11 New Books We Recommend This Week

This week’s recommended books include a couple of biographies of the civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer, along with memoirs by the celebrated movie director James Ivory and the Kenyan activist Nice Leng’ete. There’s also a new biography of Robert E. Lee, an insider’s account of Trump-era Washington and an essay collection about antisemitism and the hazards of Jewish memory. In fiction, Jocelyn Nicole Johnson’s debut collection joins new novels by the heavyweights Louise Erdrich, Elizabeth Strout and Amor Towles.

Gregory Cowles
Senior Editor, Books
Twitter: @GregoryCowles

THE SENTENCE, by Louise Erdrich. (Harper/HarperCollins, $28.99.) Erdrich’s bewitching new novel begins with a crime. An Ojibwe woman named Tookie is indicted after bundling a dead man in a tarp and delivering the body, to which crack is covertly duct-taped, in a refrigerated truck to one of her friends. After a decade, Tookie’s sentence of 60 years is commuted, and she gets a job at a Minneapolis bookstore that specializes in Native culture. When the bookstore’s most annoying customer dies, her ghost wanders into the shop and starts tormenting Tookie, who must figure out how to exorcise the woman’s malevolent presence. The novel is “strange, enchanting and funny,” our critic Molly Young writes. “Erdrich is a terrific summoner of vexed and charismatic heroines, and Tookie is no exception.”

SOLID IVORY: Memoirs, by James Ivory. Edited by Peter Cameron. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $30.) As a movie director Ivory is most closely associated with decorous period pieces, paeans to inhibition like “Howards End” and “The Remains of the Day,” but this memoir, starting with his upbringing in Oregon, is full of sexual frankness. Working with his producing (and domestic) partner, Ismail Merchant, and the screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Ivory, now 93, was one of the most dominant cinematic forces of the late 20th century. “After decades conjuring the Anglo-American aristocracy clinking cups in gardens and drawing rooms, Ivory, the survivor, is ready to spill the tea,” our critic Alexandra Jacobs writes. He does so “not in the typical big autobiographical splash but in dribs and drabs: letters, diary entries, tumbling sense-memories of fashion, food and furniture (and the other F-word), with scores of appealingly casual photographs sprinkled throughout.”

OH WILLIAM!, by Elizabeth Strout. (Random House, $27.) In her quietly radiant new novel, Strout returns to a subject she writes about brilliantly (marriage) and a character readers have met before (Lucy Barton). A long-divorced couple team up for a (platonic) trip to Maine, where they learn about family history and also about themselves. “One proof of Elizabeth Strout’s greatness is the sleight of hand with which she injects sneaky subterranean power into seemingly transparent prose,” Jennifer Egan writes in her review. “Strout works in the realm of everyday speech, conjuring repetitions, gaps and awkwardness with plain language and forthright diction, yet at the same time unleashing a tidal urgency that seems to come out of nowhere even as it operates in plain sight.”

THE LINCOLN HIGHWAY, by Amor Towles. (Viking, $30.) Set in the 1950s, Towles’s exhilarating novel follows four boys on a trip across America, from rural Nebraska to the skyscrapers of New York. All of them seek a better future but have very different ideas about how to get there; over the course of 10 days this multiperspective story offers an abundance of surprising detours and run-ins. “A reader might very well be fooled into thinking that Towles is setting off — westward, ho-hum — along the deeply rutted tracks of our national lore,” Chris Bachelder writes in his review. But “as it turns out, not reaching the intended destination becomes entirely the point and power of this mischievous, wise and wildly entertaining novel.”

Explore the New York Times Book Review

Want to keep up with the latest and greatest in books? This is a good place to start.

    • Learn what you should be reading this fall: Our collection of reviews on books coming out this season includes biographies, novels, memoirs and more.
    • See what’s new in October: Among this month’s new titles are novels by Jonathan Franzen, a history of Black cinema and a biography by Katie Couric.
    • Nominate a book: The New York Times Book Review has just turned 125. That got us wondering: What is the best book that was published during that time?
    • Listen to our podcast: Featuring conversations with leading figures in the literary world, from Colson Whitehead to Leila Slimani, the Book Review Podcast helps you delve deeper into your favorite books.

