11 New Books We Recommend This Week

This week’s recommended books include a local’s impressionistic rendering of Mexico City, a Chilean novel about life during the Pinochet regime, and journalistic accounts of Rwanda and the family that brought you OxyContin. There are also two essay collections (or essayistic collections), by Jenny Diski and Jo Ann Beard, along with a senator’s memoir and sparkling letters by the American poet James Merrill. Finally, a biography of the scholar Edward Said, a history of the cultural hotbed of 1970s Los Angeles and Kaitlyn Greenidge’s new novel, about a free spirit finding her way in post-Civil War New York.

Gregory Cowles
Senior Editor, Books
Twitter: @GregoryCowles

EMPIRE OF PAIN: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty, by Patrick Radden Keefe. (Doubleday, $32.50.) Keefe’s cleareyed study of the Sackler family — whose company Purdue Pharma created OxyContin, the powerful painkiller that ushered in a new era of both pain management and opioid addiction — nimbly guides us through a thicket of family intrigues and betrayals. “Even when detailing the most sordid episodes, Keefe’s narrative voice is calm and admirably restrained, allowing his prodigious reporting to speak for itself,” our critic Jennifer Szalai writes. “His portrait of the family is all the more damning for its stark lucidity.”

WHY DIDN’T YOU JUST DO WHAT YOU WERE TOLD? Essays, by Jenny Diski. (Bloomsbury, $28.) Diski (1947-2016) contributed more than 200 pieces to The London Review of Books over 25 years, beginning in 1992. This book collects a few dozen of the best. “Amid the book reviews in the LRB by critics determined to sound sober and certain, as if they were museum docents, her reviews and essays admitted doubt,” our critic Dwight Garner writes. “They were marvelously shrewd but approachable and witty.” The wide range of subjects in this collection includes Jeffrey Dahmer, a cruise to Antarctica, the dedicated wives of famous intellectuals and arachnophobia.

FESTIVAL DAYS, by Jo Ann Beard. (Little, Brown, $27.) Featuring characters mostly drawn from life confronting illness, loss, violence and death, this exquisite collection of pieces defies classification, blending intuition and observation into something unaccountably yet undeniably real. Are they essays? Stories? A mix? Beard doesn’t fret much over genre, and her readers shouldn’t either. “We can rely on her to miss nothing,” Leah Hager Cohen writes in her review. “She will gather the essential elements and arrange them before us with such precision that, without instructing us how to see, she grants us sight.”

ROCK ME ON THE WATER: 1974 — The Year Los Angeles Transformed Movies, Music, Television, and Politics, by Ronald Brownstein. (Harper/HarperCollins, $29.99.) Brownstein paints Los Angeles in 1974 as a kind of patchouli-scented version of Florence during the Renaissance, bursting with creative energy in television, movies and music. From Joni Mitchell to Archie Bunker, a year of cultural ferment is presented here in all its richness. “What Brownstein has done,” Madeleine Brand writes in her review, “is expertly knit the scenes together, giving the reader a plus-one invite to the heady world of Hollywood parties, jam sessions and pitch meetings, as well as a pointed demonstration of how culture can be made and unmade.”

LIBERTIE, by Kaitlyn Greenidge. (Algonquin, $26.95.) Based on the lives of Susan Smith McKinney Steward, the first Black female doctor in New York State, and her daughter, Greenidge’s second novel centers its post-Civil War New York story on an enduring quest for freedom. “A feat of monumental thematic imagination,” Margaret Wilkerson Sexton writes in her review. “Greenidge both mines history and transcends time.”

A WHOLE WORLD: Letters From James Merrill, edited by Langdon Hammer and Stephen Yenser. (Knopf, $45.) The poet’s letters cast light on a generous soul with an active social life and a quicksilver wit. Artifice was Merrill’s way of being natural. He lavished his correspondents with parody and aphorism, as well as assessments of his poetic peers. Thomas Mallon, in his review, calls the letters “a cosmopolitan, bejeweled and philosophical chronicle of friendship, love, sex and work. … Their entertainment never feels like a performance for posterity, but rather something directed at the living, individual recipient, who seems to be sitting directly across from the sender.”

DO NOT DISTURB: The Story of a Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad, by Michela Wrong. (PublicAffairs, $32.) In the years since the 1994 genocide, Rwanda has become a favorite of Western donors. Yet in this authoritative account, Wrong, an Africa specialist, exposes the country’s long history of corruption and human rights abuses under the leadership of President Paul Kagame. The book “stands out as perhaps the most ambitious attempt yet to tell the dark story of Rwanda and the region’s deeply intertwined tragedies for a general audience,” Howard W. French writes in his review.

PLACES OF MIND: A Life of Edward Said, by Timothy Brennan. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $35.) In the first comprehensive biography of Said, Brennan, a former student, highlights the Palestinian scholar’s complexity, delivering a portrait of a thinker, activist and musician endowed with an unusually restless and protean intellect. “Brennan draws on an imposing array of material,” Ayten Tartici notes in his review, including “interviews with Said’s family, friends and colleagues; correspondence, essays, unpublished poetry and fiction; as well as the F.B.I. files on him. … In an era of professional specialists and self-declared experts, Said doggedly praised the amateur, the humanist who endeavored not to make audiences feel good but to be a nonconformist, embarrassing and roguish when it mattered.”

HORIZONTAL VERTIGO: A City Called Mexico, by Juan Villoro. Translated by Alfred MacAdam. (Pantheon, $35.) Villoro, an accomplished novelist, recounts his remarkable engagement with Mexico City with a mix of irony and empathy. He is exquisitely attuned to the capital’s contradictions, nuances and people. “There are deeply moving moments in this book,” Rubén Gallo writes in his review. “Despite his unwavering upbeat tone, Villoro offers some glimpses of the recent transformations that have turned the city into a much darker and less humane place.”

THE TWILIGHT ZONE, by Nona Fernández. Translated by Natasha Wimmer. (Graywolf, paper, $16.) The narrator of this Chilean novel is haunted by a dark episode in her country’s past: In 1984, a torturer for the secret police exposed the sordid workings of the Pinochet regime. Shifting between genres, Fernández imagines the lives both of victims and of perpetrators. Our reviewer, Ariel Dorfman, calls the novel “wildly innovative, a major contribution to literature, in Chile and beyond, that deals with trauma and its aftermath. … The author starts from the certainty of uncertainty: that the deepest truth of what happened to her damaged nation is buried in the unknowable, hidden by lies and fear.”

EVERY DAY IS A GIFT: A Memoir, by Tammy Duckworth. (Twelve, $30.) Duckworth recalls being her family’s main breadwinner as a teenager, surviving the rocket-propelled grenade that almost killed her and becoming a U.S. senator from Illinois. She spares no detail in recounting her courageous life. “Duckworth, a soldier in her soul, makes no real effort at poetry or ornate excavations of the self,” Susan Dominus writes in her review. “Yet she has collected enough feats worthy of record to fill at least one strong memoir, a book whose contents are far more gripping, gritty and original than its bromide of a title … might suggest.”

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