12 New Books We Recommend This Week

There’s no escaping American politics lately, so why not lean in? We recommend three books this week that provide perspective and historical context, from a study of the modern Senate to a true crime narrative about the fall of Vice President Spiro Agnew to an analysis of the Truman administration’s embrace of a robust foreign policy. Elsewhere, we also like a book about the Himalaya mountains, a memoir of mental breakdown and a history of the animation industry’s wild early days, along with novels about lexicography (yes, really) and parenting, a book about exercise, and more.

Gregory Cowles
Senior Editor, Books
Twitter: @GregoryCowles

THE LIAR’S DICTIONARY, by Eley Williams. (Doubleday, $26.95.) Williams’s spirited first novel is about lexicography — a celebration of the people who compile dictionaries, even if they’re driven out of their minds in the process. It tells braided stories about two sets of characters, living in London more than a century apart, each of them toiling on an endearingly hapless (and wholly fictional) dictionary. The novel has plot, but “plot is not why a reader should come to ‘The Liar’s Dictionary,’” our critic Dwight Garner writes. “One approaches it instead for highly charged neurotic situations and for Williams’s adept word-geekery. Her esotericism is always on cheerful display.”

KILL SWITCH: The Rise of the Modern Senate and the Crippling of American Democracy, by Adam Jentleson. (Liveright, $26.95.) Jentleson, who served as a senior aide to the former Senate majority leader Harry Reid, has written an impeccably timed book about the modern Senate, explaining how “the world’s greatest deliberative body” has come to carry out its work without much greatness or even deliberation, serving instead as a place where ambitious legislation goes to die. “Jentleson understands the inner workings of the institution, down to the most granular details,” our critic Jennifer Szalai writes, and “ably narrates this history, with all of its ironies and unintended consequences.”

W-3: A Memoir, by Bette Howland. (A Public Space, $26.) In this memoir, first published in 1974, Howland recounts a suicide attempt and the time she spent in the psychiatric ward of a Chicago hospital. She insists on telling her story — and the stories of people she met there — with blunt clarity, sidestepping sentimentality or sensationalism. Howland “appears now to be part of a wave of rediscovered female writers enjoying posthumous revivals,” our critic Parul Sehgal writes. “But her case is more complicated than that and marked by mystery. This is not a story of mere neglect but of a writer’s collusion with invisibility, with a lifelong ambivalence toward selfhood and its burdens.”

HIMALAYA: A Human History, by Ed Douglas. (Norton, $40.) This authoritative account of the world’s most storied mountains is rich with personalities, politics and lore, to which Douglas, a veteran mountaineer and expert on the region, brings an infectious love and fascination. “Douglas untangles the history of the mountains starting from when they were formed, about 50 million years ago, to the Everest climbing craze today,” Jeffrey Gettleman writes in his review. “His book is the fruit of an enormous amount of research that focuses on the conquest of the mountains and the interconnected kingdoms and states that vied for control. His observations are sharp, and in many passages, his writing glows.”

A GOOD TIME TO BE BORN: How Science and Public Health Gave Children a Future, by Perri Klass. (Norton, $28.95.) In this ambitious, elegant meditation on medicine, culture and parenting, Klass explores one of our greatest human achievements: the reduction in child mortality. With a powerful rage, she underscores the racism and shameful political truths that have complicated our contemporary plague. “Klass does not consider herself a historian or expert in any sense — yet she clearly is an expert in narrative and in medicine,” Christie Watson writes in her review. “She takes the most complex human patterns of all — history, medicine, politics, art — and knits them into something unique and beautiful.”

BAG MAN: The Wild Crimes, Audacious Cover-Up, and Spectacular Downfall of a Brazen Crook in the White House, by Rachel Maddow and Michael Yarvitz. (Crown, $28.) This detailed and breezy account of Vice President Spiro Agnew’s downfall, adapted from the authors’ popular podcast, outlines the kickbacks he received from Maryland contractors even before he became Richard Nixon’s running mate, and draws on hours of audio transcripts that were unavailable to earlier chroniclers of this story. “Agnew resigned in October 1973, 10 months ahead of Nixon’s resignation,” Jeffrey Frank notes in his review. “To read ‘Bag Man’ is to be reminded how lucky the nation was to be rid of him.”

