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Thornton profiles 33 artists from around the world, including Ai Weiwei and Cindy Sherman, and shares their perceptions of what it means to be an artist now.
The Secret History of Wonder Woman. By Jill Lepore. Knopf, $29.95 (9780385354042).
Charles Moulton’s life story is almost as outlandish as the tales he wrote about his creation, the comic-book superhero Wonder Woman, and historian Lepore revels in every surprising revelation in this inquiry into the origins and influence of an enduring feminist icon.
BiographyBrando’s Smile: His Life, Thought, and Work. By Susan L. Mizruchi. Norton, $27.95 (9780393082869).
This is a rich look at actor Marlon Brando’s comments in his much-loved collection of some 4,000 books; Mizruchi writes frankly, smartly, and wittily in exploring “the Brando that was not visible to the world in order to better understand the one that was.”
Charlie Chaplin: A Brief Life. By Peter Ackroyd. Doubleday/Nan A. Talese, $25.95 (9780385537377).This title, the fifth in Ackroyd’s Brief Life series, is detailed yet breezy, full of sharp insights into Chaplin’s public and private personae.
The Crusades of Cesar Chavez. By Miriam Pawel. Bloomsbury, $35 (9781608197101).
In her insightful and dramatic biography, Pawel tells the complete, complex story of the vision, perseverance, and struggles of innovative and daring migrant rights activist Chavez. The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. By Walter Isaacson. Simon & Schuster, $35 (9781476708690).The author manages to bring together the entire universe of computing, from the first digitized loom to the web, presented in a very accessible manner that often readers like a thriller. John Quincy Adams: American Visionary. By Fred Kaplan. Harper, $29.99 (9780061915413).A failed president is the popular conception of the sixth chief executive of the U.S., but Kaplan’s open mind as he diligently researched this much-maligned figure and conceived the biographical picture he would construct based on his wide reading and study results in a much broader understanding.
Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces. By Miles J. Unger. Simon & Schuster, $29.95 (9781451678741).
Focusing on six masterpieces, including David and The Last Judgment, Unger shows how Michelangelo fashioned a dynamic new identity for the artist as revolutionary. A masterful portrait of a dauntingly complex figure.
A Royal Experiment: The Private Life of King George III. By Janice Hadlow. Holt, $35 (9780805096569).
The author asserts that George III of Great Britain had as his primary mission upon his elevation to the throne to be a new kind of king; how he succeeded is the meat of this completely accessible revisionist biography.
Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space. By Lynn Sherr. Simon & Schuster, $28 (9781476725765).
Sherr sensitively portrays America’s first woman in space, detailing the pressures Ride faced in a male-dominated realm, the enormity of her commitment and accomplishments, and her work to bring more women to science.
The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League. By Jeff Hobbs. Scribner, $27 (9781476731902).
Hobbs’ former Yale roommate, Robert Peace, struggled to navigate the clashing cultures of urban poverty and Ivy League privilege, and Hobbs slowly reveals Peace as far more than a cliché of amazing potential squandered.
The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War. By Tim Butcher. Grove, $25 (9780802123251).
Butcher, who covered the 1990s Balkans conflict, returns to the region to literally retrace the steps of young Gavrilo Princip, who at age 19 assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and triggered WWI. Top-notch reporting by a journalist who knows the lay of the land, then and now.
Victoria. By A. N. Wilson. Penguin, $36 (9781594205996).
It’s not that the longest-reigning monarch in British history has not been written about before, it’s just that few if any previous biographers have viewed Queen Victoria as incisively and absorbingly as Wilson does.
Health & Medicine
Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. By Atul Gawande. Holt/Metropolitan, $26 (9780805095159).
Surgeon Gawande confronts the contemporary experience of aging and dying, which can be frustrating, expensive, and harsh, and suggests more thoughtful approaches.
The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution. By Jonathan Eig. Norton, $27.95 (9780393073720).
Eig’s engrossing, unsettling chronicle of the birth control pill’s creation features epic need, strong personalities, radical convictions, crazy risks, and world-altering scientific and social breakthroughs. History
In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeanette. By Hampton Sides. Doubleday, $28.95 (9780385535373).
In July 1879, the ill-fated USS Jeannette set sail with a crew of 32 men for uncharted waters, but the men were ultimately forced to find their way across ice floes, 1,000 miles from Siberia, and Sides renders their struggle in a completely thrilling saga of survival in unbelievably harsh conditions.
