From Sarajevo to New York to Damascus to San Francisco, cities are prominent among this week’s recommended titles: their architecture, their landmarks, their roiling energy and occasional descents into chaos or lawlessness. The real estate journalist Julie Satow delivers a portrait of New York’s iconic Plaza Hotel, once owned by Donald Trump and forever ruled by the fictional Eloise. In twin memoirs, the novelist Aleksandar Hemon (now a Chicagoan) looks back on his childhood in 1970s Sarajevo, before that city was irrevocably altered by war. In “The White Devil’s Daughters,” Julia Flynn Siler offers a history of San Francisco’s Chinatown and the heroic struggle to banish sexual slavery there. And in “Assad or We Burn the Country,” the foreign correspondent Sam Dagher writes about his time in Damascus and the damage the Assad regime has unleashed on Syria.
We also suggest a couple of newly translated novels by the Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg, along with a surreal story collection by Karen Russell and comic novels by Leah Hager Cohen (about a wedding in upstate New York) and Randy Boyagoda (about a college professor turned suicide bomber). Fans of Kate Atkinson’s crime novels probably know that she has a new Jackson Brodie mystery out, but the rest of you should check it out too. Finally, Nigel Hamilton completes his trilogy of biographies about Franklin Roosevelt as a wartime president, and Douglas Brinkley retraces the path to Apollo 11 just in time for the 50th anniversary of the moon landing.
Senior Editor, Books
THE DRY HEART, by Natalia Ginzburg. Translated by Frances Frenaye. (New Directions, paper, $12.95.) HAPPINESS, AS SUCH, by Natalia Ginzburg. Translated by Minna Zallman Proctor. (New Directions, paper, $15.95.) Ginzburg died in 1991, celebrated as one of the great Italian writers. Her work is making its way again into the Anglophone world — encouraged, perhaps, by the popularity of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, which have something in common with the uncompromising feminism and radical politics of these slender novels. (In “The Dry Heart,” the narrator shoots her husband between the eyes; in “Happiness, as Such,” a firebrand son flees to England.) “Where does style come from? Is it knowingly constructed or unconsciously secreted? Invented or inherited?” our critic Parul Sehgal writes. “These questions dog me whenever I read Ginzburg, whose thumbprint is so unmistakable, so inscribed by her time, yet whose work stands so solidly that it requires no background information to appreciate.”
MY PARENTS: AN INTRODUCTION/THIS DOES NOT BELONG TO YOU, by Aleksandar Hemon. (MCD, $28.) In this two-in-one autobiographical volume — the book has two front covers, and its halves have been placed back-to-back rather than sequentially — the Bosnian-born Hemon writes about his parents and his own youth in 1970s Sarajevo. His parents eventually emigrated to Canada, while Hemon settled in Chicago. “Like Hemon’s fiction, the real-life stories in ‘My Parents’ are so exquisitely constructed that their scaffolding is invisible,” our critic Jennifer Szalai writes. “You get the sense that he is trying to understand his parents in a way that his younger self did not.”
AMERICAN MOONSHOT: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race, by Douglas Brinkley. (Harper/HarperCollins, $35.) In his study of the politics behind Apollo 11’s launch, Brinkley fits the space program into a wider American social context. He also asks whether the program was worth the tens of billions it cost, and argues that for its technological advances alone, it was. Our reviewer, the historian Jill Lepore, evaluates the book alongside a stack of other titles being published to coincide with the moon landing’s 50th anniversary, and calls it “the best new study of the American mission to space, rich in research and revelation.”
ORIGINAL PRIN, by Randy Boyagoda. (John Metcalf/Biblioasis, paper, $14.95.) This highly original novel traces an unexceptional professor’s path to becoming a suicide bomber. The comedy of literary and cultural references involves serious matters like cancer, a crisis of faith and Islamic terrorism, as well as easier comic subjects like juice-box fatherhood and academia. “Boyagoda finds dark absurdities in all corners,” Tom Barbash writes in his review. “Without revealing how suicide bombing figures into the final act of the book, it’s enough to say that it fits into Boyagoda’s absurdist design and raises … some of the book’s most fascinating questions about fanaticism and the state of the modern world.”
