9 New Books We Recommend This Week

Happy New Year. Have you read any Sylvia Plath lately? Daphne Merkin’s excellent review of a new Plath biography (“Red Comet,” by Heather Clark) sent me back to her early poem “The Beekeeper’s Daughter,” a wonderfully fecund portrait of nature at its most Freudian — all sex and death, as nature tends to be — and from there to “Ariel,” with its unbeatable sequence of bee poems and daddy issues. You should read those this week, then read Clark’s biography for a fuller sense of the tumultuous life and mind behind the work. And if you’re hungry for more poetry, we also recommend the collection “That Was Now, This Is Then,” by the Pulitzer winner Vijay Seshadri. No bees there — but there are “birds fretting at the feeder.”

Maybe nuclear brinkmanship is more your thing? In that case you might enjoy Martin J. Sherwin’s “Gambling With Armageddon: Nuclear Roulette From Hiroshima to the Cuban Missile Crisis, 1945-1962.” Or foreign affairs: Declan Walsh’s “The Nine Lives of Pakistan” gives a reporter’s-eye view of life in that country. Or Nordic noir: Helene Tursten is back with another Swedish crime novel, “Snowdrift,” that makes good company at this time of year. In science we have a book about animal cognition (“Metazoa,” by Peter Godfrey-Smith) and a memoir of environmental activism in rural America (“Waste,” by Catherine Coleman Flowers). Finally, the memoirist Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore looks at life in gentrifying Seattle in “The Freezer Door,” and the critic Adam Kirsch (he’s also a poet: full circle!) surveys 20th-century Jewish literature in “The Blessing and the Curse.”

Gregory Cowles
Senior Editor, Books
Twitter: @GregoryCowles

RED COMET: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath, by Heather Clark. (Knopf, $40.) The bar is high for a new Plath biography, but Clark’s meticulously researched account manages to be both riveting and revelatory, restoring complexity and nuance to a poet whose career has been overshadowed by the circumstances of her tragic early death. “Clark’s talent for scene-painting and inserting the stray but illustrative detail … contributes to create a harrowing picture of the narrow confines of the London that Plath had moved to with such high hopes,” Daphne Merkin writes in her review, “and the mushrooming loneliness and despair — as well as ‘the stigma she surely felt as a single mother’ — that marked her last days.”

SNOWDRIFT, by Helene Tursten. Translated by Marlaine Delargy. (Soho Crime, $27.95.) Like all of Tursten’s crime procedurals, this one gives off an icy chill — not because it’s set during a bitter Swedish winter (though it is) but because a murder investigation raises unpleasant personal questions for its main character, Detective Inspector Embla Nystrom. “Tursten’s descriptions of the cold are bone-cracking,” Marilyn Stasio writes in her latest crime column. “Her characters can be just as chilly, starting with Embla,” but as the case heats up, “Embla’s customary coolness gives way to nightmares, anxiety and more.”

METAZOA: Animal Life and the Birth of the Mind, by Peter Godfrey-Smith. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $28.) Godfrey-Smith draws upon his vast diving knowledge and field experience to illuminate the ways in which the animal mind works — and the thoughts and experiences that give it shape. He posits, for example, the very real possibility that an octopus is a being with multiple selves. “The book is filled with riveting anecdotes and research, interspersed with charming and informative illustrations of various time periods … so we can imagine just for a moment what a sampling of inhabitants during that period looked like,” Aimee Nezhukumatathil writes in her review. “The whole book is a rather winning combination of not once ever making readers feel as if they are being lectured to; rather, it is the sensation of joining a wise, ever-patient friend on a time-traveling tour of the cognitive experiences of animals.”

THE NINE LIVES OF PAKISTAN: Dispatches From a Precarious State, by Declan Walsh. (Norton, $30.) Walsh’s richly detailed book intersperses profiles of some of Pakistan’s most controversial public figures with personal history, as he unravels the mystery of why, in 2013, as a correspondent for The Times, he was unceremoniously kicked out of the country. “Walsh functions with the assumption that his lines are tapped, works to avoid intelligence tails and continues to pry into the dark corners that those in power wish he wouldn’t,” Amna Nawaz writes in her review. “That investment on the ground is apparent in his book. Despite the fighting, the uncertainty and the sheer degree of difficulty involved in reporting in Pakistan, his familiarity with and fondness for the people and places he covers is clear.”

THE BLESSING AND THE CURSE: The Jewish People and Their Books in the Twentieth Century, by Adam Kirsch. (Norton, $30.) Kirsch, a poet and critic, seizes upon the conflicted quality of the Jewish experience for this survey of “some of the most significant and compelling Jewish books of the 20th century,” covering literary greats around the world from Franz Kafka to Tony Kushner. “Kirsch’s essays are expertly made, each one deftly including just enough historical context, healthy portions of summary and exposition, and the lightest sprinkling of interpretation and evaluation,” Josh Lambert writes in his review. “He says just enough to make the value of a book clear, without too many spoilers, and he doesn’t go on too long or belabor his points. The essays could serve as models for anyone asked to write the introduction for a new paperback edition of a well-worn text.”

THAT WAS NOW, THIS IS THEN: Poems, by Vijay Seshadri. (Graywolf, $24.) In his first collection since winning the Pulitzer in 2014 (for “3 Sections”), Seshadri applies his coiling, conversational voice to an unusually wide range of forms — from rhymed quatrains to fat blocks of prose — in poems that are typically chatty, probing and self-mocking. “Seshadri’s poems are testily smart, often funny, conceptually intricate and so chock-full of irony that it’s hard to avoid making a pun here involving magnets or multivitamins,” David Orr writes in his review. “He’s a poet who mesmerizes not by stillness but by zigs and zags, and he very much wants to take the reader with him as he island hops from idea to idea.”

WASTE: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret, by Catherine Coleman Flowers. (The New Press, $25.99.) Flowers, an environmental activist and MacArthur fellow, spotlights the health toll of a complicated, unpleasant problem — the lack of proper waste sanitation in rural America — even as she describes her own evolution as an advocate. “Flowers brings an invigorating sense of purpose to the page,” our reviewer, Anna Clark, writes. “‘Waste’ is written with warmth, grace and clarity. Its straightforward faith in the possibility of building a better world, from the ground up, is contagious. … Flowers shares the extraordinary story of her own life, in all its detours, leaps of faith, luck, strange turns, hard work and her ever-rising social consciousness.”

GAMBLING WITH ARMAGEDDON: Nuclear Roulette From Hiroshima to the Cuban Missile Crisis, 1945-1962, by Martin J. Sherwin. (Knopf, $35.) Sherwin’s well-researched and reasoned analysis of the first 17 years of the nuclear age is a reminder of the crucial need for arms control in the modern world. “The book should become the definitive account of its subject,” Talmage Boston writes in his review. “History proves that the disadvantages of nuclear weapons outweigh their advantages,” but “the book’s final lesson is the unsettling one that regardless of how many wise decisions get made by prudent leaders, good luck is crucial.”

THE FREEZER DOOR, by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore. (Semiotext(e), paper, $17.95.) In a smart and funny work — part confession, part polemic — Sycamore navigates the complexities of life in gentrifying Seattle, where she no longer feels welcome in the “politicized queer spaces” she once held dear. “There is much to love here,” Kristen Arnett writes in her review. “The pacing of the work, with its often fragmentary form, allows readers to sit with poignant moments for a beat, unpacking a sentence only to return later to unpack it again. Other sections slide past more quickly, thoughts rubbing up against one another in wild streams of consciousness.”

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