Lines of Descent: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Emergence of Identity. By Kwame Anthony Appiah. Harvard, $18.95 (9780674724914).
In this splendid book, Appiah explores Du Bois’ works and the struggle behind them as Du Bois used all the analytical tools of sociology yet lived the tortures of racism, even more so because his education and personal elegance did not exempt him from its indignities.
The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words, 1000 BC–1492 AD. By Simon Schama. Ecco, $39.99 (9780060539184).The first of a planned two-volume work, this part covers the development of Judaism and the Jewish people from their first stirring of a sense of a national identity up to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David. By Lawrence Wright. Knopf, $27.95 (9780385352031).This book is a lucid and, at times, quite moving testament that invites optimism even as today’s prospects for regional peace seem quite bleak indeed.
Philosophy and Psychology
Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away. By Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. Pantheon, $29.95 (9780307378194).
Brilliantly re-creating Plato’s dialogues, Goldstein transports the ancient Greek philosopher to the twenty-first-century headquarters of Google, where his probing voice engages three modern hosts in exploring what knowledge means in an age of computerized crowd-sourcing. Plato lives!Poetry
Gabriel. By Edward Hirsch. Knopf, $26.95 (9780385353571).
Hirsch tells the grueling, sometimes funny, and, finally, tragic story of the life and death of his son, Gabriel, in a commanding and propulsive book-length poem that will deeply engage readers.
Poetry of Witness: The Tradition in English, 1500–2001. Ed. by Carolyn Forché and Duncan Wu. Norton, paper, $29.95 (9780393340426).
Beauty, anguish, and courageous resistance are all found in this powerful collection of 300 poems by poets of the past (each accorded a brief biography) who confronted war, oppression, imprisonment, torture, slavery, and exile.
The Monkey’s Voyage: How Improbable Journeys Shaped the History of Life. By Alan de Queiroz. Basic, $27.99 (9780465020515).
Evolutionary biologist de Queiroz illuminates the fascinating field of biogeography in this lively look at competing theories about how similar species that can’t swim or fly ended up on far-flung oceanic islands.
The Quantum Moment: How Planck, Bohr, Einstein, and Heisenberg Taught Us to Love Uncertainty. By Robert P. Crease and Alfred Scharff Goldhaber. Norton, $29.95 (9780393067927).
Without taxing general readers with rigorous mathematics, the authors recount the discoveries that shattered Newtonian physics and ushered in the wonderland of quantum mechanics. An exhilarating romp for the intellectually adventurous.
The Death Class: A True Story about Life. By Erika Hayasaki. Simon & Schuster, $25 (9781451642858).
Offering a completely engaging look at death and the meaning of life, award-winning journalist Hayasaki spent four years following Norma Bowe, who teaches a death class at a New Jersey college.
Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People. By Elizabeth A. Fenn. Farrar/Hill & Wang, $30 (9780809042395).
In her captivating history of the Mandan people, Fenn traces the tribe’s vital presence along the upper Missouri River until they were besieged by a “daunting succession of challenges.”
The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. By Edward E. Baptist. Basic, $35 (9780465002962).
Baptist renders history and economics with the power of prose that seeks to tell a fuller story than has been told of American slavery, arguing that it was the major economic engine that eventually made the U.S. a world power.
The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us. By Diane Ackerman. Norton, $27.95 (9780393240740).
Drawing on her world-circling investigation into how profoundly our species is altering life on our planet, incisive, imaginative, and witty Ackerman balances grave concern with hope for a wiser future. (Top of the List winner—Adult Nonfiction.)
Just Mercy. By Bryan Stevenson. Spiegel & Grau, $28 (9780812994520).
Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Institute in Montgomery, Alabama, delivers a passionate account of the ways our nation thwarts justice and inhumanely punishes the poor and disadvantaged.
No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State. By Glenn Greenwald. Holt, $27 (9781627790734).
Once the controversy abates over what whistleblower Snowden did and whether Greenwald should have reported the story, the fact will remain that this book offers compelling evidence of the NSA’s data-hungry gluttony and its blatant disregard of our Fourth Amendment rights.
The Ogallala Road: A Memoir of Love and Reckoning. By Julene Bair. Viking, $26.95 (9780670786046).
Bair tackles urgent questions about single parenthood, romance, the future of her family’s Kansas farm, and growing concerns about the sustainability of the essential Ogallala aquifer.
Spare Parts: Four Undocumented Teenagers, One Ugly Robot, and the Battle for the American Dream. By Joshua Davis. Farrar, $25 (9780374183370).
