9 New Books We Recommend This Week
It should be terrifying, not exhilarating, to discover an apocalyptic novel from 1939 and to recognize that its story of denial in the face of disaster applies all too well to our own world. But there you have it: Like Picasso’s “Guernica,” painted two years earlier, R.C. Sherriff’s novel “The Hopkins Manuscript” is thrilling precisely because it describes a hellscape so artfully, even as its own existence and endurance offer a ray of hope against annihilation. Now available in a new edition, Sherriff’s novel — an example of the “cozy catastrophe” genre, as our reviewer Alec Nevala-Lee points out — is one of the books we recommend this week.
Also up: a lively collection of obituaries, a charming history of beavers and their impact on the American landscape, a moving memoir by the actor Rob Delaney about his young son’s death, and a surprisingly serious study of cultural attitudes toward the human posterior. (Not too serious: It’s called “Butts: A Backstory,” and its cheeky cover features the airbrushed image of a cleft peach.) We also recommend Jefferson Cowie’s history of white supremacy in Alabama, Shahan Mufti’s account of a 1977 hostage standoff in Washington, D.C., and Judith Thurman’s collection of profiles and other essays. In fiction, besides the Sherriff we like Jamie Marina Lau’s “Gunk Baby,” a sardonic, Klieg-lit tale of consumerism and capitalism gone awry. Happy reading.
A Saga of White Resistance to Federal Power
Cowie, a historian at Vanderbilt, recounts four peak periods in the conflict between white Alabamians and the federal government, including the reassertion of white supremacy under Jim Crow and the attempts of Gov. George Wallace and others to nullify the civil rights reforms of the 1950s and ’60s. Essential reading for anyone who hopes to understand the unholy union between racism and the rabid loathing of government.
“As Cowie reveals, white Southerners portrayed the oppression of Black people and Native Americans not as a repudiation of freedom, but its precondition, its very foundation.”
From Jeff Shesol’s review
Basic Books | $35
Anchored by the specter of Sarah Baartman, an Indigenous Khoe woman born in 1770s South Africa who was forced by Dutch colonists to exhibit her “large butt” for the stimulation of white audiences, this debut cultural history is in many cases a narrative of physical suffering: from the tightly cinched waists of the Victorian bustle to diets, “Buns of Steel” to Brazilian butt lift surgery.
“Engaging, personal and necessarily cherry-picked history. … An origin story for the racist, misogynist body shaming that has plagued womankind for centuries, forcing us into everything from Spanx to starvation diets to sterilization.”
From Lauren Christensen’s review
Avid Reader | $28.99
The Daily Telegraph Book of 21st Century Obituaries
Edited by Andrew M. Brown
A new collection of obituaries from The Daily Telegraph highlights oddballs, mavericks and cranks, from an Italian Lothario who charmed hundreds of women every summer to a nobleman who hosted golf matches inside his house.
“It was The Telegraph’s inspiration, beginning in the 1980s, to treat obituaries as an essentially comic form. The paper’s cheeky, truth-dealing obits have inspired a cult readership. … Oddly uplifting, better than edibles, to tuck into before bed.”
From Dwight Garner’s review
Unicorn | $37.95
Jamie Marina Lau
In the Australian writer’s second novel, a 20-something opens an ear-cleaning-slash-massage parlor in the fictional Par Mars, a vortex of plush tract housing built around a mall. Everything about life in Par Mars (which could be anywhere) suggests that entrepreneurship is the surest path to self-actualization — until worker discontent culminates in revolt.
“Lau’s … gift for writing accumulative insanities creates the same dizzying effect as a good cleaning. There’s nothing to be done to stop the creep of commodity fetishism, Orientalism, empty activism or, perhaps most crucially, apex consumerism, Lau tells us with muted resignation.”
From Alexandra Tanner’s review
Astra House | Paperback, $17
How One Weird Rodent Made America
Moved by a family of beavers that went about their lives near her Connecticut home, Philip adds to a genre of pro-beaver literature that most of us didn’t know existed. The title of this book describes a pre-colonial era when those animals were still shaping the great forests of North America. Beavers, Philip says, are “the only animals apart from man that radically transform their environment.” Some ecologists insist beaver dams — which create ponds, which create ecosystems — could help remedy the effects of climate change.
“Despite all its hard work, the species known as Castor canadensis, or the North American beaver, commands too little respect. … As Philip points out, beavers share something rare with humans. We build; they build. We change the landscape; they change the landscape.”
From Jennifer Szalai’s review
Twelve | $30
The True Story of a Muslim Mystic, a Hollywood Epic, and the 1977 Siege of Washington, DC
Forty-six years ago, heavily armed members of a Muslim group called the Hanafis stormed three buildings in Washington and took dozens of hostages, holding them for nearly two days. Mufti is the first author to dive deep into the historical record of the siege, and his ticktock of the siege, the book’s climactic centerpiece, is a tour de force.
“It’s a story with endless narrative possibilities. Mufti ably assembles all the pieces and deftly covers the relevant history. … Using police records, an F.B.I. report and government wiretaps, he recreates the two days of terror and violence in tense, vivid detail.”
From Jonathan Mahler’s review
Farrar, Straus & Giroux | $30
A LEFT-HANDED WOMAN:
The biographer and essayist Judith Thurman is known in part for her exquisitely crafted profiles. In this collection — largely composed of New Yorker portraits of notable women — Thurman indulges her love of all things aesthetic with characteristic skill and occasional piquancy. Definitions of beauty may differ; Thurman’s style is unquestionable.
“Haunting emerges as both theme and formal device. … The tricky task of shaping the inchoate mess of a person’s life and work into a pleasing and digestible few thousand words — a task Thurman executes with élan — lends itself to a neatly looped structure.”
From Hermione Hoby’s review
Farrar, Straus & Giroux | $32
A HEART THAT WORKS
In this deeply moving and — against all odds — darkly funny memoir, the writer, actor and comedian writes about his 2-year-old son’s death from brain cancer. Why would he revisit such pain? Delaney explains: “This is one thing grief does to me. It makes me want to make you understand.”
“Will you cry? Yes, unless you have no soul. You’ll also have space to catch your breath. And you will laugh, because this book is often miraculously funny. … Even some of the darkest moments are slashed through with light.”
From Mary Laura Philpott’s review
Spiegel & Grau | $25
THE HOPKINS MANUSCRIPT
This wonderful, disturbingly relevant novel, first published in 1939 and newly reissued, inaugurated a genre of dystopian fiction in which the hero survives the apocalypse.
“Sherriff is a master at framing a story through the narrator’s circumscribed point of view, and the novel would still be enormously readable — and funny — if it were nothing but an exercise in voice.”
From Alec Nevala-Lee’s review
Scribner | Paperback, $18