10 new books we recommend this week
There’s a character in Adam White’s first novel, “The Midcoast,” who at some point begins to resent his small-town situation and decides to do something about it. “She went to the library,” writes White, “and began to peruse all types of books – romance novels, spy novels, biographies, memoirs, history books, cookbooks – anything that is printed.” That’s my kind of character, I thought when I reached that bit, and if that’s your kind of character too, you could do worse than add “The Midcoast” (think “Ozark” meets ” The Great Gatsby” in Maine) to your reading list this week.
Other novels we recommend include Katharine Schellman’s Jazz Age Mystery, Karen Jennings’ Booker-nominated story of a lighthouse keeper in Africa, Jennifer Weiner’s story of a wedding in Cape Cod and Katie Runde’s debut, “The Shore,” about a New Jersey family preparing for the death of their sick father. In non-fiction, our recommended titles include a biography of a pioneering surgeon, a cultural history of Fire Island, two books on America’s political divisions, and Jhumpa Lahiri’s memoir of his immersion in the Italian language. Good reading.
THE FACEMAKER: A Visionary Surgeon’s Battle to Repair Disfigured WWI Soldiers, by Lindsey Fitzharris. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $30.) Fitzharris chronicles the life and work of pioneering reconstructive surgeon Harold Gillies, a specialist in repairing those who survived the mechanized slaughter of World War I but were left with disfigured faces. Gillies, at least as portrayed here, was innovative, dynamic and hopeful, with an encouraging bedside manner that was just as impressive as his technical skills. As a story of medical advances and extraordinary achievement, “The Facemaker” is “macabre but inspiring,” writes our reviewer Jennifer Szalai.
LAST CALL AT NIGHTINGALE, by Katharine Schellman. (Minotaur, $27.99.) In this bubbly and mysterious first series – set in Manhattan in 1924 – a young seamstress named Vivian spends her evenings in a champagne-soaked speakeasy, until a man is found dead outside and she decides to investigate the murder. “What follows is a veritable journey through the demi-monde, populated by the idle and dangerous rich and the desperate and hungry poor, all with motive and means to kill,” Sarah Weinman writes in her latest crime column. “Vivian is a formidable, courageous and resourceful character, determined to choreograph a different life for herself.”
AN ISLAND, by Karen Jennings. (Hogarth, $25.) In the South African author’s first novel published in the United States, a reclusive old lighthouse keeper living on an island somewhere south of the continent meets a living stranded refugee, who treats him with a trust and even a kindness that he can’t perceive or hope to return. The novel “is beautifully and parsimoniously constructed,” writes Lydia Millet in her review. “In flashbacks to Samuel’s coming of age and then his torturous captivity, Jennings paints a stark, stripped-down portrait of the dark family dynamics and social conditions that made him who he is.”
THE MIDDLE COAST, by Adam White. (Hogarth, $27.) Set in the foggy town of Damariscotta, Maine, White’s vivid debut novel traces the trajectory of a lobster family from humble beginnings to the pinnacle of a small-town criminal empire. It also highlights the types of people and attitudes produced by Maine, with its jarring juxtapositions of poverty and wealth. The book “demonstrates a need to know the unknowable, to place the chaos of disintegration and violence into some sort of order,” Lee Cole writes in his review. “Overflowing with careful observation, not just of landscape, but of dialect and class distinctions and all of the vital tiny particulars that make a place a reality in fiction, ‘The Midcoast’ is a captivating look at small town Maine and the thwarted dreams of a family trying to transcend it.
TRANSLATE ME AND TRANSLATE OTHERS, by Jhumpa Lahiri. (Princeton University, $21.95.) At the age of 45, Lahiri, the famous Indian American writer, decided to start writing in Italian. This memoir, told with passion and insight, addresses questions that are as much philosophical as they are technical. “His quest for Italian is about something far more important than synonyms, dictionaries, or names,” writes Benjamin Moser in his review. “The study of this foreign language is, or can be, a liberation, says Lahiri: ‘I write in Italian to feel free.'”
THE SUMMER PLACE, by Jennifer Weiner. (Atria, $28.99.) As a Cape Cod wedding approaches, family secrets bubble to the surface and threaten to upend not only the nuptials, but also the trust of generations. A meditation on mothers and daughters, Weiner’s latest novel also explores class conflict, identity issues and real estate dramas. In a mixed review, Michelle Ruiz praises the family’s indignant novelist matriarch, as well as Weiner’s willingness to eschew sentimental visions of motherhood in favor of more complicated ambivalence: “It’s the kind of biting, delicious, and terrifyingly human revelation that makes for beachy reading,” Ruiz writes.
LIBERALISM AND ITS DISCONVENTIONS, by Francis Fukuyama. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26.) The celebrated political philosopher raises serious questions about how liberal democracy has worked for generations in America and around the world, and calls for a new centrism, both individual and communal, to ensure the survival of liberalism. “Fukuyama writes with crystalline rationality,” writes Joe Klein in a review that also considers Yascha Mounk’s “The Great Experiment” (below). “Both authors suggest that some form of national service could be a way to heal national wounds. … But Fukuyama scorns what he calls “a long list” of policy proposals and, rather elegantly, settles for an appeal for moderation.
THE GREAT EXPERIENCE: Why various democracies are collapsing and how they can endure, by Yascha Mounk. (Penguin Press, $28.) Although Mounk is concerned about growing inequalities and identity politics, he argues for optimism, advocating for diversity and inclusion. “Mounk argues persuasively that progress has been made,” writes Joe Klein in his review. “Undoubtedly, it will be a challenge to overcome the encrustations of monopoly power and racial enmity, political gridlock and media cynicism. But a feeling of helplessness is essential for the enemies of liberalism. Proponents of various democracies, writes Mounk, “will also have to keep the pessimists among them in check.”
ISLAND OF FIRE: A century in the life of an American paradise, by Jack Parlet. (Hannover Square, $27.99.) Parlett’s concise and personal story of the legendary gay enclave off the south shore of Long Island draws everyone from Walt Whitman to Andy Warhol, but never turns into a sepia-toned exercise in nostalgia. Wayne Koestenbaum, reviewing it, calls the book a “meticulously researched, century-spanning chronicle of queer life” that “captures, with a simple yet lyrical touch, the power of place to stun and to shame, to give pleasure and to symbolize evanescence.”
THE SHORE, by Katie Runde. (Scribner, $26.99.) In Runde’s heartfelt and bittersweet beginnings, a New Jersey family prepares for the death of their beloved father, who has an aggressive form of brain cancer. The subject is difficult, but the moments of lightness are not lacking. “This is Katie Runde’s first novel, and she writes with a fluid sensitivity to detail and mood, tackling difficult issues head-on,” Judy Blundell writes in her review. “It’s absorbing, lucid and true. Anyone who has lost someone little will recognize the struggle to overcome despair and affirm the stubborn endurance of love.