Doors should have opened for four Phoenix teenagers after they won first place in a prestigious competition, but, instead, as Davis chronicles, they faced severe adversity due to their immigration status.
Education reporter Goldstein comes from a family of public school teachers and she brings great concern about the future of public education to this sweeping, insightful look at how the teaching profession has evolved and where we may be headed.
Trapped under the Sea: One Engineering Marvel, Five Men, and a Disaster Ten Miles into the Darkness. By Neil Swidey. Crown, $26 (9780307886729).
With the pacing and feel of a special-ops adventure and the insight of a public-policy investigation, Swidey details the lives of five commercial divers who end up trapped in an underground tunnel and how the survivors coped with trauma and guilt.
All I Love and Know. By Judith Frank. Morrow, $26.99 (9780062302878).
This is a compassionate, utterly compelling story of how a gay couple, who take in two children left orphaned by a terrorist bombing, must reach deep within themselves to meet their greatest challenge.
All the Light We Cannot See. By Anthony Doerr. Scribner, $27 (9781476746586).It is through the individual and intertwined tales of a French girl and a German soldier that Doerr masterfully and knowledgeably re-creates the deprived civilian conditions of WWII-torn France and the strictly controlled lives of the military occupiers. (Top of the List winner—Adult Fiction.)
Arctic Summer. By Damon Galgut. Europa, $17 (9871609452346).
Brilliantly conceived and executed, this fictionalized biography of E. M. Forster follows the great English writer, a repressed homosexual, on his travels to India, where he falls in love with two heterosexual Indian men and is able to overcome writer’s block and complete his masterpiece, A Passage to India. The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. By Hilary Mantel. Holt, $27 (9781627792103).The atmosphere throughout the stories in this collection is creepy, alarming, and unsettling. In other words, just wonderful! Mood and plot merge into incredible scenarios that ultimately and disturbingly end up seeming to be perfectly natural. Bark. By Lorrie Moore. Knopf, $24.95 (9780307594136).A major ingredient of Moore’s tales of troubled lives is an abiding humor, which serves to protect her characters, in all their frailties, from grating on the reader as too pathetic.
The Bone Clocks. By David Mitchell. Random, $30 (9781400065677).
Mitchell’s genre-bending, time-traveling novel blends a coming-of-age novel into a grand-scale fantasy epic, constructing in the process both an architectural masterpiece and a remarkably propulsive narrative in which the character building is as meticulously detailed as the world building.
The Book of Unknown Americans. By Cristina Henríquez. Knopf, $24.95 (9780385350846).
Families who fled dire situations in Mexico and Central America end up facing new traumas in America, tales Henríquez tells with compassion and wit in this wrenching novel of courage and heartbreak.
A Brief History of Seven Killings. By Marlon James. Riverhead, $28.95 (9781594486005).
This unique novel by the acclaimed Jamaican writer offers a densely imaginative fictional retelling of the 1976 assassination attempt on reggae superstar Bob Marley. A breakthrough book not only for James but also for Caribbean literature.
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. By Haruki Murakami. Knopf, $25.95 (9780385352109).
The story of a seemingly colorless engineer and his attempt to understand why his three high-school friends rejected him becomes another of Murakami’s densely metaphysical love stories, all the more tender for its exploration of the multiple realities in which the lovers live.
The Confessions of Frances Godwin. By Robert Hellenga. Bloomsbury, $26 (9781620405499).
A retired high-school Latin teacher looks back at her life and muses on wrong turns taken and roads untraveled. The melancholy transience of love is Hellenga’s great theme, and he explores it here with scrupulous attention to the complex rhythms of daily life.
Everything I Never Told You. By Celeste Ng. Penguin, $26.95 (9781594205712).
In Ng’s emotionally thrilling debut novel, the tragic fate of a teenage daughter of a Chinese American father and a white mother who gave up medical school for motherhood reveals a tangle of treacherous conflicts.
Falling out of Time. By David Grossman. Knopf, $24.95 (9780385350136).
A grief-stricken Israeli visitor leaves his bewildered wife and, in search of his dead son, becomes a Pied Piper of bereavement, walking in ever-widening circles and drawing followers in his wake. A strange and wonderful tale.
Florence Gordon. By Brian Morton. Houghton, $25 (9780544309869).
Morton’s intelligent, layered portrait of a feisty, independent older woman is an absolute joy to read, not only for its delightful wit but also for its dignified appraisal of aging.
