A couple of smart writers recently have put words to something that seems self-evident but bears keeping in mind for anybody who loves to read: “Literature is made of culture,” the critic Laura Miller wrote at Slate, while on Twitter the novelist Sheila Heti wrote, “Writers are their times.” (Or something to that effect, anyway: Heti, a dedicated self-deleter, removed her tweet not long after posting it.) The point is that books don’t exist in a vacuum, and even works of pure history or fantasy are shaped by the context of the writer’s own world.
That’s more overt in some cases than others, of course, and a number of our recommended books this week don’t just engage with the culture; they charge at it like a bull with its head lowered and steam coming from its nostrils. In nonfiction, there’s Michael Moss’s urgent indictment of the junk food industry (“Hooked”) and a biography (by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan) of the brash modern painter Francis Bacon; an essay collection about Black culture and political resistance (Jesse McCarthy’s “Who Will Pay Reparations on My Soul?”) and a history of Black transportation (Mia Bay’s “Traveling Black”) that illuminates how travel, too, can be an act of resistance. Elsewhere, we like a marriage guide that advocates radical generosity, a zoologist’s speculations about alien life, a look at the role of the Elizabethan pirate Sir Francis Drake in shaping the British Empire, and a historian’s efforts to uncover the story behind a shocking Holocaust photograph. In fiction, we recommend one novel about a couple who summers on Madagascar, another novel about a man executed for his support of Algerian independence, and a third novel tracking the tricky relationship between a psychologist and a patient obsessed with sex.
Senior Editor, Books
FRANCIS BACON: Revelations, by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan. (Knopf, $60.) The art historian John Richardson called Francis Bacon “the first modern painter of international caliber that the British have produced.” In their new book, Stevens and Swan (who won a Pulitzer Prize for their 2004 biography of Willem de Kooning) write about the fearless painter whose influences were Nietzsche and Aeschylus, and whose mode was “exhilarated despair.” Our critic Parul Sehgal writes: “It is the most comprehensive and detailed account of the life, and one that topples central pillars of the Bacon myth.”
TRAVELING BLACK: A Story of Race and Resistance, by Mia Bay. (The Belknap Press of Harvard University, $35.) Recent books have explored the role of the car in Black American life, and though the automobile figures prominently in “Traveling Black,” Bay situates it in the broader context of the various forms that mobility took after Emancipation. She writes of how various forms of transportation, initially embraced by Black travelers for their potential to offer an escape from the degradation and dangers of the Jim Crow era, succumbed to the stubborn forces of segregation. It’s a “superb history of mobility and resistance,” our critic Jennifer Szalai writes, in which “the question of literal movement becomes a way to understand the civil rights movement writ large.”
THE 80/80 MARRIAGE: A New Model for a Happier, Stronger Relationship, by Nate and Kaley Klemp. (Penguin Life, $26.) The authors, high-powered executive coaches, realized their marriage was suffering from the pressure to pull equal weight. They came up with the concept of the 80/80 marriage, where both members strive for “radical generosity.” This book explains how to make it work. “With the idea that everything needs to be 50/50, life becomes a constant negotiation: If I’m stacking the dishes in the dishwasher, why are you playing Civilization and not reading to the kids?” Judith Newman writes in her latest self-help column. “I love the idea of making generosity the focus of a book, and a relationship.”
IN SEARCH OF A KINGDOM: Francis Drake, Elizabeth I, and the Perilous Birth of the British Empire, by Laurence Bergreen. (Custom House, $29.99.) As Bergreen colorfully recounts, the rule of Elizabeth I and the voyages of Francis Drake — a superlative navigator with a habit of piracy — were the catalysts leading to England’s rise as a world power. “Drake’s story is both dramatic and timely,” Nigel Cliff writes in his review. “His global joy ride may not have been intended as a geopolitical statement, and his later adventures ended in disaster. But he helped chart a course for the future British Empire, which learned to be more freewheeling and commercial, less draconian and statist than its Spanish forebear.”
