Hey, baby: It’s the Fourth of July. Maybe read a book about America? My father will be — ever the history student, he’s made it a life goal to collect books about each president. (He reminds me that a few years ago, when I gave him Candice Millard’s “Destiny of the Republic,” about James A. Garfield’s assassination, I told him, “Good luck finding a whole book on Rutherford B. Hayes.”)
This week’s titles won’t help on the Hayes front — obviously — but we do have one book about two presidents: In “The Problem of Democracy,” Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein revisit the father-son team of John Adams (the second president) and John Quincy Adams (the sixth president), who between them spent much of their lives puzzling out the implications of self-rule as a form of government. Read that, and be struck anew by the coincidence that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died on the nation’s 50th birthday, July 4, 1826.
Democracy and America’s national identity are twin themes running through much of this week’s list. In “Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone,” the Canadian filmmaker Astra Taylor tries to develop a working definition for democracy. In “Ill Winds,” the political scientist Larry Diamond looks at threats to democratic order around the world. In “This America,” the historian Jill Lepore considers the uses and misuses of American exceptionalism. And in “Spying on the South,” the late journalist Tony Horwitz retraces Frederick Law Olmsted’s antebellum journey below the Mason-Dixon line to better understand the country’s stubborn divisions. We also recommend a couple of novels, a memoir of grief, a literary biography and a reporter’s exposé of the generic drug industry.
It’s not all bad news. When we reviewed three of those democracy books on our cover last week, we went with a cheeky grim headline — “Woe the People” — to reflect the mood of the times. But as Astra Taylor pointed out in a subsequent tweet, her book also celebrates the power of community organizing and grass-roots movements to effect change: Sometimes, she wrote, democracy’s real message is “Whoa, the people.”
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THE PORPOISE, by Mark Haddon. (Doubleday, $27.95.) Mark Haddon, still best known as the author of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” attempts his most daring project yet in “The Porpoise.” It’s a retelling of Shakespeare’s “Pericles” — and thus a retelling of the retelling of the story of Apollonius — set in both the present and the past; in reality (so to speak) and in myth. “Haddon’s writing is beautiful, almost hallucinatory at times,” our reviewer Sarah Lyall writes, and this novel “is a provocative and deeply interesting work.”
DEMOCRACY MAY NOT EXIST, BUT WE’LL MISS IT WHEN IT’S GONE, by Astra Taylor. (Metropolitan/Holt, $27.) Taylor, a Canadian documentarian, set out to rescue the term “democracy” from ignorance and obfuscation; her adroit survey suggests a concept widely invoked but stubbornly resistant to stable definition. Randall Kennedy, reviewing it, calls the book “an impressive contribution” and “an idiosyncratic rumination on problems associated with popular self-government. … Taylor displays considerable intellectual nimbleness.”
ILL WINDS: Saving Democracy From Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency, by Larry Diamond. (Penguin Press, $28.) Diamond, who has spent 40 years studying and promoting democracy, details his fears that liberal values are in retreat around the world and that American democracy is threatened from both inside and outside. “In his impassioned book,” Gary J. Bass writes in his review, Diamond “proves a stalwart, persuasive champion for democracy at a moment when its reputation has been fouled.”
THE PROBLEM OF DEMOCRACY: The Presidents Adams Confront the Cult of Personality, by Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein. (Viking, $35.) Examining the lives of John Adams and John Quincy Adams, Isenberg and Burstein remind us that the founders never wanted a democracy, in today’s terms. “Criticized by contemporaries and posterity alike for their difficult personalities, the two Adamses certainly nurtured a powerful sense of grievance as they assessed the political developments of their day,” Virginia DeJohn Anderson notes in her review. “Yet their curmudgeonly characters likely predisposed them to discern genuine problems in government that their adversaries preferred to exploit for their own advantage rather than correct for the good of the nation.”
SPYING ON THE SOUTH: An Odyssey Across the American Divide, by Tony Horwitz. (Penguin Press, $30.) Before his death in May, Horwitz, who wrote often on American themes, recreated a pre-Civil War journey by the urban planner Frederick Law Olmsted, to better understand our differences then and now. “He passed few judgments,” our reviewer, John M. Barry, writes, “and only rarely did his obvious outsider status interfere with his mission or provoke hostility. Rather, his honest curiosity got people to open up. As they did, we learn about them, their lives and their communities.”
THIS AMERICA: The Case for the Nation, by Jill Lepore. (Liveright, $16.95.) Through her assessment of American exceptionalism, the Harvard historian Lepore undertakes the ambitious task of purging the country’s traditional identity of nationalism and replacing it with a purified liberalism. Reviewing it, Michael Lind calls it a “brief but ambitious book” that “defends a version of civic patriotism against the three alternatives: illiberal nationalism, identity politics and liberal nationalism.”
ONCE MORE WE SAW STARS, by Jayson Greene. (Knopf, $25.) In writing about the accidental death of his toddler daughter, Greta, killed by a falling brick on the Upper West Side, Greene has created a page-turning narrative of grief and acceptance, and a moving tribute to his family. “His writing — about sudden death, family relationships, marriage, spirituality and healing — is a revelation of lightness and agility,” Alex Witchel writes in her review. “That he managed to keep his facility for language during a period where it often disappears is a miracle. He has created a narrative of grief and acceptance that is compulsively readable and never self-indulgent.”
FLEISHMAN IS IN TROUBLE, by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. (Random House, $27.) In her zingy, well-observed debut, Brodesser-Akner updates the miserable-marriage novel for our times, focusing on a hapless middle-aged doctor whose big-earner wife has abruptly left him and their kids. “Brodesser-Akner has written a potent, upsetting and satisfying novel,” our reviewer, Tom Rachman, writes, “illustrating how the marital pledge — build our life together — overlooks a key fact: There are two lives.”
NEVER A LOVELY SO REAL: The Life and Work of Nelson Algren, by Colin Asher. (Norton, $39.95.) Asher’s thorough, thoughtful biography draws on Algren’s voluminous F.B.I. file to explore why a once-lauded novelist of America’s underclass largely quit while he was still in his prime. Our reviewer, Susan Jacoby, writes that Asher “scrupulously attempts to separate facts from myths (some created by Algren himself) as he explores how a writer who produced prose-poetry of such a high order could now be largely forgotten.”
BOTTLE OF LIES: The Inside Story of the Generic Drug Boom, by Katherine Eban. (Ecco/HarperCollins, $28.99.) In her stunning exposé, Eban describes an industry rife with corruption and life-threatening misdeeds exacerbated by lax regulation. The book is “an invaluable exposé, a reportorial tour de force and a well-turned epic,” David Dobbs writes in his review. “Eban quotes inspector after inspector saying that they themselves fill only the most essential prescriptions — and will pay anything to avoid taking a drug made overseas. They’ve seen how those drugs are produced, and they live in fear of them.”
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