12 New Books We Recommend This Week

At the National Book Awards on Wednesday night, Tamara Payne accepted the nonfiction prize for “The Dead Are Arising” — a biography of Malcolm X that her father, Les Payne, had worked on for three decades before he died in 2018, leaving Tamara to bring the project to completion. “This is such a bittersweet moment,” she said at the live-streamed ceremony. “I really wish my father was here for this. … Les Payne decided to write ‘The Dead Are Arising,’ a book that would bring one of the most important Americans of the 20th century into clearer focus, to show not just his family but the world in which he was born, to provide context for the man who more than any other leader of the 1960s moved Blacks to consider who we are, from whence we come and to plan for what we could become.”

“The Dead Are Arising” is one of our recommended books this week, along with a couple of other biographies: one of Abraham Lincoln, the other of the poet Adrienne Rich. We also like some autobiographies, by the painter Celia Paul and the novelist Claire Messud (who offers “an autobiography in essays”) and a memoir of postpartum mental illness by the writer Catherine Cho. Want more? There’s a look at what we know about Covid-19 so far, and a history of a secret European language, and an ambitious, expansive anthology of African-American poetry covering more than two centuries. And in fiction, there are two impressive story collections (by Nicole Krauss and Danielle Evans) and K-Ming Chang’s fantastical debut novel, “Bestiary,” about generations of Taiwanese women and the magical creatures they become.

Gregory Cowles
Senior Editor, Books
Twitter: @GregoryCowles

THE POWER OF ADRIENNE RICH: A Biography, by Hilary Holladay. (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $32.50.) Adrienne Rich’s poems, in books like “The Dream of a Common Language,” were essential to second-wave feminists and have continued to be so for many others. The biographer Hilary Holladay is a sensitive reader of Rich’s work. She also explicates Rich’s windswept moods and her forceful and complicated sexuality. This book “allows us to meet this prickly poet fresh and entire,” our critic Dwight Garner writes. “It’s the first proper biography of her, and there’s a lot to unpack. This is a good story well-told.”

AFRICAN AMERICAN POETRY: 250 Years of Struggle & Song, edited by Kevin Young. (Library of America, $45.) This anthology is a monumental tribute to persistence, from the colonial period to the present. It features poems on injustice, harassment and hunger, but also rapturous odes to music and food, beauty and boredom, and many other subjects. Alongside iconic literary figures, it surfaces lesser-known writers and interrogates why their work went missing. “It is overwhelming to contemplate the variety and history contained in this volume,” our critic Parul Sehgal writes. “The poems gathered here have the force of event.”

SELF-PORTRAIT, by Celia Paul. New York Review Books, $29.95.) In this beautifully illustrated memoir, the British painter Celia Paul writes about her life and her work — or, more precisely, her attempts to realize the possibilities of each despite the constraints thrown up by the other. Paul was 18 in 1978 when she met Lucian Freud, who was 55 at the time. They were lovers for 10 years, and had a son together. “Paul’s powers of observation are keen and often ruthless,” our critic Jennifer Szalai writes, “but she never resorts to the language of self-pity — even when a reader might expect her to.” The total effect of the memoir is “captivating.”

APOLLO’S ARROW: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live, by Nicholas A. Christakis. (Little, Brown Spark, $29.) In one of the first book-length efforts to grapple with the Covid-19 crisis, Christakis takes a panoramic approach, explaining the science but also sweeping across the grief, fear and lies that make a pandemic emotionally as well as medically punishing. David Quammen, reviewing it, calls it “a useful contribution to this initial wave of Covid books, sensible and comprehensive, intelligent and well sourced.”

TO BE A MAN: Stories, by Nicole Krauss. (Harper/HarperCollins, $26.99.) The themes of Krauss’s first story collection echo those she has previously explored in four well-received novels; in these moving stories we feel the weight not only of family, but of history and faith and leaving a legacy, pressing down on every one of her characters. “Despite the common threads, Krauss still somehow seems to have invented a new form for each novel, each story — their characters so fully realized that Krauss’s deft authorial hand is rarely evident,” Molly Antopol writes in her review. “Her characters seem to dictate how their own stories ought to be told.”

