11 New Books We Recommend This Week

With this week’s recommended books, we go big. Not necessarily in terms of size (although that too, at times), but in terms of ideas, beliefs, social structures, -isms. There’s capitalism, in Eula Biss’s “Having and Being Had.” Colonialism and theism — both Christian and Muslim — in Alan Mikhail’s “God’s Shadow.” Racism and its consequences, in Talia Lavin’s “Culture Warlords” and Elliott Currie’s “A Peculiar Indifference.” Even “Wagnerism,” in which the music critic Alex Ross makes a persuasive case for the far-reaching influence of the composer Richard Wagner across a century of Western culture.

We also like Kerri Arsenault’s “Mill Town,” with its evocative consideration of a cancer cluster near the paper mill in her Maine hometown, and Annik LaFarge’s “Chasing Chopin,” which uses the composer’s “Funeral March” an an entree to his life more generally. In fiction, we recommend new novels by Aimee Bender, John Grisham, Phil Klay and Courtney Milan: mysticism, murder, war and romance. I told you this was going to be big.

Gregory Cowles
Senior Editor, Books
Twitter: @GregoryCowles

CULTURE WARLORDS: My Journey Into the Dark Web of White Supremacy, by Talia Lavin. (Hachette, $27.) To write this book, which expressly melds reportage with activism, Talia Lavin created fake identities and interacted with far-right communities online, including dating sites for white supremacists and forums for people hoping to incite a race war. Her goal was to shine light on hatred that she says flourishes when it’s allowed to take cover in the shadows. “One of the marvels of this furious book is how insolent and funny Lavin is,” our critic Jennifer Szalai writes. “She refuses to soft-pedal the monstrous views she encounters, and she clearly takes pleasure in cutting them down to size.”

A TIME FOR MERCY, by John Grisham. (Doubleday, $29.95.) John Grisham’s new novel brings back Jake Brigance, the small-town Mississippi lawyer specializing in unpopular, seemingly unwinnable cases who was first introduced more than 30 years ago in Grisham’s debut, “A Time to Kill.” In this, the third novel in which he appears, he finds himself saddled again with a client whose excellent reasons for committing murder do not change the fact that he is indeed guilty. “You get the feeling that Grisham, who has written several dozen books by now, has returned to the place closest to his heart,” our reviewer Sarah Lyall writes.

MISSIONARIES, by Phil Klay. (Penguin Press, $28.) The four converging narratives of this astounding novel (Klay’s first, after his National Book Award-winning story collection “Redeployment”) capture the complexities of Colombia’s five-decade war. Klay does not shy away from the thorny moral questions and psychological impacts of conflict, and the result is at once terrifying and thought-provoking. “Missionaries” is “skeptical at best” about the prospects for a “good war,” Juan Gabriel Vásquez writes in his review. “It does believe, however, in fiction’s ability to illuminate these dark places. And so the novel goes on, undeterred, exploring and revealing whole human worlds that would remain inaccessible without it.”

THE BUTTERFLY LAMPSHADE, by Aimee Bender. (Doubleday, $26.95.) In this compact surrealist memory box of a novel, we learn that three times during the protagonist’s childhood she witnessed a sort of mystic reification of an object, and she spends the rest of the novel trying to comprehend these visitations. The book “stakes its ground early, and remains there,” Kevin Brockmeier writes in his review. “Yet its particular quality of stillness hums with so much mystery and intensity that the book never feels static. It is a measure of the book’s success that as I reached the conclusion, I felt considerably more altered by the experience than I often am by novels that travel much further from their beginnings.”

THE DUKE WHO DIDN’T, by Courtney Milan. (Self-published, 241 pp., e-book, $4.99.) By turns consciously tender and fiercely witty, this is an unalloyed charmer about Chloe Fong, a stubborn Chinese-British sauce maker, and Jeremy Yu, the half-Chinese Duke of Lansing, who’s head over heels for her, but can’t seem to say so. “One of the best things to come out of the hellscape that is 2020,” Olivia Waite writes of the book in her latest romance column. “We’ve reached the point in the quarantine experience where casually sharing space and food with loved ones feels like unattainable hedonism; the palpable warmth of community and care in this story seems as luxurious and aspirational as any silk gown or starched cravat ever could.”

A PECULIAR INDIFFERENCE: The Neglected Toll of Violence on Black America, by Elliott Currie. (Metropolitan, $27.99.) This comprehensive study by a veteran legal scholar argues that the extraordinary violence against Black lives is a result of the nation’s refusal to address the structural roots of the problem. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, in his review, calls it “a smart, timely, deeply disturbing and essential book. … This is not a Black crisis but a national emergency, according to Currie.”

WAGNERISM: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music, by Alex Ross. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $40.) With enormous intellectual range and subtle artistic judgment, Ross’s history of ideas probes the nerve endings of Western society as they are mirrored in more than a century of reaction to Richard Wagner’s oeuvre, from George Eliot to “Apocalypse Now.” The author’s strategy “is to use Wagner as a kind of ur-source out of which spring a multitude of artistic, social and political movements,” John Adams writes in his review. “In so doing, Ross has dug deep into some of the most fertile (and occasionally most bizarre) terrain of Western culture, examining and bringing to light the struggles for individuation and self-discovery of a host of reactive minds.”

CHASING CHOPIN: A Musical Journey Across Three Centuries, Four Countries, and a Half-Dozen Revolutions, by Annik LaFarge. (Simon & Schuster, $27.) This charming and loving book, a combination of biography, cultural commentary and personal reflection, radiates out from Chopin’s “Funeral March” in many directions, addressing subjects like the composer’s pianos, his Polish identity and his longtime relationship with George Sand. “For a book about death,” the pianist Jeremy Denk writes in his review, “it’s bursting with life and lively research.”

HAVING AND BEING HAD, by Eula Biss. (Riverhead, $26.) Through brief essays composed of anecdotes, mini-histories and cultural criticism, Biss explores the contradictions of capitalism from within its clutch, meditating on the twisted individual experience of class and money in America. “Biss’s point of departure is her own transformation from itinerant scrounging artist to home-owning university teacher in a gentrifying neighborhood,” Lauren Oyler notes in her review. “The questions Biss asks here — about the meaning of concepts like value, work, service and capitalism, words that ‘seemed to crumble’ as she took her notes — are uncomfortable, but being in a position to ask them is not.”

MILL TOWN: Reckoning With What Remains, by Kerri Arsenault. (St. Martin’s, $27.99.) Combining personal history with investigative reporting, Arsenault pays loving homage to her family’s tight-knit Maine town even as she examines the cancers that have stricken so many residents. The book is “preoccupied with a poisonous irony,” Emily Cooke writes in her review: “Rumford’s citizens live and work in a place that makes them unwell, yet they cling to their jobs with prideful obstinacy, ignoring patterns of illness, swallowing the mill’s denials and accepting their lot with a collective shrug that Arsenault, once she learns the extent of the cancer and the mill’s likely responsibility for it, finds mysterious and troubling.”

GOD’S SHADOW: Sultan Selim, His Ottoman Empire, and the Making of the Modern World, by Alan Mikhail. (Liveright, $39.95.) In this revisionist account, Mikhail says that the Ottoman Empire was fundamental in shaping the history of Europe and America, and that the world we inhabit is “very much an Ottoman one.” Reviewing it, Ian Morris writes that “16th-century Christians saw everything, including the Americas, through the lens of their struggle against Islam. When Columbus crossed the Atlantic in 1492, the very year that Spain’s rulers destroyed Iberia’s last Muslim kingdom, he assured his royal patrons that his voyages were merely continuations of their anti-Islamic crusade.”

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