I heard from an old friend the other day, whose livelihood and whole way of life have been disrupted by the pandemic. It’s not all bad news, though: Among other things, he writes, he has detached from the internet “almost entirely” and is “fleeing into study of 15th-century Italy.” That’s been his Covid silver lining; mine has been less time on the train and more time reading on the beach. Hey, it’s work.
We don’t have any books on 15th-century Italy to recommend this week — sorry, Chris! — but we do have a couple that should encourage you to spend less time online: Alec MacGillis’s “Fulfillment” takes a hard look at Amazon’s impact on America’s culture and communities, and Kevin Roose’s “Future Proof” examines the ways technology controls us instead of vice versa. We also like a study of Pittsburgh’s shift from steel to health care, a history of the Barbizon women’s hotel in Manhattan and a deep dive into the most fundamental question of life science: What is life?
In fiction, our recommended books include a career-spanning selection of stories from the venerable John Edgar Wideman, a novel of transnational adoption by Jessica Winter and four exciting debuts, about everything from chickens to 1970s pop music.
Senior Editor, Books
YOU MADE ME LOVE YOU: Selected Stories, 1981-2018, by John Edgar Wideman. (Scribner, $30.) Postindustrial Pittsburgh is the locus of many of Wideman’s novels and memoirs, and its texture and sociology burn a hole through the stories in this collection. In them, the healing richness of family life, and of family stories, renders unbearable experiences bearable. Wideman’s narrators “remain in close emotional contact with the cringing, the alienation, the clowning, the wariness, the self-mistrust and self-satire that came with growing up poor and Black in Pittsburgh,” our critic Dwight Garner writes. “Wideman’s stories have a wary, brooding spirit, a lonely intelligence. They carry a real but atrophied affection for America.”
THE NEXT SHIFT: The Fall of Industry and the Rise of Health Care in Rust Belt America, by Gabriel Winant. (Harvard University, $35.) The replacement of blue-collar work by health care work has been much discussed, but what makes Winant’s book stand out is his argument that these two seemingly distinct phenomena are in fact inextricably connected. Winant traces the surprising story of how all this happened, taking Pittsburgh as his focus. His book is “an original work of serious scholarship, but it’s also vivid and readable,” our critic Jennifer Szalai writes. “Winant has an eye for the telling, and occasionally crushing, detail.”
LIFE’S EDGE: The Search for What It Means to Be Alive, by Carl Zimmer. (Dutton, $28.) Zimmer’s book tackles some of biology’s hardest questions: What is life? How did it begin? And what criteria should we even use to call something “living”? From metabolism to sentience to evolution to our current focus on DNA, Zimmer takes the reader on an elegant, deeply researched tour. “Zimmer is an astute, engaging writer — inserting the atmospheric anecdote where applicable, drawing out a scientific story and bringing laboratory experiments to life,” Siddhartha Mukherjee writes in his review. “This book is not just about life, but about discovery itself. It is about error and hubris, but also about wonder and the reach of science.”
OF WOMEN AND SALT, by Gabriela Garcia. (Flatiron, $26.99.) The women in Garcia’s striking debut novel are connected not just by blood but by the need to endure or escape abusive relationships and countries. She captures the hope and pain of immigration and the terror of deportation with an unsentimental yet empathetic eye. “The novel has the rhythm of a linked story collection, a structure that effectively emphasizes the disconnections and breaks that have shaped these characters,” Danielle Evans writes in her review. “The connections that survive do so in compelling ways. … The depiction of the women in Jeanette and Carmen’s family is confident and layered, capturing their decencies and failings.”
THE FINAL REVIVAL OF OPAL & NEV, by Dawnie Walton. (37INK/Simon & Schuster, $27.) In Walton’s debut novel — written as the oral history of an iconic 1970s pop duo — a magazine editor learns that her late father, a musician himself, may have been involved in one of their most notorious episodes and pivotal to their eventual breakup. “With artful juxtaposition and Zelig-like placement of made-up characters with real ones,” Alexandra Jacobs writes in her review, “the author has conjured an entire oeuvre of lyrics, licks and liner notes that is backdrop for some of the most pressing political issues of our era, or any era. … Like the best fiction, it feels truer and more mesmerizing than some true stories. It’s a packed time capsule that doubles as a stick of dynamite.”
