10 New Books We Recommend This Week

Some readers are waiting for the next installment in Robert Caro’s multivolume Lyndon Johnson biography as avidly as George R. R. Martin fans eager for “The Winds of Winter” to arrive at last. (Some, I suppose, are at the edge of their seats waiting for both.) If you are among them, why not bide your time with Julia Sweig’s substantial new biography of Johnson’s wife, “Lady Bird Johnson: Hiding in Plain Sight”? Our reviewer, Mimi Swartz, calls it “a book in the Caro mold,” telling the story of America through its subject. That’s one of a passel of new biographies we recommend this week, including Blake Bailey’s long-awaited life of Philip Roth, Edward White’s tessellated study of Alfred Hitchcock and Dorothy Wickenden’s group biography of Frances Seward, Martha Coffin Wright and Harriet Tubman.

There’s also Rachel Kushner’s first collection of nonfiction, “The Hard Crowd,” and a couple of timely journalistic investigations: “Empire of Pain,” Patrick Radden Keefe’s exposé of the Sackler family’s role in the opioid crisis, and “Children Under Fire,” John Woodrow Cox’s account of gun violence’s impact. In poetry we like Alex Dimitrov’s new collection, “Love and Other Poems,” and in fiction we recommend a Bosnian novel and a debut about a bookseller on a quest.

Gregory Cowles
Senior Editor, Books
Twitter: @GregoryCowles

THE HARD CROWD: Essays 2000-2020, by Rachel Kushner. (Scribner. $26.) In her first essay collection, the celebrated novelist writes about pet topics including motorcycles and antique muscle cars, Italian film and that country’s radical politics, American prison reform and Palestinian refugees, as well as writers and artists she has admired. “This book’s title comes from ‘White Room,’ the Cream song,” our critic Dwight Garner writes. “’At the party,’ the lyric goes, ‘she was kindness in the hard crowd.’ It’s a good line, Kushner observes. The author spends time in hard crowds: with bikers, truckers, tattoo artists, the members of punk bands. This book has a real gallery of souls. One of Kushner’s crucial realizations comes near the end, when she admits that she is, herself, not so hard as she might have thought or wanted.”

THE TWELVE LIVES OF ALFRED HITCHCOCK: An Anatomy of the Master of Suspense, by Edward White. (Norton, $28.95.) It’s said that more books have been written about Hitchcock than any other filmmaker. White’s sleek and modest contribution presents the reader with portraits of Hitchcock from 12 different angles: “The Boy Who Couldn’t Grow Up,” “The Voyeur,” “The Family Man,” etc. “His selves clash and coexist,” our critic Parul Sehgal writes, “as they did in a life that spanned the emergence of feminism, psychoanalysis and mass advertising, and a career that mapped onto the history of film itself, from the silent era to the rise of television. Strangely, through these refractions, we receive a smoother, more cohesive sense of a man so adept at toying with his audience, on and off the screen.”

EMPIRE OF PAIN: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty, by Patrick Radden Keefe. (Doubleday, $32.50.) Since 1996, 450,000 Americans have died from opioid overdoses, making them the leading cause of accidental death in the country. Keefe tells the story of how the Sackler family, owners of the OxyContin manufacturer Purdue Pharma, became a decisive force in a national tragedy. “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.”

PHILIP ROTH: The Biography, by Blake Bailey. (Norton, $40.) The biographer of John Cheever and Richard Yates here produces a narrative masterpiece, describing a parade of book after book, award after award, lover after lover. Bailey’s prose is unintrusive; yet under his strong light what remains is Roth’s life as it was lived and — almost — as it was felt. Cynthia Ozick, reviewing it, writes: “A biographer’s ingenuity, and certainly Bailey’s, is to mold mere chronology — a heap of undifferentiated facts and events — into more than trajectory: into coherent theme. As in a novel, what is seen at first to be casual chance is revealed at last to be a steady and powerfully demanding drive.”

MY HEART, by Semezdin Mehmedinovic. Translated by Celia Hawkesworth. (Catapult, $27.) Health emergencies ground this moving autobiographical novel by a Bosnian writer who survived the Siege of Sarajevo and moved to Phoenix with his family in 1996. Full of trenchant observations and beauty, the book is a countermeasure to the erosion of memory. Francine Prose, in her review, calls it “powerful, at once profound and charming”: “Though it deals with tragedy, ‘My Heart’ is never depressing, partly because of the beauty of the language — expertly translated from the Bosnian by Celia Hawkesworth — and partly because of its depth and honesty of emotion, its intelligence and generosity of spirit, and the precision and originality of Mehmedinovic’s observations.”

THE AGITATORS: Three Friends Who Fought for Abolition and Women’s Rights, by Dorothy Wickenden. (Scribner, $30.) Mid-19th-century Auburn, N.Y., was a reformist hotbed, and three of its most prominent activists — Frances Seward, Martha Coffin Wright and Harriet Tubman — are at the center of this ingeniously structured group portrait. “Entwining these three asymmetrical lives as deftly as Wickenden does proves illuminating,” Jane Kamensky writes in her review. “Tubman’s actions reveal the existential stakes of Wright’s and Seward’s agitations. Her freedom journeys made their words flesh.”

CHILDREN UNDER FIRE: An American Crisis, by John Woodrow Cox. (Ecco, $28.99.) For a country awash in shooting deaths, Cox’s book is sadly timely, providing a deep and painful accounting, built from intimate reporting, of the traumatic impact of gun violence on children who have witnessed it or lost a loved one to it. “He draws a painful, critical picture of what a society with virtually unfettered access to lethal weapons looks like through children’s eyes instead of lecturing the reader on politics and policy,” Gary Younge writes in his review. “This book demonstrates that the most effective riposte to those who fetishize bearing arms is to bear witness.”

LADY BIRD JOHNSON: Hiding in Plain Sight, by Julia Sweig. (Random House, $32.) Sweig had access to the former first lady’s voluminous White House diary; her portrait is notable for the views on women’s rights, racial disparities, economic inequality and conservation that made Lady Bird ahead of her time (and possibly her husband). “Reading between the lines of Julia Sweig’s extensive, engaging new biography,” Mimi Swartz writes in her review, “it is possible to see her as the perfect bridge to the modern first lady. … To paraphrase the former Texas Governor Ann Richards, Lady Bird did everything more recent first ladies did, but ‘backwards and in high heels.’”

LOVE AND OTHER POEMS, by Alex Dimitrov. (Copper Canyon, paper, $17.) Here in his third volume Dimitrov comes across as an unabashed romantic. The book revives the persona of the downtown flâneur — it’s full of nods to New York landmarks — and reading it feels like wandering around the pre-pandemic metropolis we ache to get back to. “Dimitrov removes the academic armor of convolutedness and simply comes out with it — how he’s feeling, where he’s going, what he’s wanting,” Jeff Gordinier writes in his review. “The result is refreshing, especially right now. His city and his stanzas bristle with life.”

THE VIETRI PROJECT, by Nicola DeRobertis-Theye. (Harper/HarperCollins, $24.99.) Intrigued by a mysterious faraway customer, a bookseller sets out from the Bay Area to Rome, where she finds answers to some of her questions and learns a great deal about herself in this gratifying novel. “This complex, substantive debut offers a singular and transfixing take on the nature of identity — both national and personal — and the dangers of secrecy, both national and personal,” our reviewer, Joanna Rakoff, writes. “And, of course, what it means to come of age in a broken world, a world that has been broken for generations.”

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