    MIDNIGHT IN WASHINGTON: How We Almost Lost Our Democracy and Still Could, by Adam Schiff. (Random House, $30.) As one of the top Democratic leaders in the House, Schiff is well positioned to deliver this blistering indictment of Donald Trump’s years as president and his Republican enablers in Congress. “In more readable prose than most politicians are known to produce, Schiff recounts his conversations at high-stakes moments,” Jonathan Martin writes in his review. “As a genre, books by active politicians are typically not very edifying. … Schiff’s is better than most, offering valuable contributions to the historical record.”

    PEOPLE LOVE DEAD JEWS: Reports From a Haunted Present, by Dara Horn. (Norton, $25.95.) In a series of striking essays, Horn explores how the ways we commemorate antisemitism and Jewish tragedy distract from the very concrete, specific death of Jews. She wants a more direct reckoning with Jew hatred and its consequences. “Horn’s main insight is that much of the way we’ve developed to remember and narrate Jewish history is, at best, self-deception and, at worst, rubbish,” Yaniv Iczkovits writes in his review. “All the essays in the book show that when we learn to remember certain things in certain ways, we set the limits of what can be said, and what cannot be said, even as we might have the urge to say it. Horn thinks it’s about time to say it, and this is why her book is at the same time so necessary and so disquieting.”

    WALK WITH ME: A Biography of Fannie Lou Hamer, by Kate Clifford Larson. (Oxford University, $27.95.) Often overlooked in histories of the civil rights movement, Hamer gets her due in this admiring portrait, which traces her transformation from a Mississippi sharecropper with a sixth-grade education to an indefatigable activist who fought for Black voting rights and ran for Congress. Jill Watts, reviewing the book alongside another Hamer biography (Keisha N. Blain’s “Until I Am Free,” below), writes that Larson “draws from pathbreaking research … to offer an inspired account of Hamer’s contributions,” and calls the book “a gripping and skillfully researched political biography that embeds Hamer’s personal history within a compelling account of the post-World War II civil rights movement.”

    UNTIL I AM FREE: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America, by Keisha N. Blain. (Beacon, $24.95.) Blain, a historian, adroitly connects Hamer’s civil-rights-era activism to today’s fights against police brutality, sexism and poverty, revealing Hamer to have been a farsighted force for change, whose vision and tactics endure. Jill Watts’s dual review of Blain’s book and Kate Clifford Larson’s (above) says that “Until I Am Free” is “brilliantly constructed to be both forward and backward looking,” and that it “functions simultaneously as a much needed history lesson and an indispensable guide for modern activists.”

    MY MONTICELLO, by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson. (Holt, $26.99.) Comprising a title novella and stories, this prescient and wide-ranging debut depicts finely drawn Black characters awash in microaggressions across Virginia, past and present. Our reviewer, Bridgett M. Davis, calls it a “startling and powerful” collection that “aches with both resonance and timeliness, engaging in rich conversation with recent, real-life events never far from our minds. … It’s exhilarating to imagine the stories still to come from this gifted bard.”

    THE GIRLS IN THE WILD FIG TREE: How I Fought to Save Myself, My Sister, and Thousands of Girls Worldwide, by Nice Leng’ete with Elizabeth Butler-Witter. (Little, Brown, $28.) When Leng’ete was growing up near the border of Kenya and Tanzania, she accompanied her mother to see a 14-year-old girl get “the cut.” This galvanizing memoir traces her dedication to ending female genital mutilation. Sonia Faleiro, reviewing it, calls the book an “elegant and inspiring memoir” that “starts in the most dangerous place in the world for many women — at home. … Leng’ete’s escape, and her activism, are the centerpiece of this important memoir, but she’s far too compelling to be viewed through the lens of such achievements alone.”

    ROBERT E. LEE: A Biography, by Allen C. Guelzo. (Knopf, $35.) Guelzo, a self-described Yankee partisan, does not hesitate to praise Lee in this deeply researched character study when the circumstances merit it, but neither does he hesitate to call Lee a traitor for choosing his state over his country. “Guelzo finds Lee’s character problematic,” David Goldfield writes in his review, and “argues that the key to understanding the trajectory of Lee’s life is the troubled relationship he had with his father.” The book’s “analysis of Lee’s leadership during the Civil War is crisp and sound,” Goldfield adds. At a time much concerned with Confederate history and monuments, “Allen C. Guelzo’s fine biography is an important contribution to reconciling the myths with the facts.”

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