15 New Books to Watch For in May

‘Freedom,’ by Sebastian Junger (Simon & Schuster, May 18)

In his past work, Junger has focused on the experience of U.S. troops, embedding with a platoon in Afghanistan and exploring post-traumatic stress disorder among veterans. His new book follows Junger and his companions — including a photographer and two Afghan War vets — as they walk along East Coast railroads, relying on one another for survival and comfort. As Junger writes about the meanings of freedom and community, he occasionally swerves into boxing strategy, labor history and primatology.

‘Heaven,’ by Mieko Kawakami. Translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd. (Europa Editions, May 25)

Kawakami’s earlier novel “Breasts and Eggs” won acclaim for its portrayal of women’s often circumscribed lives in Japan. In “Heaven,” she focuses on the friendship between two outcasts at school: a boy with a lazy eye and a female classmate who’s been relentlessly bullied.

‘On Juneteenth,’ by Annette Gordon-Reed (Liveright, May 4)

Gordon-Reed, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, is best known for her research about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, the enslaved woman with whom he had several children. Her new book is far more personal: a collection of essays about the country’s path to ending slavery in Texas and her own family’s long history in the state. As she notes, chattel slavery was “just a blink of an eye away from the years my grandparents and their friends were born.”

[ Read our review. ]

‘King Richard: Nixon and Watergate — An American Tragedy,’ by Michael Dobbs (Knopf, May 25)

Drawing on newly-released White House tapes, Dobbs gives a moment-by-moment accounting of the Watergate conspiracy. Readers meet Nixon on Inauguration Day, 1973, as “the son of the struggling Quaker grocer” was basking in his accomplishments: re-election, widespread popularity, the promise of a peace agreement with the government in North Vietnam. From there, the book charts his stunning decline.

‘Light Perpetual,’ by Francis Spufford (Scribner, May 18)

Inspired by the 1944 bombing of a Woolworth’s that killed 168 people, Spufford — whose last novel was “Golden Hill” — imagines how the lives of five children who died in the blast might have turned out if they had lived. The novel revisits each character roughly every 15 years, giving a window into postwar London throughout the decades.

‘The Lost Boys of Montauk: The True Story of the Wind Blown, Four Men Who Vanished at Sea, and the Survivors They Left Behind,’ by Amanda M. Fairbanks (Gallery Books, May 25)

In 1984, four fishermen set out from Long Island in search of tilefish, a trip that seemed straightforward enough — until a nor’easter, one of the worst storms in the area’s history, hit while they were on the water. Neither the boat nor the bodies of the men were found. Fairbanks, who interviewed the families of the men along with other local fishermen, weaves in a story of Montauk’s changing demographics as it shifted from “a drinking town with a fishing problem” to a hot spot for the wealthy.

‘Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment,’ by Daniel Kahneman, Olivier Sibony and Cass R. Sunstein (Little, Brown Spark, May 18)

What might cause a doctor to give different diagnoses to patients with the same symptoms? Why might a judge mete out vastly different sentences for comparable offenses? The authors, including Kahneman, a Nobel laureate known for his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” refer to this variability as noise, and show how it can affect everything from hiring decisions to asylum status. The book puts it simply: “Wherever there is judgment, there is noise — and more of it than you think.”

‘Notes on Grief,’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Knopf, May 11)

Building on an essay published in The New Yorker last year, Adichie writes about the death of her father in 2020 from kidney failure. She describes all the attendant emotions — guilt, anger, even something approaching madness — with ferocity and clarity. “Grief is not gauzy,” she says. “It is substantial, oppressive, a thing opaque.”

‘Phase Six,’ by Jim Shepard (Knopf, May 18)

Brace yourself: This deeply researched novel, written before Covid-19, imagines the world’s next pandemic. Two researchers from the C.D.C. go to Greenland to investigate a deadly pathogen that they believe was unwittingly picked up by Inuit boys. As the disease spreads, the novel pivots to survey the fallout from a number of vantage points: hospitals at capacity, public panic, media outcry.

‘The Plot,' by Jean Hanff Korelitz (Celadon, May 11)

Jake Bonner was once a promising young author, but his career has sputtered: He can’t find a publisher for his latest book and has resorted to teaching at a no-name M.F.A. program. A cocky student teases the story of his novel in progress, convinced that the premise will make it a best seller, and Jake grudgingly agrees. When the student dies, never having published the book, Jake seizes the story for himself. That’s only the beginning of the twists and turns in “The Plot,” which features a crooked Southern lawyer, a charming radio producer and a profoundly vexed mother-daughter relationship. Whoever said writers are boring?

‘The Premonition: A Pandemic Story,’ by Michael Lewis (Norton, May 4)

The author of “The Big Short” and “Moneyball,” Lewis focuses here on the United States’ response to Covid-19 over the past year. He grounds his narrative in three central characters — a biochemist, a public health worker and a federal employee — who, dismayed by the U.S. government’s response, worked to help avoid all-out catastrophe. Lewis called their work “a kind of secret shadow response” in an interview with The Times earlier this year.

‘Project Hail Mary,’ by Andy Weir (Ballantine, May 4)

Before he was portrayed by Matt Damon in the movie adaptation, the protagonist of Weir’s best-selling debut, “The Martian,” was stranded on Mars and had to improvise for survival. Weir’s new narrator, Ryland Grace, is also an astronaut in extremis: He’s floating around space with two dead bodies and can’t recall his own name. Slowly, he remembers why he’s on a spacecraft — and the nature of his mission, which is to defeat an existential threat to the human species.

‘Second Place,’ by Rachel Cusk (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, May 4)

Cusk, perhaps best known as the author of the Outline trilogy, returns with a new novel that raises questions about art, privilege and literature. The central character, M, invites a male painter, L, to stay in her guesthouse — the “second place” of the title. His arrival upsets the balance of her family and threatens to destabilize M.

[ Read our review. ]

‘Things We Lost to the Water,’ by Eric Nguyen (Knopf, May 4)

In this debut novel, Huong arrives in New Orleans with her two sons, Tuan and Binh, hoping their father will soon come over from Vietnam. He doesn’t, though, and the story follows mother and sons over the decades — Binh chooses to go by Ben and explores his sexuality, Tuan joins a local Vietnamese gang — until a secret rattles the family’s foundation.

‘While Justice Sleeps,’ by Stacey Abrams (Doubleday, May 11)

Abrams isn’t just a politician and voting rights activist. She also writes books — to date, several romance novels. Now, she’s expanded into thriller territory. Avery Keene, a Black Supreme Court law clerk, is rattled when the justice she works for falls into a coma — and is even more surprised to learn he made her his guardian and granted her power of attorney. Come for the dizzying array of plotlines — murders, a merger, illicit relationships — and stay for the high-octane action.

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