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


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This week’s nonfiction recommendations range widely, from Elena Ferrante’s literary lectures to a timely memoir by America’s former ambassador to Ukraine; from a close-up study of tide pools to a history of the North’s huge financial edge in the Civil War. There’s Fintan O’Toole’s history of modern Ireland, filtered through his personal experiences, and William Neuman’s journalistic account of the political crisis in Venezuela; a cartoonist’s memoir of midcentury New York and two books on medical topics, one of them a history of surgery, the other a neurologist’s collection of case histories and the lessons they impart. In fiction, we recommend an old-fashioned social novel set in 21st-century India, a sly debut set on a Kentucky college campus and a collection of pandemic-haunted stories by the celebrated Irish author Roddy Doyle. Happy reading.
Gregory Cowles
Senior Editor, Books
Twitter: @GregoryCowles
LESSONS FROM THE EDGE: A Memoir, by Marie Yovanovitch. (Mariner, $30.) Yovanovitch was abruptly recalled from her post as the United States ambassador to Ukraine in April 2019. She went on to provide memorable testimony at the first impeachment of President Trump that November. She explained that she wasn’t surprised that Ukrainians who had long benefited from corruption had sought to remove her, given that she had made anti-corruption efforts a priority. But she hadn’t expected officials in her own country to green-light, much less actively encourage, such machinations. In this memoir, Yovanovitch “skillfully narrates her life story,” our critic Jennifer Szalai says, from a childhood in Connecticut through postings in Somalia, Russia, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia.
IN THE MARGINS: On the Pleasures of Reading and Writing, by Elena Ferrante. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein. (Europa, $20.) “In the Margins” consists of four lectures Ferrante wrote, in which the pseudonymous author shares her conceptions of writing and reading. She doesn’t present writing tips so much as she outlines what she’s learned and how it’s helped her (and by implication, how it might help anyone else). She talks about how she conceives of the writer and her methods of rereading texts. Despite the author’s desire for anonymity, our critic Molly Young writes, these pieces provide a good deal of self-disclosure: “For those who wish to burrow gopherlike into the author’s mind, Ferrante has prepared a tunnel.”
WHAT’S SO FUNNY? A Cartoonist’s Memoir, by David Sipress. (Mariner, $27.99.) Sipress, whose cartoons regularly appear in The New Yorker, writes about his less-than-happy childhood in prose that is economical and amiable (and occasionally devastating). Born in 1947, Sipress grew up in a New York City that was simultaneously grimier and more glamorous. The book, our critic Alexandra Jacobs writes, is “an endearingly vulnerable tale of being molded by one’s family of origin, then crawling out from under its suffocating weight.”
LIFE WITHOUT CHILDREN: Stories, by Roddy Doyle. (Viking, $25.) Doyle’s latest book is a collection of stories set during the recent lockdowns; its atmosphere of desolation has a dark power, and the resilient wit of the Irish is everywhere. Many of the stories show how the pandemic made routine problems — empty nest syndrome, relationship trouble, the angst of a certain age — much more acute. “The guy certainly seems to have a facility for creating characters out of thin air and making them stick,” Daphne Merkin writes in her review. “Not to mention the sly humor, the ability to hew to the fine line between pathos and bathos and write unsentimentally about sad people and situations, and the gift for quicksilver dialogue that can sound like a poetic form of vernacular speech.”
WE DON’T KNOW OURSELVES: A Personal History of Modern Ireland, by Fintan O’Toole. (Liveright, $32.) O’Toole, a prolific journalist and critic, didn’t think his own six decades merited an autobiography, so instead he wrote a “personal history” of contemporary Ireland in which the country’s dizzying 20th-century shifts — economic, religious, moral, social, political and geopolitical — come to vivid life via vignettes from O’Toole’s own life. “The real accomplishment of this book is that it achieves a conscious form of history-telling, a personal hybrid that feels distinctly honest and humble at the same time,” Colum McCann writes in his review. “O’Toole has not invented the form, but he comes close to perfecting it. He embraces the contradictions and the confusion. In the process, he weaves the flag rather than waving it.”
