writes. It’s about the weight of American history, which Dove treats as news we’re still actively metabolizing. And it’s about mortality: This book is the first time Dove has publicly acknowledged that she has — and has had for more than 20 years — a form of multiple sclerosis. “Dove’s books derive their force from how she so deftly stirs the everyday — insomnia, TV movies, Stilton cheese, rattling containers of pills — into her world of ideas and intellection, in poems that are by turns delicate, witty and audacious,” Garner writes.
REIGN OF TERROR: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump, by Spencer Ackerman. (Viking, $30.) Ackerman, a national security journalist who has been a correspondent for outlets like Wired and The Guardian, contends in his new book that the American response to 9/11 made President Trump possible. “The evidence for this blunt-force thesis is presented in ‘Reign of Terror’ with an impressive combination of diligence and verve, deploying Ackerman’s deep stores of knowledge,” our critic Jennifer Szalai writes. “The result is a narrative of the last 20 years that is upsetting, discerning and brilliantly argued.”
FOUR THOUSAND WEEKS: Time Management for Mortals, by Oliver Burkeman. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27.) How would you spend a week if you knew it were your last? Burkeman, a British journalist based in New York, says that we’re closer to being in that position at all times than it’s comfortable to recognize. (We get about 4,000 weeks, on average; thus the title.) This almost meta work of self-help mixes history, Buddhist-like advice and some actual time-management tips. Burkeman’s tone “is not confident or hectoring,” our reviewer John Williams writes. “He’s in the same leaky boat we’re in, just trying to stop things up where he can.”
DAMNATION SPRING, by Ash Davidson. (Scribner, $28.) Davidson’s immersive, capacious debut novel explores the deep roots of a Northern California logging community. It’s a vivid portrayal of the land and its people, a snapshot of a not-so-distant time, but it also digs into the place’s gnarled history. “It’s a glorious book — an assured novel that’s gorgeously told,” John McMurtrie writes in his review. “Some will no doubt read ‘Damnation Spring’ as a commentary on the divisions that separate Americans today. … But the book is getting at something more timeless and universal: It’s about human nature. It’s about our relationships to our loved ones and our communities, it’s about morality and greed, it’s about our understanding of and respect for the natural world.”
WE ARE THE BRENNANS, by Tracey Lange. (Celadon, $26.99.) Lange’s confident, polished debut novel is about family secrets. An Irish clan in Westchester County welcomes their prodigal daughter home from Los Angeles and, one after another, long-hidden skeletons begin to emerge from their closets. “Lange, as it turns out, is not interested in tidy or comfortable lessons learned,” Liz Moore writes in her review. “When we leave the Brennans, they are perhaps more flawed than they were at the start. But that, to my mind, is what makes them feel human, and what makes the book feel real.”
STRANGE BEASTS OF CHINA, by Yan Ge. Translated by Jeremy Tiang. (Melville House, $25.99.) Elusive creatures flit through a Chinese city in this enchanting novel, alternately avoiding and consorting with its human inhabitants, all the while pursued by a cryptozoologist with a fondness for smokes and booze — a female, science-minded Sam Spade. “The atmosphere of ‘Strange Beasts of China’ is delightful,” Stephen Kearse writes in his review. “Yan captures the fluidness of city life, the way urban space defies definition even for people hellbent on making sense of it. … Human and beast exist in constant flux, clashing, merging and splintering with tectonic regularity.”
EDGE CASE, by YZ Chin. (Ecco, $26.99.) Chin’s debut, about a Malaysian immigrant in America searching for her missing husband and working as a software tester at an artificial intelligence start-up, is not only a subtly provocative depiction of the tech industry, and this country, as tilting ever more off-kilter, but also a realistic portrayal of a woman in crisis. “Chin’s specificity and wonderfully drawn minor characters add depth and richness to a story that another writer might have with the glaring light of moral clarity,” Lauren Oyler writes, reviewing the book alongside another novel about start-up culture.
ALEC, by William di Canzio. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27.) “Alec” picks up and continues E. M. Forster’s classic “Maurice.” This novel begins by revisiting the story of Forster’s original, now seen from the perspective of Alec, Maurice’s lover. It then takes the characters past Forster’s hazily suggested happily-ever-after and thrusts them into the Great War. “There’s a sweeping romantic vision here that’s as old-fashioned as it is refreshingly modern, with this war-torn couple pining away for each other as they hold their love in the highest esteem,” Manuel Betancourt writes in his review. “‘Alec’ is fiction as queer archaeology, demonstrating that looking back doesn’t necessarily mean looking backward.”
A SHOCK, by Keith Ridgway. (New Directions, paper, $17.95.) What initially seems like a collection of stories reveals itself to be an expertly constructed novel of intersecting lives in London. Full of echoes and variations on certain themes, these tales of people living on various margins are like tantalizing snippets of conversation overheard at the local pub. “It’s the kind of novel that rewards multiple readings, new echoes and connections revealing themselves each time,” Lucy Scholes writes in her review. “You get the sense of myriad other lives unfolding around those described here, all tantalizingly out of sight.”
PASTELS AND PEDOPHILES: Inside the Mind of QAnon, by Mia Bloom and Sophia Moskalenko. (Redwood, $20.) Two experts on extremist behavior analyze the many reasons QAnon’s followers persist in believing the movement’s outlandish notions in defiance of all knowledge and reason. The book “is at its strongest when it drills down on this front, showing that QAnon offers people a false sense of agency and community in an uncertain world,” Seyward Darby writes in her review. Even as she wishes that the authors had devoted more attention to questions of race and gender, Darby concludes that “Pastels and Pedophiles” is “a primer on one of the knottiest subjects of our time, and it will surely be helpful to uninitiated readers.”
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