“I have a lot of apps open in my brain right now,” Lin-Manuel Miranda once said. We know the feeling. That quote turns up late in David Epstein’s new book, “Range,” which reassures committed dilettantes that there’s merit in the generalist’s approach to life: When you’re “facing uncertain environments,” Epstein writes, “breadth of experience is invaluable.”
With that in mind, we offer a generalist’s buffet of books for your consideration this week. Start with Epstein’s own, then move on to an account of the ground beneath your feet (“Underland,” by the gifted nature writer Robert Macfarlane) or a novel based on the real-life saint of Sudan, as St. Josephine Bakhita is known (“Bakhita,” by Véronique Olmi). Read about pandemics, or the settlers of the Northwest Territory, or Neville Chamberlain’s ill-advised strategy of appeasing Hitler; read a biography of the con artist who gave rise to the loaded term “welfare queen,” or settle in with a satire about creative writing programs, or enjoy Elizabeth Gilbert’s new historical novel about the world of New York showgirls. Open some apps in your brain. No environment is more uncertain than today’s, after all, so you might as well put Epstein’s theory to the test and broaden your knowledge.
Senior Editor, Books
UNDERLAND: A Deep Time Journey, by Robert Macfarlane. (Norton, $27.95.) The English nature writer Robert Macfarlane’s new book recounts a series of explorations under the surface of our planet. He takes us into caves in England, the catacombs of Paris, a nuclear-waste containment site in Finland and sea caves in Norway, among other places. “This is an excellent book — fearless and subtle, empathic and strange,” our critic Dwight Garner writes. “It is the product of real attention and tongue-and-groove workmanship.”
APPEASEMENT: Chamberlain, Hitler, Churchill, and the Road to War, by Tim Bouverie. (Tim Duggan Books, $30.) Bouverie, a young British journalist, is aware that he’s entering well-worn ground with this account of the lead-up to World War II. He avoids narrowing in on a single event or individual, opting instead for a more comprehensive and immersive account, beginning with Hitler’s appointment as German chancellor in 1933 and ending in 1940. “This is well-paced narrative history: intelligent, lucid, riveting — even while possessing the terrible knowledge of what happened next,” our critic Jennifer Szalai writes.
CITY OF GIRLS, by Elizabeth Gilbert. (Riverhead, $28.) Set amid the showgirls, playboys and gossip columnists of Manhattan’s 1940s bohemian demimonde, Gilbert’s new novel — her first since “The Signature of All Things” (2013) — is a pitch-perfect evocation of the era’s tawdry glamour and a coming-of-age story whose fizzy surface conceals unexpected gradations of feeling. Our reviewer, David Gates, notes admiringly that the book doesn’t hew to formula: “Paradoxically, this open-endedness, this refusal of received literary templates, is what makes ‘City of Girls’ worth reading. It’s not a simple-minded polemic about sexual freedom and not an operatic downer; rather, it’s the story of a conflicted, solitary woman who’s made an independent life as best she can.”
BAKHITA: A Novel of the Saint of Sudan, by Véronique Olmi. Translated by Adriana Hunter. (Other Press, $27.99.) A reimagining of the real-life story of St. Josephine Bakhita, captured as a child in Darfur and liberated in Venice. In his review, Randy Boyagoda applauds the translation’s “clear and affecting prose.” The novel, he says, “unfolds a distinctive array of timely concerns — the subjugation of women of color, human trafficking, female solidarity, personal and institutional conflicts that knot together issues of race, class, gender and religion — and explores them through the suffering, willpower and undiminished dignity of a small frightened girl turned resolute young woman turned gentle old nun.”
THE QUEEN: The Forgotten Life Behind an American Myth, by Josh Levin. (Little, Brown, $29.) During the Reagan era, the press immortalized Linda Taylor as “the welfare queen,” a fur-wearing, Cadillac-driving woman who bilked the system for years. Levin reveals her as a scammer so protean that she had gone by at least eight different names by the time she was 22. “Part of the fun of Levin’s book is burrowing inside his obsessive quest,” Sam Dolnick writes in his review. “He tracks down vintage court transcripts, old property deeds, marriage licenses, handwriting tests, yellowed police records, ex-husbands of former roommates. What emerges is a quite unsettling picture of a woman who in Levin’s telling seems to have no conscience and no morals, no loyalty to her own children or to any of her many, many husbands.”
THE PIONEERS: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West, by David McCullough. (Simon & Schuster, $30.) In McCullough’s telling, the antislavery settlers who established the Northwest Territory embodied a vision of all that was best about American values and American ideals. “Ohio has quite a history. The characters who passed through during its early phases as part of the United States could adorn a novel,” our reviewer, Joyce E. Chaplin, writes. “McCullough tells the history of the Ohio Territory as a story of uplift, of what can happen when the doers of good are let loose upon a place. This is American history as a vision of our better selves. Lord knows we need it.”
THE PANDEMIC CENTURY: One Hundred Years of Panic, Hysteria, and Hubris, by Mark Honigsbaum. (Norton, $29.95.) Despite science’s best efforts, pathogens keep crashing our species barrier: In the past century, they include Spanish flu, H.I.V. and Ebola. Honigsbaum analyzes each to explain pandemics. “Whether familiar or forgotten, parrot fever or Ebola, he finds striking similarities among them,” Carl Zimmer writes in his review. “And those similarities ought to make us worried about the next outbreak. If history is any guide, things may not go well.”
RANGE: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, by David Epstein. (Riverhead, $28.) Challenging conventional wisdom, this provocative book cites data to argue that in a complicated world, generalists are more successful than specialists. “Becoming a champion, a virtuoso or a Nobel laureate does not require early and narrow specialization. Quite the contrary in many cases,” our reviewer, Jim Holt, summarizes Epstein’s thesis. Holt admires the author’s “own impressively wide range of interests: art, classical music, jazz, science, technology and sports,” and says that the book’s “storytelling is so dramatic, the wielding of data so deft and the lessons so strikingly framed that it’s never less than a pleasure to read.”
LOUDERMILK: Or, The Real Poet; Or, The Origin of the World, by Lucy Ives. (Soft Skull, paper, $16.95.) The title character of Ives’s clever attack on writing programs is a hunky bro who decides he can make it big as a poet if somebody else will just write the poems for him. “Ives scores some fine touches in her satire,” Caleb Crain writes in his review, but “in the end I found myself more interested in the novel’s half-hidden earnest side: its exhibition, with persuasive bitterness, of the damage that can be wreaked by the idea that literature is competition, especially when the idea is institutionalized in a classroom.”
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