LIFE BETWEEN THE TIDES, by Adam Nicolson. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $30.) A historian and nature writer explores tide pools — those shifting ecosystems that form where the ocean meets the land — and evokes their tiny inhabitants in luminous, lovely detail. “He operates in a tradition pioneered by Annie Dillard and upheld by the likes of David Haskell — closely observing a discrete patch of earth (or sea) and taking it as his muse,” Ben Goldfarb writes in his review. “There’s brutality here, but also brilliance — anemones, despite literal brainlessness, adeptly size up their rivals — and astonishing tenderness.”
WAYS AND MEANS: Lincoln and His Cabinet and the Financing of the Civil War, by Roger Lowenstein. (Penguin Press, $30.) Lowenstein brings impressive energy and drama to what might otherwise seem a dry subject: how the North’s financing of the Civil War contributed to its ultimate victory. “Wars cost money as well as lives, and the Civil War required what Lowenstein calls ‘gargantuan’ sums,” Eric Foner writes in his review. “In the hands of a less skilled author, the litany of bonds, notes, loans and forms of currency that he discusses could become mind-numbing. But Lowenstein is a lucid stylist, able to explain financial matters to readers who lack specialized knowledge.”
RUN AND HIDE, by Pankaj Mishra. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26.) This novel, by the author of the 2017 nonfiction book “Age of Anger,” follows three university classmates who come of age in a time of turbocharged economic progress in India, and take different career paths into the 21st century. Having realized their once-impossible dream of joining India’s elite, they now must reckon with the steep costs of success. “It’s insufficient to call ‘Run and Hide’ a ‘novel of ideas,’ because Mishra’s ideas about the state of the world, unlike those of many novelists, are ones he thought of,” Jonathan Dee writes in his review. This is “a novel of modern India that takes some of the big-picture phenomena from ‘Age of Anger’ and — as good social novels have always done — gets us to engage on the level of feeling by returning those abstractions to human scale.”
GROUNDSKEEPING, by Lee Cole. (Knopf, $28.) In this exacting, beautifully textured debut novel, the 28-year-old narrator returns to his native Kentucky to work as a college landscaper and, on a lark, enrolls in a creative-writing class. This experience expands his horizons in ways he could not have expected, romantically, politically and personally. “Cole paints in airy watercolors rather than bright acrylics; his touch is light, restrained, but always authoritative and precise,” Hamilton Cain writes in his review. “But beneath the languid tale of young campus love, he’s playing a shell game: The novel’s not only a forensic examination of our toxic politics, it’s also a sly sendup of literary culture.”
EMPIRE OF THE SCALPEL: The History of Surgery, by Ira Rutkow. (Scribner, $29.99.) The emergence of surgery from its barbaric past rested on four pillars: the understanding of anatomy, the control of bleeding, anesthesia and antisepsis. This survey — by turns fascinating and grisly — is nothing less than a history of the modern world. The story “is not one of steady, rational progress,” Henry Marsh writes in his review. “The history of surgery, especially until the modern era, is as much about doctors’ innate conservatism as it is about innovation. It is, however, ultimately a history of triumphant progress.”
THINGS ARE NEVER SO BAD THAT THEY CAN’T GET WORSE: Inside the Collapse of Venezuela, by William Neuman. (St. Martin’s, $29.99.) Neuman’s vivid on-the-ground reporting describes how a once-prosperous country has collapsed into a brutal malignancy of authoritarian populism. “Venezuela possesses the world’s largest crude reserves,” Tim Padgett notes in his review. “The surrealistically easy money they dispense, Neuman stresses, is actually a ‘resource curse’ that all too often encouraged government profligacy, business corruption and civic complacency in the 20th century. Venezuelans would come to consider themselves model democrats; Neuman argues they ‘weren’t citizens so much as clients.’”
A MOLECULE AWAY FROM MADNESS: Tales of the Hijacked Brain, by Sara Manning Peskin. (Norton, $25.95.) A neurology professor’s lively account of how errant molecular activity underlies many serious mental afflictions, from mercury poisoning to dementia. “Peskin writes about these conditions and the patients consumed by them with a grace and humanity that recall Oliver Sacks,” Annie Murphy Paul writes in her review. “Her slim volume also manages to tell the stories of the doctors and researchers who chased down these treacherous molecules in the field and in the lab; she has a flair for the quick character sketch and an eye for vivid detail.”
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