8 New Books We Recommend This Week – The New York Times


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Disruption! Chaos! Pandemonium! It’s not much fun to live through, but in hindsight it can make for pretty good copy — so it’s not surprising to find, at the center of this week’s recommended titles, that the center doesn’t hold. NoViolet Bulawayo’s new novel, “Glory,” is all about political turmoil. Yoko Tawada’s latest, “Scattered All Over the Earth,” is about climate apocalypse. Two new biographies of Buster Keaton make the case that he was not only a comic genius but also a technological disrupter, madly innovating new directions for the film industry in its early days. And in “Origin,” Jennifer Raff sets out to overturn some long-held theories about the first humans to populate the Americas. Things fall apart. That’s the message of “The Quiet Before,” by Gal Beckerman (until recently my colleague at the Book Review), about social movements building from the ground up, and it’s the premise (in a very different way) of “The Old Woman With the Knife,” Gu Byeong-mo’s novel about a 65-year-old female assassin in Seoul. Meanwhile, disruption of another sort — aesthetic, existential — is at the core of the Swedish writer Jon Fosse’s seven-novel series “Septology,” about an aging painter arguing with God. Happy reading.
Gregory Cowles
Senior Editor, Books
Twitter: @GregoryCowles
GLORY, by NoViolet Bulawayo. (Viking, $27.) This novel, Bulawayo’s follow-up to the celebrated debut “We Need New Names,” is a brilliant, 400-page postcolonial fable charting the downfall of one tyrant — whose counterpart here is an elderly horse — and the rise of a new one in a fictional African country that can be understood as a sort of fantasia of Zimbabwe. Our reviewer, Violet Kupersmith, calls the book a “manifoldly clever new novel” that evokes “Animal Farm” and then surpasses it: “This is an allegory that operates entirely on its own terms, with its own ingenious lexicon. By taking humans out of the equation, Bulawayo eliminates the hierarchies that their presence would impose. … By aiming the long, piercing gaze of this metaphor at the aftereffects of European imperialism in Africa, Bulawayo is really out-Orwelling Orwell. This is a satire with sharper teeth, angrier, and also very, very funny.”
THE QUIET BEFORE: On the Unexpected Origins of Radical Ideas, by Gal Beckerman. (Crown, $28.99.) Beckerman, a former editor at the Book Review, turns his lens on the small moments — 17th-century correspondence, Chartist petitions, Futurist manifestoes — that led to larger revolutions. In a moment where all discourse seems conducted at top volume, Beckerman mounts an argument for “a realm of relative quiet,” as our reviewer, Simon Schama, puts it, “where millions of connections are daily wired together, and which offer to conversationalists thoughtful rather than thoughtless provocations, solid sources of knowledge rather than fathomless wells of ignorance, and even, every so often, shots of pleasurable illumination.”
ORIGIN: A Genetic History of the Americas, by Jennifer Raff. (Twelve, $30.) Raff, an anthropological geneticist at the University of Kansas, integrates data from different sciences (archaeology, genetics, linguistics) and different ways of knowing, including Indigenous oral traditions, to challenge the longstanding theory that the earliest Americans arrived via land bridge from Siberia. “Throughout, Raff effectively models how science is done, how hypotheses are tested, and how new data are used to refute old ideas and generate new ones,” Jeremy DeSilva writes in his review. “The book is richly referenced, and informative footnotes and endnotes give readers an opportunity to take a deeper dive if they wish.”
BUSTER KEATON: A Filmmaker’s Life, by James Curtis. (Knopf, $40.) This big biography of the silent-screen comedy titan follows him from his parents’ vaudeville act at the turn of the 20th century to his small part in “Beach Blanket Bingo” in the ’60s. Curtis painstakingly explains the remarkable technical innovations Keaton brought to the world of film and “does a delightful job of capturing the old, weird America in which the Keatons plied their trade,” David Kamp writes, reviewing the book alongside a second Keaton biography (below). “Every bit as important, ‘Buster Keaton’ serves as a welcome corrective to the perception that Keaton’s was a tragic life undone by drink and the advent of the talkies.”
CAMERA MAN: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century, by Dana Stevens. (Atria, $29.99.) Stevens, a movie critic for Slate, contextualizes Keaton’s brilliant achievements in a book that is less a biography than a series of reported essays about the progress of the 20th century with a great filmmaker at their center. “Buster emerges in the new century as an agent of what we would now call disruption,” David Kamp writes in his review of two Keaton biographies. “He, Chaplin and Keaton’s filmmaking mentor, Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, aren’t just funnymen but entrepreneurs, early adopters of new technology whose smarts and foresight earn them tons of money and admiration. … Keaton is the least business-minded — terrible at deal making, hence his never-ending gigging — but the most purely creative, a workaholic whose passion is thinking up gags. Stevens clearly adores her subject, describing him as a ‘solemn, beautiful, perpetually airborne man.’”
SCATTERED ALL OVER THE EARTH, by Yoko Tawada. Translated by Margaret Mitsutani. (New Directions, paper, $16.95.) In Tawada’s latest novel, the first volume in a trilogy, Hiruko is a stateless refugee, her home country (Japan) swallowed by rising seas and remembered only as the “land of sushi.” The novel’s mordantly funny comedy of intercultural misunderstanding underpins Tawada’s sharp satire. “What is true of Hiruko, Tawada suggests, is true of everyone,” Ryan Ruby writes in his review: “Our national identities are at bottom simulacra, copies of originals that no longer exist, if they ever did. … By the time we are reading the trilogy’s final volume, the climate-fiction scenario Tawada drapes in the trappings of picaresque comedy will no longer seem speculative.”
SEPTOLOGY I-VII, by Jon Fosse. Translated by Damion Searls. (Transit, paper, $17.95 each.) This extraordinary seven-novel series, in three volumes, follows an aging artist’s reckoning with the divine over a few memory-filled days. The probing of art and identity, and the fascinating studies of religious experience, are hypnotic and powerful. “Asle is a recognizable type,” Randy Boyagoda writes in his review, “recalling the main figures of Marilynne Robinson’s ‘Gilead’ and Paul Harding’s ‘Tinkers,’ T. S. Eliot’s ‘Gerontion’ and Samuel Beckett’s ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’: old men surveying their lives, balancing immediate-feeling questions about mortality with intense, incomplete and ambivalent memories of past events and people, and also the heightened demands of everyday life near its end.”
THE OLD WOMAN WITH THE KNIFE, by Gu Byeong-mo. Translated by Chi-Young Kim. (Hanover Square, $19.99.) Following a 65-year-old woman in Seoul who is ready to retire from being a hired assassin, Gu’s first novel to be translated into English addresses societal attitudes on aging in Korea and elsewhere. “An unfortunate series of mishaps draws her inexorably back into the action, yielding a brisk narrative,” Carlos Rojas writes, reviewing the book with two other novels in translation. “‘The Old Woman With the Knife’ uses occasionally cartoonish action and horror sequences to offer a broader social commentary.”
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