10 New Books We Recommend This Week

It never dawned on me at the start of this pandemic, when everybody was raising their drawbridges and lowering their blinds to hunker down solo in quarantine, that I might make new friends in the midst of it all. But as the days grew longer and I took my dog on increasingly roundabout walks through our neighborhood, people emerged: children first, wanting to pet Whimsy or throw his ball, and then their parents behind them, chatting at an epidemiologically safe distance about sports or school or working from home. Or books! Some of my neighbors are real readers, it turns out, and books — what we’re reading, what we recommend — can provide a reliable source of social connection even in a time of social distancing.

That’s true whether they cover politics (this week, a history of Reaganism and a biography of the Republican statesman James Baker) or grief (Hugh Raffles’s “The Book of Unconformities”), whether they describe the morass of race in American history (Morgan Jerkins’s “Wandering in Strange Lands”) or the shared experience of calamity (Elissa Gabbert’s “The Unreality of Memory”). And of course it’s true in fiction, where stories let us explore ideas of justice or love or family or art, pretty much anything at all, through the interior lives of the characters. This week we recommend story collections by Susan Minot and Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, and novels by Mary Gordon and Margot Livesey and David Heska Wanbli Weiden, and the implicit lesson they all offer is the same: We read alone, and we’re in this together.

Gregory Cowles
Senior Editor, Books
Twitter: @GregoryCowles

THE BOOK OF UNCONFORMITIES: Speculations on Lost Time, by Hugh Raffles. (Pantheon, $30.) The anthropologist Hugh Raffles’s new book is concerned with geology and grief. It’s the biography of a few notable stones, including a 20-ton chunk of pockmarked meteorite, mica prepared in Nazi concentration camps and the layer of marble running under Manhattan. Between these narratives flickers the devastating story of Raffles’s two sisters, who died within months of each other in the mid-1990s. Our critic Parul Sehgal calls it “among the most mysterious books I’ve ever read — a dense, dark star.”

THE MAN WHO RAN WASHINGTON: The Life and Times of James A. Baker III, by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser. (Doubleday, $35.) This fascinating biography of the former secretary of state and consummate insider, who was once called “the most important unelected official since World War II,” reveals both Baker’s accomplishments and the compromises he had to make. “It provides deep insight into Baker’s strengths at diplomacy — skills that will become even more important as America’s influence ebbs in the coming years,” Samantha Power writes in her review. “Now especially, when incompetence and ideology have cost the lives of some 200,000 Americans in the Covid pandemic and when faith in American leadership in the world has plummeted, it is hard to dismiss the authors’ nostalgia for what Baker was able to achieve by moving the machinery of American politics.”

WINTER COUNTS, by David Heska Wanbli Weiden. (Ecco, $27.99.) Justice is hard to come by on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, so Virgil Wounded Horse — the hero of this gritty, gripping thriller — dispenses it on a freelance basis. Weiden is from a branch of the Lakota tribe himself, and his book relies on deep research into its history and traditions. “In the grand tradition of trouble-seeking, down-at-the-heels private eyes with strong moral codes, Virgil must confront many obstacles at once,” Sarah Lyall writes in a roundup of recent thrillers. “‘Winter Counts’ is written with a light touch and a good deal of humor.”

THE BOY IN THE FIELD, by Margot Livesey. (HarperCollins, $26.99.) In Livesey’s exquisite new novel, three siblings on their way home from school find a boy who has been attacked and left for dead in a field. This discovery leads to a mystery that will change the lives of all involved. “Livesey’s writing is quiet, observant and beautifully efficient — there’s not an extra word or scene in the entire book — and yet simultaneously so cinematic, you can hear the orchestral soundtrack as you tear through the pages,” Jenny Rosenstrach writes in her review.

REAGANLAND: America’s Right Turn, 1976-1980, by Rick Perlstein. (Simon & Schuster, $40.) More than a book about Ronald Reagan, the conclusion of Perlstein’s four-volume saga on the rise of conservatism in America is absorbing political and social history, with sharp insights into the human quirks and foibles that were so much a part of the late 1970s. “In this description, the former movie actor turned politician is intensely human, and capable of empathy, or at least shame,” Evan Thomas writes in his review. “‘Reaganland’ is full of portents for the current day.”

PAYBACK, by Mary Gordon. (Pantheon, $27.95.) What if we pursued vigilante justice on reality TV? Mary Gordon considers this question — and our retributive impulse — in her morally complex novel about a long-ago crime and the modern-day television host determined to seek vengeance for it. “Gordon isn’t, strictly speaking, a naturalistic or realistic novelist, but rather a moralist, by which I don’t mean moralistic,” Francine Prose writes in her review. “Since her marvelous first novel … she’s concerned herself with questions of ethics, belief, responsibility, devotion, obligation. What do human beings owe one another and how can we know what is the right thing to do?”

WANDERING IN STRANGE LANDS: A Daughter of the Great Migration Reclaims Her Roots, by Morgan Jerkins. (Harper/HarperCollins, $27.99.) This quintessentially American story — tracing the author’s heritage through enslavement, emancipation, multiculturalism and migration — is a mesmerizing reminder that the divide between Black and white is a false binary. “Jerkins makes plain that denying space for Black identities in history is itself a legacy as American as its original sins of racism and enslavement,” our reviewer, Afua Hirsch, writes. “By exploring the truth of that past with such integrity, this memoir enriches our future.”

THE UNREALITY OF MEMORY: And Other Essays, by Elisa Gabbert. (FSG Originals, paper, $16.) This collection of thematically linked essays, by a poet who is also the Book Review’s poetry columnist, grapples with the chaotic and unknowable nature of catastrophe, even as real-world crises press in from all sides. “Gabbert draws masterly portraits of the precise, uncanny affects that govern our psychological relationship to calamity,” Alexandra Kleeman writes in her review. “Even more impressive is her skill at bending crisp, clear language into shapes that illustrate the shifting logic of the disastrous, keeping the reader oriented amid continual upheaval.”

WHY I DON’T WRITE: And Other Stories, by Susan Minot. (Knopf, $25.) The stories in this collection, Minot’s first since 1989, are concerned with love, death, estrangement, loss and memory, which means that they are concerned with time itself. “Minot has always been interested in how the past can flood the present while remaining stubbornly unrecoverable,” Justin Taylor writes in his review. “After 30 years away from the short story, it is good to have her back, cleareyed and fearless as ever, whispering difficult truths and ambiguities that a less assured writer would feel compelled to shout.”

LIKES, by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26.) Reality and unreality frequently blur in this impressive collection. From the inscrutability of adolescence to the instability of suburban order, Bynum’s subjects hold together through her control of language and attention to detail. “The adjectives that readers often attach to Bynum’s work — ‘enchanting,’ ‘charming,’ ‘precise’ — are accurate, but can give the impression that she specializes in dollhouse miniatures, masterfully crafted but bloodless,” Caitlin Horrocks writes in her review. “Her skills and her sensibility are deeper and darker than that. The sentences are indeed meticulous, but never for their own sake; they bring to life characters who possess rich inner lives even when navigating moments that feel dreamily sinister or otherworldly.”

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