Those who forget history are … in luck, actually. This week’s recommended reading includes refreshers on everything from the settling of Polynesia to Brooklyn’s past as a queer enclave to the impeachment of Andrew Johnson in 1868. There’s art history, in María Gainza’s autofiction about an Argentine critic; and literary history, in Casey Cep’s riveting account of the true-crime story that Harper Lee was never able to write; a fictional look back at Palestine in the early 1900s; and a nonfiction analysis of European history from 1950 until the age of Brexit. It’s a list that might appeal to the heroine of Binnie Kirshenbaum’s novel “Rabbits for Food,” were she not sidelined by a crippling depression: “Bunny’s range of interests,” Kirshenbaum writes early in the book, is “varied: history, politics, antiques, animal rights, psychology, fashion, and literature, serious literature, although now she is interested in nothing.” This novel isn’t about history per se, but that line — with its hint that we live at the edge of nihilism, and that all of our distractions are just so much scaffolding against the void — surely gets at one of history’s recurring themes, and one of the reasons we turn to it in the first place for edification and consolation: because we have survived so much (history tells us), and here we are.
Senior Editor, Books
THE IMPEACHERS: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation, by Brenda Wineapple. (Random House, $32.) The latest from the award-winning Wineapple is about the first impeachment trial in the United States, in 1868, when Andrew Johnson, who ascended to the presidency after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, was nearly voted out of office. (The House overwhelmingly gave him the boot; the Senate saved him.) Wineapple started to research this book six years ago; she briefly mentions Presidents Nixon and Clinton but not the current occupant of the White House. “She doesn’t have to,” our critic Jennifer Szalai writes. “The relevance of this riveting and absorbing book is clear enough, even if Wineapple’s approach is too literary and incisive to offer anything so obvious as a lesson.”
FURIOUS HOURS: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, by Casey Cep. (Knopf, $26.95.) Cep’s remarkable first book is really two: a gripping investigation of a rural Alabama preacher who murdered five family members for the insurance in the 1970s, and a sensitive portrait of the novelist Harper Lee, who tried and failed to write her own book about the case. “It takes Cep about five pages to eliminate from the reader’s mind the possibility that the source of Harper Lee’s literary problems was lack of material,” Michael Lewis writes in his review. “This story is just too good.” In Cep’s probing of “another writer’s failure to write,” he adds, “her book makes a magical little leap, and it goes from being a superbly written true-crime story to the sort of story that even Lee would have been proud to write.”
SEA PEOPLE: The Puzzle of Polynesia, by Christina Thompson. (Harper/HarperCollins, $29.99.) Mystery has long attended the inhabitants of the Pacific’s far-flung islands: Where did they come from, when did they get there, and how? Thompson explores these questions, with a particular focus on the early Polynesians’ incredible navigational skills, and “succeeds admirably,” Simon Winchester writes in his review. The book, he says, makes a “fascinating and satisfying addition to an already considerable body of Polynesian literature.”
WHEN BROOKLYN WAS QUEER, by Hugh Ryan. (St. Martin’s, $29.99.) This boisterous history captures the variety and creativity of the sexual outsiders who congregated around the economic hub of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a flourishing center of gay life from the middle of the 19th century until well into the 20th. Caleb Crain’s review calls it “an entertaining and insightful chronicle … enhanced by original research in newspaper archives, unpublished letters and collections of ephemera.”
THE GLOBAL AGE: Europe 1950-2017, by Ian Kershaw. (Viking, $40.) At a time of uncertainty and harsh political division, Kershaw’s book offers valuable evidence that Europe’s recent history was a period of enormous accomplishment, both politically and economically, achieved against obstacles that make many of today’s troubles seem minor by comparison. “Kershaw reminds us that the Continent has faced other large challenges in the postwar era and survived,” Michael A. McFaul writes in his review; “that some long-term trends of peace, prosperity and democracy are both robust and remarkable; and that individuals have agency, and can alter the course of events — they are not mere expressions of those events.”
THE PARISIAN, by Isabella Hammad. (Grove, $27.) This strikingly accomplished first novel, set in the early 20th century and modeled in part on the life of the author’s grandfather, captures the fate of a European-educated Arab, a man divided, like his native Palestine. Our reviewer, Christopher Benfey, calls it “a deeply imagined historical novel with none of the usual cobwebs of the genre,” and says that the book has “an up-close immediacy and stylistic panache … all the more impressive coming from a London-born writer still in her 20s.”
RABBITS FOR FOOD, by Binnie Kirshenbaum. (Soho, $26.) After a New Year’s breakdown, the heroine of this furious comic novel checks into a Manhattan mental hospital and starts taking notes. “Kirshenbaum doesn’t trivialize mental breakdown. She makes Bunny’s debilitation raw and worrying, and not without its insights,” Lucy Ellmann writes in her review. “Being incarcerated paradoxically forces Bunny to reconnect with other people and her own mind. She’s alert to the sanity of the insane, and the ineptitude of most of the staff.” A bracing humor balances the despair.
OPTIC NERVE, by María Gainza. Translated by Thomas Bunstead. (Catapult, $25.) In this delightful autofiction — the first book by Gainza, an Argentine art critic, to appear in English — a woman delivers pithy assessments of world-class painters along with glimpses of her life, braiding the two into an illuminating whole. “María’s store of information about painters and their lives can make reading the book feel, delightfully, like auditing a course,” John Williams writes in his review. The book, he adds, “consistently charms with its tight swirl of art history, personal reminiscence and aesthetic theories.”
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