How better to enter the new year than with a look back? History runs through many of this week’s recommended titles, from the fall of Rome to the birth of Islam to Michelangelo in 16th-century Constantinople. If Paris in the 1960s is your bag, Patrick Modiano has you covered. If you’re interested in the Harlem Renaissance but have never read Jean Toomer’s seminal 1923 novel “Cane,” which helped catalyze that movement, you might add it to your list of resolutions. If you’re curious about the Philippine-American War and its lasting impact — inescapable in the Philippines, mostly ignored in America — then Gina Apostol’s novel “Insurrecto” offers an improbably fun, and funny, guide. (When you’re done with that, maybe pick up another satire out of Asia. Yan Lianke’s “The Day the Sun Died” or Gengoroh Tagame’s “My Brother’s Husband: Volume 2” both fit the bill.)
We round things out with a debut novel about London and two books by notable critics: a memoir of love and reading late in life by the literary critic Susan Gubar, and a collection of film writing by the movie critic A. S. Hamrah.
Happy 2019, everyone.
Senior Editor, Books
CANE, by Jean Toomer. (Penguin Classics, $15.) In 1923, Toomer published “Cane,” the single, slender novel upon which his reputation rests. In bursts of poetry and prose, it tells of black life in the lethal rural South and in the loveless cities of the North. “Cane” sold modestly but exerted a powerful influence over the Harlem Renaissance. “It is oracular, delirious and American,” our critic Parul Sehgal writes, “rich with the intensities of Melville, the expansiveness of Whitman and Toomer’s own bedeviling preoccupation with color.”
THE EARTH DIES STREAMING: Film Writing, 2002-2018, by A. S. Hamrah. (n+1, $20.) As the resident movie critic of the literary and political journal n+1, Hamrah writes about his idiosyncratic favorites with a political awareness that never succumbs to leaden moralizing. Hamrah is “committed to his ambivalence,” our critic Jennifer Szalai says, “conveying it with a mixture of precision and conviction that will remind you how much more there is to be gleaned from a review than whether a movie is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (even if it’s a movie you happen to deem very good or very bad indeed).”
LATE-LIFE LOVE: A Memoir, by Susan Gubar. (Norton, $25.95.) The influential literary critic blends tales of her marriage, her cancer treatments and her husband’s age-related infirmities with discussions of works whose meaning has changed for her over time; her rereadings confirm her talents as a teacher. “There are moments when pain sears through,” John Sutherland writes in his review. “The universal physical awfulness of age is scrutinized … with the cold eye of a Jonathan Swift.” Nonetheless, he adds, “Gubar continues to defiantly flex her critical muscles.”
MORTAL REPUBLIC: How Rome Fell Into Tyranny, by Edward J. Watts. (Basic, $32.) By the second century B.C., the proud Roman Republic had been brought low by inequity, corruption and populist politicians. Since America’s founders modeled it on the Roman example, Watts, a historian, warns that it behooves us to understand what went wrong over 2,000 years ago. “The bad news is that the coming decades are unlikely to afford us many moments of calm and tranquillity,” our reviewer, Yascha Mounk, writes. “If the central analogy that animates ‘Mortal Republic’ is correct, the current challenge to America’s political system is likely to persist long after its present occupant has left the White House.”
MUHAMMAD: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires, by Juan Cole. (Nation, $28.) Cole offers an ambitiously revisionist picture of the father of Islam, replacing the idea of a militant leader with one of a peacemaker who wanted only to preach his monotheism freely and even sought “multicultural” harmony. Writing in the Book Review, Mustafa Akyol calls it “eruditely informative” and says Cole is “demonstrably right in concluding that Islamic orthodoxy deviated from its foundations by ‘abrogating’ the peaceful and tolerant verses of the Quran.”
INSURRECTO, by Gina Apostol. (Soho, $26.) Set in the Philippines, this novel raises provocative questions about history and hypocrisy as it follows two women with dueling modern-day film scripts about a colonial-era massacre. “Apostol has not only shredded the map and cast it out the window,” Jen McDonald writes in her review, “she has taken a grenade to the road and charted in its place a mind-bending, blazingly satirical course into a Philippines traumatized and forever altered by American arrogance and aggression.”
MY BROTHER’S HUSBAND: Volume 2, by Gengoroh Tagame. Translated by Anne Ishii. (Pantheon, $25.95.) A sweet satire of Japan’s taboo against gay marriage, this manga-style graphic novel is a sophisticated investigation into the nature of love, marriage, divorce, bereavement and nontraditional child-rearing. “Small hints of the erotic edge onto the pages, particularly in Tagame’s detailed drawings of men’s (mostly clothed) bodies,” Hillary Chute writes in her latest graphics column, “but this careful, good-natured, family-friendly story offers something for everybody — kids and adults alike — even as it introduces real complexity around sex and gender expectations.”
IN OUR MAD AND FURIOUS CITY, by Guy Gunaratne. (MCD/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, paper, $16.) This striking, Booker-longlisted debut unfolds over a few restless days in a working-class Northwest London suburb after a murder in the name of Islamic extremism (based on a true-life killing). Despite the rush of drama indicated by Gunaratne’s title, “his strengths are in the quieter details — of personal stories, nuanced characterizations and especially in his multivocal breadth of register,” our reviewer, Jon McGregor, writes. “Gunaratne has a gift for inhabiting the lives of his characters, and has used that gift here to give voice to Londoners who are not often seen in contemporary fiction.”
THE DAY THE SUN DIED, by Yan Lianke. Translated by Carlos Rojas. (Grove, $26.) This brutal satirical novel takes place on a single night, when a plague of somnambulism unleashes a host of suppressed emotions among the inhabitants of a Chinese village. The ensuing chaos is promptly struck from the official record. Reviewing it, Julian Gewirtz calls it a “gripping novel” that “forces readers to reflect on the side of the world that is ‘too absurd, too cruel and too unpleasant.’ … Yan’s subject is China, but he has condensed the human forces driving today’s global upheavals into a bracing, universal vision.”
TELL THEM OF BATTLES, KINGS, AND ELEPHANTS, by Mathias Énard. Translated by Charlotte Mandel. (New Directions, paper, $19.95.) In this intoxicating novel, set in 1506, Michelangelo sets up shop in Constantinople to design a bridge connecting Europe and Asia. Elisabeth Zerofsky, reviewing it alongside two other French novels, says that reading it “feels somehow radical in 2018, provoking a kind of wistfulness at the wonder and uncertainty that Michelangelo experiences in his confrontation with foreignness.”
SLEEP OF MEMORY, by Patrick Modiano. Translated by Mark Polizzotti. (Yale, $24.) The Nobel laureate’s dreamlike novels summon elusive, half-forgotten episodes. Here, that means Paris in the ’60s, love affairs, a flirtation with the occult and a shocking crime. “Modiano owes much to Proust,” Elisabeth Zerofsky writes in her review, “though his postmodern drifting is far easier to read; there is warmth to be drawn from those unbidden memories, reminiscences of attending a strange party on a cold winter night many years ago conjuring not so much regret as simple pleasure.”
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