SAVING FREEDOM: Truman, the Cold War, and the Fight for Western Civilization, by Joe Scarborough. (Harper/HarperCollins, $29.99.) The popular cable news host examines President Harry Truman’s legacy, showing how shrewd White House politics overcame America’s divisions and its isolationist tradition. Our reviewer, John Gans, calls “Saving Freedom” an “earnest, engaging new book” that “shows readers why and, most important, how Truman set a precedent for all his successors” when he “persuaded a suspicious Republican Congress and millions of exhausted Americans to support not just foreign aid, but also the Marshall Plan and NATO alliance. … Scarborough shows how the often-underestimated Truman pulled it all off.”

A LIE SOMEONE TOLD YOU ABOUT YOURSELF, by Peter Ho Davies. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24.) In Davies’s wise, bracingly honest novel, a father chronicles his son’s birth through his teenage years. He juggles guilt, worry and marital strife alongside the joys, triumphs and laughter of family life — never sugarcoating, always leaning into the hard parts in a way that’s refreshing, timely and necessary. “If you’ve ever wondered if your family is ‘normal,’ Davies’s story offers a reassuring reality check,” Elisabeth Egan writes in her latest Group Text column. “With a sense of humor, he presents big worries alongside little triumphs — often in the same sentence, just as the two tend to appear in real life.”

HOW TO SLOWLY KILL YOURSELF AND OTHERS IN AMERICA, by Kiese Laymon. (Scribner, paper, $16.) A contentious publishing experience left Laymon unsatisfied with his 2013 essay collection. Now, seven years later, after buying the book back from his initial publisher and revising the collection, he returns with Take 2. “By adding six rich new essays, deftly curating seven from the original book, and reworking the chronology,” Laymon has “made a once solid collection superb,” Jerald Walker writes in his review. “Ever-present throughout ‘How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America’ is the blues ethos of stating and confronting the brutal facts of life and of placing a high premium on style, improvisation and excellence.”

WILD MINDS: The Artists and Rivalries That Inspired the Golden Age of Animation, by Reid Mitenbuler. (Atlantic Monthly Press, $28.) Mitenbuler’s fast-moving account of the cartoonists, writers, hucksters and moguls who constructed the firmament of American animation is also filled with shady business dealings and fierce rivalries. “Cartoons could be delightful and winsome, but they could also be as unsettling as anything else that was breaking new in the early 20th century,” Michael Tisserand writes in his review. “‘Wild Minds’ is at its best when minds are at their wildest, during American animation’s dawn. … Like the animators he celebrates, Mitenbuler, the author of a history of bourbon, is able to sum up a character with a couple of quick strokes.”

AN INVENTORY OF LOSSES, by Judith Schalansky. Translated by Jackie Smith. (New Directions, $24.95.) This genre-defying catalog of things that no longer exist takes on a variety of styles, from researched histories to richly imagined narratives. A vanished island, the Caspian tiger, Sappho’s lost poems: Each gives rise to a fascinating study of disappearance. Schalansky’s technique “can come together to impressive effect, especially in stories that feature the narrator wandering through natural landscapes (with beautiful attention paid to birds and animals) or through archives,” Kate Zambreno writes in her review. “There is much to admire here in the richness of historical research and the intelligence and eloquence of thought.”

EXERCISED: Why Something We Never Evolved to Do Is Healthy and Rewarding, by Daniel E. Lieberman. (Pantheon, $29.95.) An evolutionary biologist debunks common fitness myths and explains why we resist exercise even if we know it’s good for us. “Books about exercise are nothing new — especially not at this time of year,” Jen A. Miller writes in her review. “But ‘Exercised’ is different from the usual scrum, in that its objective is not to sell a diet or fitness plan. … Instead, Lieberman, drawing on his expertise and knowledge of the way evolutionary forces work, takes ideas that have been spun and spun again, often based on shaky information, and cracks them open.” Most important, she adds, “Lieberman doesn’t judge those who find exercising difficult.”

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