Our recommended books this week touch on everything from science and nature (in Mary Roach’s “Fuzz,” that means the collision of humans and other animals; in Thor Hanson’s “Hurricane Lizards and Plastic Squid,” it means the impact of climate change on nonhuman species) to politics (a biography of Angela Merkel, a look back at the tumultuous 1960s) to literature (the life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, two takes on the meaning and importance of Black storytelling). Also, fine china. In fiction, we recommend new novels by Karl Ove Knausgaard and Claire Vaye Watkins, along with Gary Shteyngart’s pandemic-inspired narrative of friends and rivals locked down for the duration on a secluded country estate.
Senior Editor, Books
THE CHANCELLOR: The Remarkable Odyssey of Angela Merkel, by Kati Marton. (Simon & Schuster, $30.) German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is stepping down this year after four terms, is famous for her plain but direct style. She is famously private, so it’s no simple task to write her biography. But Marton has doggedly retraced Merkel’s trail, and the story she tells is a good one. Our critic Dwight Garner writes that this book “is a bit like Merkel herself: calm, dispassionate, not afraid to bore us. Many readers will find it a balm. It’s instructive to spend time in Merkel’s competent and humane company.”
THE SHATTERING: America in the 1960s, by Kevin Boyle. (Norton, $32.) This rich, layered account of the 1960s complicates our ideas of the well-covered decade. Cold War policy, with the increasing centrality of the Vietnam War, is one of the strands in this roiling narrative; another is the civil rights struggle; a third is the government regulation (and deregulation) of sexuality. Boyle “covers the range of material you would expect from any foundational account of the 1960s and the penumbra around it — Kennedy in Dallas, King in Memphis, unrest in Newark and Watts, LSD and the pill,” our critic Jennifer Szalai says. “But he also writes about those moments that can sometimes get lost in the deluge.”
OUR COUNTRY FRIENDS, by Gary Shteyngart. (Random House, $28.) Shteyngart’s fifth novel begins at the onset of the pandemic, with seven friends and one nemesis gathered at an estate in the Hudson Valley to wait out what they’re sure will be a quick blip in their convenient and prosperous lives. “‘Our Country Friends’ is brilliant about so much: the humiliations of parenting and of being parented; the sadism of chronic illness; the glory of friendship,” our critic Molly Young writes. “To read this novel is to tally a high school yearbook’s worth of superlatives for Shteyngart: funniest, noisiest, sweetest, most entertaining.”
THE RADICAL POTTER: The Life and Times of Josiah Wedgwood, by Tristram Hunt. (Metropolitan/ Holt, $29.99.) Wedgwood, the brand once synonymous with fine china, has lost much of its luster in the 21st century. So has “fine china” generally. The historian Tristram Hunt writes that his biography of the 18th-century entrepreneur who founded the brand is intended “to help more people understand the centrality of Josiah Wedgwood, as both a man and a commercial pioneer, in the annals of global design and the transformation of Britain.” Our critic Alexandra Jacobs writes that “one of the book’s many pleasures is its meticulous catalog of the china-buying public’s tastes, some whimsical and others bizarre or sinister.”
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FUZZ: When Nature Breaks the Law, by Mary Roach. (Norton, $27.99.) Roach examines our sometimes fraught meetings with nature, especially when human rules are applied to nonhumans. She travels to spots around the world and dives into off-the-track academic archives, making for an idiosyncratic tour with a wisecracking, ever-probing guide. “Roach delights in the disgusting details of science,” Vicki Constantine Croke writes in her review, even as she demonstrates that “there isn’t an endlessly reproducible solution for peaceful coexistence between human and nonhuman animals. There are differences in tolerance levels among different cultures. And we can glean something from the insight and compassion of others.”
RATIONALITY: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters, by Steven Pinker. (Viking, $32.) Pinker’s primer on how to reason well offers lessons on statistical significance, updating your beliefs in the light of fresh data, calculating risks and rewards in decision-making and more. It also seeks to explain why our efforts often fall short. “These lessons are taught well,” Anthony Gottlieb writes in his review. “Pinker’s jaunty demotic and occasional bar-stool sermons will not be to everyone’s taste, but the illustrative gags and cartoons are pedagogically apt. His deployment of perhaps the finest of Jewish sex jokes as a tool to explain the concept of ‘confounding variables’ may deserve some sort of prize.”