FUTURE PROOF: 9 Rules for Humans in the Age of Automation, by Kevin Roose. (Random House, $27.) This concise, insightful and sophisticated guide to maintaining humane values in a new machine age looks at the surprising potential, and equally surprising limits, of automated intelligence, and offers ways for people and organizations to respond. James Fallows, reviewing it alongside another book about technology (Cade Metz’s “Genius Makers”), says that “the most eloquent parts of the book come when Roose moves from preserving livelihoods to protecting basic humanity. Social-media algorithms, he points out, are ever more precisely honed to attract and hold your attention. Click on the next video, scroll to the next tweet. Thus technology becomes humanity’s master, rather than the reverse.”
FULFILLMENT: Winning and Losing in One-Click America, by Alec MacGillis. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $28.) MacGillis’s urgent book highlights the grip Amazon has on the United States, from the ground level — in the inhumane working conditions of the warehouse and in rural towns upended by deindustrialization — to the gilded halls of Washington, D.C., where the company’s lobbyists flock. “In MacGillis’s account, Amazon’s power centers on its willingness to influence politics on any scale, whether local or national,” our reviewer, Xiaowei Wang, writes. “Unlike the immediate, visible crises of natural disaster and war, the uncertainty and harsh economic conditions created by this one company are a simmering, slow death.”
THE BARBIZON: The Hotel That Set Women Free, by Paulina Bren. (Simon & Schuster, $27.) Bren’s savvy account of the Manhattan residence for single women famous for its talented young clientele (and memorialized in Sylvia Plath’s autobiographical novel “The Bell Jar”) doubles as a cultural history of female ambition in the 20th century. “Bren draws on an impressive amount of archival research, and pays tender attention to each of the women she profiles,” Moira Donegan writes in her review. “Was the Barbizon’s single-sex rule a liberating protection, or a confining trap? Bren sees the hotel only as what it was for its residents: the best option available to them at the time.”
THE FOURTH CHILD, by Jessica Winter. (Harper/HarperCollins, $26.99.) This intense, heartfelt novel features a Buffalo, N.Y., family that adopts a daughter from Romania. The decision has far-reaching aftershocks for the older siblings, especially a daughter who has struggled to find her footing in her mother’s faith-centered world. “Winter’s greatest accomplishment,” according to our reviewer, Mary Beth Keane, “is that she takes on enormous, highly charged topics — faith, the right to choose, female identity — and presents a story without one shred of moralizing.”
BURNT SUGAR, by Avni Doshi. (Overlook, $26.) This remarkable debut novel, about a young Indian woman saddled with the care of her ailing and abusive mother, inflicts a visceral punch. In spare and exacting prose, Doshi documents the petty cruelties and helpless dependency of a primal relationship in disarray. “Doshi’s sentences are sharply drawn and devastatingly precise,” Souvankham Thammavongsa writes in her review. “There is never a wasted word, no debris, no flourish to hide behind. A voice this unadorned, and blunt, is so hauntingly stubborn and original, you want to hear from it again and again.”
BROOD, by Jackie Polzin. (Doubleday, $24.) A debut novel about chickens? Yes, indeed. And it’s full of nuance and humor, not to mention the very human travails of their grieving owner. The author has a gift for detail and an eye for the way little creatures can absorb and sometimes erase our worries. “Polzin writes beautifully about chickens; she is lovingly cleareyed about their ‘idiocy’ and their dearness,” Elizabeth McCracken writes in her review. “She writes beautifully about everything: the sound of melting snow at the end of a Minnesota winter; a forgotten container of orange sherbet frosted over; private emotion. … It’s a pleasure to see what Polzin sees.”
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