BIG SKY, by Kate Atkinson. (Little, Brown, $28.) After a nine-year absence, Atkinson’s laconic private eye, Jackson Brodie, returns to deliver his idiosyncratic brand of justice in a case involving human trafficking. Marilyn Stasio, reviewing the book in her latest crime column, says that “Atkinson is writing about major crimes and strong themes here, but it’s the voices of her characters that make you clutch your heart: people like Crystal, an abused woman who prefers ‘quiet men with low opinions of themselves,’ and Bunny, a drag queen dreaming of a triumphant stage appearance.”
THE PLAZA: The Secret Life of America’s Most Famous Hotel, by Julie Satow. (Twelve, $29.) Satow’s gossip-stuffed tale traces the history of one of New York’s most iconic landmarks, the imposing white chateau at the corner of 59th and Fifth. “A great hotel is a theater of dreams,” Tina Brown writes in her review, “and Julie Satow, a journalist who covers New York real estate, digs deep into the forces that took the Plaza from a living center of aspiring social connection tied to the fortunes of American high society to its present status in an atomized era of pitiless transactional globalism.”
THE WHITE DEVIL’S DAUGHTERS: The Women Who Fought Slavery in San Francisco’s Chinatown, by Julia Flynn Siler. (Knopf, $28.95.) From the Gold Rush to the 1930s, a sex slave trade flourished in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Siler’s colorful history includes portraits of the determined women who helped thousands of Chinese girls escape to freedom. “She focuses commendable attention on exemplary but overlooked figures,” our reviewer, Gary Kamiya, writes, and “also spotlights several men who played an important role in the struggle for civil rights and equal opportunities for Chinese and Chinese-Americans.”
ORANGE WORLD: And Other Stories, by Karen Russell. (Knopf, $25.95.) Florida is the original or adopted home of some of America’s most inventive fiction writers, Russell prominent among them. Her new collection is a feat of literary alchemy, channeling her home state’s weirdness into unexpectedly affecting fantastical scenarios and landscapes. Reviewing it, Emily St. John Mandel takes note of “Russell’s abiding interest in the surreal and the strange”: “Striking a balance between realism and artifice is a difficult task for any fiction writer,” Mandel writes, but “in ‘Orange World’ the strangeness is never forced, the surrealism always grounded in recognizable emotion and experience.”
STRANGERS AND COUSINS, by Leah Hager Cohen. (Riverhead, $27.) Cheerful and lively, Cohen’s new novel — set at an anarchic family gathering in rural New York — packs a lot of themes into its satisfyingly simple frame. As in a Shakespearean comedy, disparate relationships are resolved and familial love prevails. Cohen aims “to highlight issues of loss and family secrets, as well as the pleasures and dangers of pageantry,” Sylvia Brownrigg writes in her review. “The novel’s ultimate plea,” she adds, is “for acceptance, of others and of ourselves.”
WAR AND PEACE: FDR’s Final Odyssey, D-Day to Yalta, 1943-1945, by Nigel Hamilton. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30.) The final volume in the “F.D.R. at War” trilogy presents a heroic Roosevelt fending off myopic advisers to lead the Allies to victory. Peter Baker, reviewing it, says the book is “as gripping and powerfully argued as the first two” in the trilogy; he adds that the Roosevelt in these pages is “an all-knowing demigod, at once judicious and cunning, so visionary that he devoted much of his energy in the final chapters of the war to what would follow. … Hamilton argues, fairly enough, that no one did more to create a global structure that might forestall a third world war.”
ASSAD OR WE BURN THE COUNTRY: How One Family’s Lust for Power Destroyed Syria, by Sam Dagher. (Little, Brown, $29.) Dagher draws on history, interviews and his own experience as a reporter in Syria to depict an utterly ruthless regime. The author is “open about his detestation of the Assad family and all their works, which he observed at close hand for two years,” Patrick Cockburn writes in his review. “He was briefly held by pro-regime militiamen in an underground prison and was summarily expelled by the Mukhabarat in 2014. This gives his description of events a credibility lacking in many other accounts.”
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