ABE: Abraham Lincoln in His Times, by David S. Reynolds. (Penguin Press, $45.) In this prodigious and lucid “cultural biography,” Reynolds draws on a lifetime of Civil War scholarship to show a Lincoln whose character and thought were shaped by the cultural and social forces swirling through America during his era. “More character study than narrative biography, this Lincoln portrait, fully 932 pages of text, goes further than most previous studies in probing the complexities and nuances of the man,” our reviewer, Robert W. Merry, writes: “his tastes, likes, dislikes, the quality of his thinking, the evolution of his ideas — all shaped and molded by the society around him.”

KANT’S LITTLE PRUSSIAN HEAD & OTHER REASONS WHY I WRITE: An Autobiography in Essays, by Claire Messud. (Norton, $25.95.) These ruminative and wide-ranging essays explore Messud’s growth as a person and as a thoughtful literary citizen. Along the way she delves into the durability of art, the impermanence of human circumstances and the tenacity of memory. Frank Bruni, in his review, applauds her “great talent for enlarging the context of whatever she’s writing about and weaving in astute bits of broader commentary,” and her “even greater talent for bringing her essays to a poignant, haunting close, with a few final phrases that distill the meaning of all that preceded them and send a kind of shudder through your mind and heart. If she were a gymnast, she’d be renowned for sticking her landings.”

THE LANGUAGE OF THIEVES: My Family’s Obsession With a Secret Code the Nazis Tried to Eliminate, by Martin Puchner. (Norton, $26.95.) This fascinating account of Rotwelsch — a mix of Hebrew, Yiddish and German used for centuries by itinerant Europeans — draws on the author’s family history and delves into Nazi efforts to stamp out the language. “It is a deeply personal project, one that probes the meaning of language and family, inheritance and debt,” Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim writes in her review. “Puchner’s enthusiasm … inspires illuminating detours into subjects like the history of Esperanto and the birth of simultaneous interpretation at the Nuremberg trials.”

THE DEAD ARE ARISING: The Life of Malcolm X, by Les Payne and Tamara Payne. (Liveright, $35.) Thirty years in the making, this magisterial biography of Malcolm X (which won this year’s National Book Award in nonfiction) was completed by Les Payne’s daughter after his death in 2018. Its strengths lie in its finely shaded, penetrating portrait of the Black activist and thinker, whose legacy continues to resonate today. The book “is not a tribute or enshrinement of achievements,” Michael P. Jeffries writes in his review. “Instead, it reconstructs the conditions and key moments of Malcolm’s life, thanks to hundreds of original interviews with his family, friends, colleagues and adversaries. Nobody has written a more poetic account.”

BESTIARY, by K-Ming Chang. (One World, $27.) The poet’s debut novel offers up a different kind of immigrant narrative, full of magic realism that reaches down your throat, grabs hold of your guts and forces a slow reckoning with what it means to be a foreigner, a native, a mother, a daughter — and all the things in between. The book “floats in and out of fantasy, layering its airy legends of imaginary creatures with the grounding reality of building a life in a new country, of severing the ties with your past so you can lay claim to a future you can call your own,” Amil Niazi writes in her review. “At the same time that it lays bare the ground that shaped this particular family, ‘Bestiary’ also paints a portrait of Taiwanese identity, poking at the various histories and horrors that built the island and its citizens.”

INFERNO: A Memoir of Motherhood and Madness, by Catherine Cho. (Holt, $26.99.) A few months after her son was born, Cho landed in a psychiatric hospital, where she struggled to remember who she was. Her powerful memoir mounts a comprehensive inquiry into the factors that make new mothers vulnerable to mental illness. “‘Inferno’ is a disturbing and masterfully told memoir, but it’s also an important one that pushes back against powerful taboos,” Kim Brooks writes in her review. “Discussions of severe mental illness in mothers continue to induce discomfort and judgment in those who have never experienced it, and embarrassment and shame in those who have. The persistence of such stigmas makes memoirs like Cho’s all the more courageous.”

THE OFFICE OF HISTORICAL CORRECTIONS, by Danielle Evans. (Riverhead, $27.) Evans’s new stories present rich plots reflecting on race relations, grief and love. She is particularly gifted at drawing complex female characters. “The author rewrites the official record by way of fiction,” Jane Hu writes, reviewing the book alongside three other story collections. “Literature offers a kind of corrective to history by drawing these figures into the foreground. Evans’s propulsive narratives read as though they’re getting away with something, building what feel like novelistic plots onto the short story’s modest real estate.”

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