9 New Books We Recommend This Week

School is back in session, which for some people means packing lunchboxes and anguishing over outfits in the morning dark, and for other people means muttering about the bus traffic snarling Main Street on the way to the gym. For us, though, back-to-school time is just one more reason to celebrate good books. This week, that includes books about school: Robert Pondiscio’s “How the Other Half Learns,” about a year in the life of the impressive but polarizing charter school network Success Academy, and Paul Tough’s “The Years That Matter Most,” looking at college through the lens of a class system that reinforces its own rigid hierarchy. There’s also Samantha Power’s memoir, “The Education of an Idealist,” which is less about school than about Power’s on-the-job evolution as President Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations. Two books this week tackle prejudice head-on — Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to Be an Antiracist” and Bari Weiss’s “How to Fight Anti-Semitism” — while Corey Robin’s “The Enigma of Clarence Thomas” upends some conventional wisdom about the Supreme Court justice. Finally, in fiction, we recommend new novels from some old favorites: Ann Patchett, Jacqueline Woodson and the British master Andrew Miller. Don’t think of them as required reading — nobody likes a syllabus — but maybe sneak one of them inside your calculus textbook and enjoy.

Gregory Cowles
Senior Editor, Books
Twitter: @GregoryCowles

THE ENIGMA OF CLARENCE THOMAS, by Corey Robin. (Metropolitan, $30.) In the 1960s and 1970s, Clarence Thomas, now the longest-serving justice on the current Supreme Court, was a self-described “radical” and adherent of Malcolm X. He marched against the Vietnam War. In this incisive new book, Corey Robin argues that Thomas has not abandoned his old views on race but has retrofitted them to propel a conservative agenda. “It’s a provocative thesis, but one of the marvels of Robin’s razor-sharp book is how carefully he marshals his evidence,” our critic Jennifer Szalai writes. “The result is rigorous yet readable, frequently startling yet eminently persuasive.”

THE DUTCH HOUSE, by Ann Patchett. (Harper/HarperCollins, $27.99.) In Patchett’s luminous new novel, an orphaned brother and sister grapple with love, loss and family history after their wicked stepmother banishes them from the family home. Like a fairy tale, the novel takes a winding road and doesn’t rush to a finish. “Patchett’s prose is confident, unfussy and unadorned,” our critic Parul Sehgal writes. “I can’t pluck out one sentence worth quoting, but how effective they are when woven together — these translucent lines that envelop you like a spider’s web.”

HOW TO BE AN ANTIRACIST, by Ibram X. Kendi. (One World, $27.) In this lively and provocative follow-up to “Stamped From the Beginning,” his National Book Award-winning history of racist ideas, Kendi scrutinizes himself and the rest of us, laying out a blueprint for combating racism wherever it lurks — which, he argues, is pretty much everywhere. Jeffrey C. Stewart calls it a “stunner of a book” in his review: “What emerges from these insights is the most courageous book to date on the problem of race in the Western mind, a confessional of self-examination that may, in fact, be our best chance to free ourselves from our national nightmare.”

RED AT THE BONE, by Jacqueline Woodson. (Riverhead, $26.) The effects of a teenage pregnancy ripple through three generations of a Brooklyn family in this profoundly moving adult novel by the national ambassador for young people’s literature. Novelists rarely depict mothers eager to leave their babies, and it’s a treat to see how lovingly, even joyfully, Woodson embraces her young heroine’s desires. “Sturdy, lasting love, consideration and everyday kindness: These are as integral to a good life as they are challenging to portray in fiction,” R. O. Kwon writes in her review. “The characters in ‘Red at the Bone’ are doing what they can, in a world and nation that’s often very hard.”

NOW WE SHALL BE ENTIRELY FREE, by Andrew Miller. (Europa, paper, $19.) In this novel set in the 18th-century England of the Peninsular War, a returning British officer tries to break free of his battlefield memories — turning a story that begins as a full-immersion historical novel into something closer to a psychological mystery. Charles McGrath, reviewing it, calls Miller “a very stylish, almost painterly writer” with Hilary Mantel’s “gift for historical reconstruction, for describing the past without making it seem like a wax museum. … Things are never quite what you expect, and history is altogether stranger than most accounts suggest. What makes Miller’s own account so riveting is its alertness to wonder and unpredictability.”

THE EDUCATION OF AN IDEALIST: A Memoir, by Samantha Power. (Dey Street/Morrow, $29.99.) In this autobiography, Barack Obama’s adviser and United Nations ambassador wrestles with the need to balance her youthful idealism against the sober realism of her responsibilities as a policymaker. The Times’s columnist Thomas L. Friedman calls it “a wonderful book” in his review: “It’s an unusual combination of autobiography, diplomatic history, moral argument and manual on how to breast-feed a child with one hand while talking to Secretary of State John Kerry on a cellphone with the other. The interweaving of Power’s personal story, family story, diplomatic history and moral arguments is executed seamlessly — and with unblinking honesty.”

HOW THE OTHER HALF LEARNS: Equality, Excellence, and the Battle Over School Choice, by Robert Pondiscio. (Avery, $27.) Pondiscio, a former public-school teacher in the South Bronx, spent a year investigating the controversial, high-performing charter school network Success Academy. His findings make for a riveting, if ultimately dismaying, read, underscoring the profound inequities built into our education system. “Pondiscio set out to focus on what actually happens in classrooms day after day, expecting to find Success’ secrets there,” Dale Russakoff writes in his review. “But the biggest revelation of Pondiscio’s research comes not from inside classrooms at all. While he does not believe Success cherry-picks students for high performance, as critics often charge, he demonstrates convincingly that what the network does cherry-pick is parents, to strategic effect.”

THE YEARS THAT MATTER MOST: How College Makes or Breaks Us, by Paul Tough. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28.) This urgent account combines cogent data and artful storytelling to show how higher education has veered from its meritocratic ideals to exacerbate society’s inequality. “The news is not good,” Tara Westover writes in her review. “In chapter after chapter, Tough shows how higher education does not ameliorate the inequities of K-12. It magnifies them. Tough rests his case on research, but it’s the people in his drama who will stay with you.”

HOW TO FIGHT ANTI-SEMITISM, by Bari Weiss. (Crown, $20.) Weiss, an opinion editor and writer at The Times, delivers a concise, powerful brief against anti-Semitism as it has manifested itself on the left, right and in the Muslim world. She is at her most passionate taking on her fellow liberals, who she contends fail to acknowledge and fully grapple with this oldest of hatreds. Our reviewer, Hillel Halkin, praises the book’s “careful organization and articulate prose,” and says that Weiss is “admirably succinct in her explanation of why groups having nothing else in common are united in their dislike or hatred of Jews.”

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