Frog Music. By Emma Donoghue. Little, Brown, $27 (9780316324687).In language spiced with musical interludes and raunchy French slang, Donoghue brings to teeming life the nasty, naughty side of ethnically diverse San Francisco in the late nineteenth century, with its brothels, gaming halls, small-pox-infested boardinghouses, and rampant child abuse.
Here. By Richard McGuire. Pantheon, $35 (9780375406508).
History echoes across millennia, as McGuire’s brilliant and affecting graphic novel records life in a specific place, a living room in New Jersey. McGuire’s quiet artwork echoes the stunningly simple theme of the passage of time. In Paradise. By Peter Matthiessen. Riverhead, $27.95 (9781594633171).
Olin, a Polish-born American scholar and “Holocaust authority,” joins an ecumenical group that includes Germans, Poles, Israelis, Jews, Catholic nuns, and Zen Buddhists at Auschwitz for two weeks of prayer and meditation. The author expertly raises the challenges and the difficulties inherent in addressing this subject matter.
J. By Howard Jacobson. Hogarth, $25 (9780553419559).
This remarkable, disturbing book, which will give readers plenty to think and talk about, is set in the not-too-distant future, around 50 years after a genocide referred to only as “WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED.”
Lila. By Marilynne Robinson. Farrar, $26 (9780374187613).
Lila finds sanctuary in the Iowa town of Gilead during the Great Depression, and she is courted by a much older minister, sparking the wondrous love story at the heart of Robinson’s transfixing novel of nature’s glory, survival, and spiritual inquiry.
Greene, with searing eloquence, seems to channel the frustrations of generations of rural poor in this impassioned novel of a soulless government hell-bent on destroying a long-standing community.
Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932. By Francine Prose. Harper, $26.99 (9780061713781).
Prose’s house-of-mirrors historical novel of mesmerizing evil and thwarted love stars athlete, race-car driver, and Nazi collaborator Lou Villars, who is based on the real-life Violette Morris. Nora Webster. By Colm Tóibín. Scribner, $27 (9781439138335).In this remarkably heart-affecting story, the Ireland of four decades ago is beautifully evoked through events in the three-year widowhood of fortysomething Nora Webster.
On Such a Full Sea. By Chang-rae Lee. Riverhead, $27.95 (9781594486104).
As young Fan searches for her missing boyfriend in an America devastated by a pandemic and climate change, Lee brilliantly imagines extreme survival tactics, psychological trauma, and the resurrection of art and its solace.
The Orchard of Lost Souls. By Nadifa Mohamed. Farrar, $26 (9780374209148).
The lives of three embattled Somalian women intersect in a city on the brink of chaos in the days leading up to the 1987 revolution in Mohamed’s vivid and powerful novel.
Orfeo. By Richard Powers. Norton, $26.95 (9780393240825).
Thanks to his unusual hobby, genetic engineering, retired composer Peter Els is on the run, a suspected “biohacker.” Like his protagonist, Powers makes art that challenges rather than reassures, rendering life in a way that seems both familiar and alien.
Based on a true story, Allen’s tour de force sweeps from the rural South to New York City to tell the story of a blind young black boy, born a slave, who became an international sensation as a pianist.
Starting Over. By Elizabeth Spencer. Norton/Liveright, $24.95 (9780871406811).Grand dame of southern letters that Spencer is, she remains a vital, passionate, contemporary-issues writer; her latest collection shows the control and ease of a master. Station Eleven. By Emily St. John Mandel. Knopf, $24.95 (9780385353304).
In this magnificently realized and haunting postapocalyptic novel, Mandel tells the moving story of a famous actor and the people he touched, who must now face their unfulfilled longings and the fragility of life.
Thirty Girls. By Susan Minot. Knopf, $26.95 (9780307266385).
Minot exquisitely choreographs a profoundly revealing and wrenching collision of contrasting realities when Jane, an American writer, travels to Uganda to speak with traumatized children who escaped the Lord’s Resistance Army.
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. By Elena Ferrante. Tr. by Ann Goldstein. Europa, paper, $18 (9781609452339).
In the third novel in the Neapolitan series, Ferrante continues to imbue her saga with great magic, treating Elena’s and Lila’s years of marriage and motherhood with breathtaking honesty while envisaging the turbulence of political and social unrest in 1970s Italy.
Nicholls brings his trademark wit and wisdom to this by turns hilarious and heartbreaking story of Douglas Petersen’s scheme to win back his wife and repair his fractious relationship with his son while on a “grand tour” of Europe.
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