MY FRIEND NATALIA, by Laura Lindstedt. Translated by David Hackston. (Liveright, $24.) An unorthodox psychologist — a practitioner of an original, writing-based “layer therapy” — recounts sessions with an eccentric, sex-obsessed patient. The result is an intriguing cerebral novel, a playful Lacanian satire and a philosophical meditation on memory. “The patient will rewrite herself while being semi-authored by the psychologist,” Hermione Hoby writes in her review, noting that the therapist exerts at least as much interest as the patient: “The deeper, indeed more layered, mystery is, it emerges, the novel’s chimerical narrator.”
WHO WILL PAY REPARATIONS ON MY SOUL? Essays, by Jesse McCarthy. (Liveright, $27.95.) In essays written during the period bookended by the police killings of Michael Brown in 2014 and both Breonna Taylor and George Floyd in 2020, this stunning debut collection reveals how Black resistance happens not just in politics and in the streets, but in art, church and the academy. “McCarthy’s essays are richly varied, and one surmises the abundant intersections of art and race were in large measure informed by his own experiences growing up Black in America and in France,” Jerald Walker writes in his review. “With a younger readership at the top of his mind but an open invitation to all, McCarthy seems determined to draw attention to African-Americans’ ‘true strength’ and ‘worth.’”
THE RAVINE: A Family, a Photograph, a Holocaust Massacre Revealed, by Wendy Lower. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28.) Lower, a historian, homes in on one photo of a Ukrainian Jewish woman and child being shot by Germans and locals, using forensic research in her quest to identify everyone in the frame, tying the atrocities to perpetrators. “Lower shows that it takes a lot of people to kill a lot of people,” Susie Linfield writes in her review. “Her book is a refutation of those who urge us not to look.”
THE ZOOLOGIST’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY: What Animals on Earth Reveal About Aliens — and Ourselves, by Arik Kershenbaum. (Penguin Press, $28.) What might aliens look like when they arrive? Bringing his knowledge of animals to bear, a Cambridge scientist concludes, among other things, that some version of Darwinian selection will be at work. “Kershenbaum predicts that some aliens will exhibit social cooperation, technology and language,” Kermit Pattison writes in his review. “He even posits that aliens will share the quality we hold most dear: intelligence.”
TOMORROW THEY WON’T DARE TO MURDER US, by Joseph Andras. (Verso, paper, $18.95.) This debut novel is an unsparing account of the life of Fernand Iveton, a supporter of Algerian independence who was executed for planting a bomb at a factory in 1956. Andras vividly sketches the landscape of politics and emotions that sealed Iveton’s fate. “Andras is most interested in the intimate dimensions of this radical life,” Kaiama L. Glover writes in her review. “The intensity of both Iveton’s principles and the political moment he’s embroiled in still manages to shine through.”
RED ISLAND HOUSE, by Andrea Lee. (Scribner, $27.) In Lee’s thought-provoking novel, an unlikely couple spends summers at a sumptuous compound in Madagascar. The place never quite feels like home, and the unpredictability of island life becomes a metaphor for fault lines between husband, wife and the different worlds they belong to. “Come for the views and the wildlife, stay for simmering tensions and culture clashes,” Elisabeth Egan writes in her latest Group Text column. “Lee welcomes readers with lush language, then lays out a dazzling buffet of choices and assumptions that are ripe for questioning.”
HOOKED: Food, Free Will, and How the Food Giants Exploit Our Addictions, by Michael Moss. (Random House, $28.) Moss, the author of “Salt Sugar Fat,” returns to the topic of junk food to ask how food manufacturers manipulate these foods to addict us. “According to Moss, Big Food is relentlessly and cynically striving to maximize their ‘share of stomach,’ industry parlance for how much of the food we eat they can supply,” Daniel E. Lieberman writes in his review. “All in all, ‘Hooked’ blends investigative reporting, science and foodie writing to argue that the processed food industry is no different from tobacco companies like Philip Morris that for decades lied about the harmful and addictive nature of cigarettes.”
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