READ UNTIL YOU UNDERSTAND: The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature, by Farah Jasmine Griffin. (Norton, $26.95.) This memoir by a Columbia professor probes the role of Black literature in her life and explores her own connections to the sweeping themes in the books she reveres, making literary analysis both accessible and relevant. “Griffin’s evangelizing of Black literature does what the best sermons do,” Monica Drake writes in her review. “It sends you back to Scripture — Baldwin, Coates, Morrison, David Walker and others — to discover or rediscover them, to ponder and treasure them anew.”
THE MORNING STAR, by Karl Ove Knausgaard. Translated by Martin Aitken. (Penguin Press, $30.) In his haunting new novel, Knausgaard alternates between the first-person accounts of nine characters, all of whom spot a huge, bright star that has inexplicably appeared in the sky. Realist drama gradually gives way to touches of horror and an enigmatic spiritual treatise. “Plot points that might define a different novel do not define this one. That neither the star nor the stalking evil seems essential to the reading experience makes the novel even more beguiling,” Heidi Julavits writes in her review. “None of the mysteries of ‘The Morning Star’ are meant to be deciphered. And I might not really care for them to be.”
OUT OF THE SUN: On Race and Storytelling, by Esi Edugyan. (House of Anansi, $32.99.) In a slim volume of essays mixing memoir and social history, the novelist offers “meditations” on an array of Black figures from around the world, from Angelo Soliman to Kehinde Wiley to Marie-Joseph Angélique. “Addressing race and representation, memory and belonging, Edugyan … explores with empathy what it means to be seen, and who remains unseen, in our current identity-conscious, visibility-obsessed culture that seems to be limping toward a new aesthetic order and politics of power,” Antwaun Sargent writes in his review.
TWO-WAY MIRROR: The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, by Fiona Sampson. (Norton, $27.95.) Sampson, a British poet and biographer, here performs an elegant act of rehabilitation, aiming to restore some of the luster once associated with Barrett Browning by stressing her literary innovations (the verse novel), political engagement and female friendships. “Principally,” John Plotz writes in his review, “‘Two-Way Mirror’ pushes back against the neglect, bordering on amnesia, that has descended on a poet once widely celebrated and still capable today of chilling readers with a sudden plunge from the shared everyday into frightening depths of feeling.”
I LOVE YOU BUT I’VE CHOSEN DARKNESS, by Claire Vaye Watkins. (Riverhead, $27.) In this teeming, combustible novel, a young woman (named Claire Vaye Watkins) flees her husband, baby and comfortable Midwestern life for her home state of Nevada, where she proceeds to dredge up her past. Our reviewer, Cree LeFavour, calls it an “intense, intelligent and bristly” book, both “angry and alive,” that’s distinguished by the narrator’s “breakneck pace, frightening honesty and biting, self-deprecating humor.”
HURRICANE LIZARDS AND PLASTIC SQUID: The Fraught and Fascinating Biology of Climate Change, by Thor Hanson. (Basic, $28.) Starving polar bears are an evocative symbol of global warming, but the affable and naturally curious Hanson reveals subtler, less noticed dramas in the ways animals adapt to climate change. “At a time when the climate change discourse is focused mainly on its causes, its effects on weather and our so-far tepid efforts to address the problem, it’s good to see a book on how animals and plants are responding and faring amid the flux,” Jonathan Balcombe writes in his review. “One of the core lessons here is that our climate emergency affects not just individual species but, inevitably, interspecies relationships.”
RENEWAL: From Crisis to Transformation in Our Lives, Work and Politics, by Anne-Marie Slaughter. (Princeton University, $24.95.) Slaughter shares lessons she has learned from a long career in public life, urging readers to “face both the past and present with radical, even brutal honesty.” Our reviewer, Emily Yoffe, takes issue with aspects of the book but writes that its author is “at her most interesting when she describes being a woman leader. Slaughter believes leadership skills are not necessarily intrinsic, but can be learned. From her own life, she describes years of terror at public speaking and clinging to written remarks. She knew she needed to improve, so she started weaning herself off the page and connecting with her audience. It worked.”
Whether you want biographies, novels or essay collections, we can help you find your next book to read. Here are 57 titles to get you started.