I had drinks recently with a novelist friend, and the talk turned to our mutual distaste for Christmas carols as a category. The major chords, the marching rhythms, the simpering enforced jollity of it all. “Thumpety thump, thump thumpety thump”? Please. But there I was with my family last night, a cousin at the piano and 22 of us belting out the jingoistic standards, and it really was sort of magical. So maybe I’m not such a cynic after all. Still, the best carols — like the best books, like life itself — make room for both the shadows and the light; in keeping with this time of year, they’re as much about endings as they are about the hope of new beginnings.
Our recommended titles this week include a scathing analysis of the Brexit chaos, one novel about a time-traveling terrorist, another set in a post-climate-change dystopian future and a third about a nun investigating abuse allegations at a religious school. Another novel features a lawyer rendered mute by tongue cancer; that one’s a comedy. What light there is in these books comes from the books themselves, from the artistry and intelligence on display — virtues that also distinguish Cliff Kuang and Robert Fabricant’s fascinating new history of modern product design, and Sarah Abrevaya Stein’s meticulous recounting of one family’s path through the 20th century. Finally, we recommend three essay collections by close observers of the world: Darryl Pinckney, writing largely about black experience; Maryse Condé, writing largely about food and travel; and Emmanuel Carrère, writing largely about everything under the sun. Happy New Year, everyone.
Senior Editor, Books
THE POLITICS OF PAIN: Postwar England and the Rise of Nationalism, by Fintan O’Toole. (Liveright, $27.95.) O’Toole, an Irish journalist, isn’t unsympathetic to those who voted in favor of Brexit, but makes abundantly clear that he believes they were suckered into a raw deal. In a tone that is charmingly wry but never gleeful, he offers withering indictments of elite politicians, like Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, and an analysis of how England has never grappled properly with its experience of winning a world war while also losing an empire. It’s a “slyly brilliant” book, according to our critic Jennifer Szalai, that is “searching and elegantly argued.”
97,196 WORDS: Essays, by Emmanuel Carrère. Translated by John Lambert. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $28.) This collection of short pieces by an author widely considered to be France’s leading nonfiction writer underscores Carrère’s incisive style and moral stance; whether he’s writing about a murderer or a movie star, he is also investigating himself, part of a deeply empathetic quest to understand our species. “The pieces in this book … are riveting, not least those that he later developed into full-scale books,” Robert Gottlieb writes in his review. “It’s clearly not a matter of recycling old material but of responding to an urgent need in him to know more, understand more, feel more. And we are gripped by the same pressure: No matter how often he returns to his story, we are carried along with him.”
THE SACRAMENT, by Olaf Olafsson. (Ecco/HarperCollins, $26.99.) In this perceptive novel, a nun’s investigation of abuse allegations at an Icelandic religious school rekindles troubling memories from her own past when she travels to Reykjavik to inquire into the circumstances of an accused priest’s death. “If ‘The Sacrament’ is ostensibly a novel about a woman with secrets, it is more profoundly a consideration of silence,” Hannah Kent writes in her review. “Olafsson’s sparse, unadorned language intensifies an understanding that this story is indirectly about those who are voiceless.”
USER FRIENDLY: How the Hidden Rules of Design Are Changing the Way We Live, Work and Play, by Cliff Kuang with Robert Fabricant. (MCD/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $28.) This winning history of a recent revolution in product design — making objects that are easy to use and which people actually need — includes fascinating case studies and anecdotes drawn from the authors’ careers in the field. Our reviewer, Edward Tenner, calls it “a tour de force, an engrossing fusion of scholarly research, professional experience and revelations from intrepid firsthand reporting.”
BUSTED IN NEW YORK: And Other Essays, by Darryl Pinckney. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $30.) A running theme in these eloquent essays, most of which appeared in The New York Review of Books and incorporate political reportage with personal history, is the contradictory nature of middle-class black life. Pinckney “reveals himself to be a skillful chronicler of black experience,” Lauretta Charlton writes in her review. “What stands out in this collection are the moments when Pinckney turns his eye toward the contradictions of the black bourgeoisie, of which he is a longtime member. … A hazard of growing up black and middle class is the misguided belief that money and education will provide refuge from discrimination. Pinckney shows how those presumptions are often manifestations of internalized racism, and that even he is not immune to them.”
THEY WILL DROWN IN THEIR MOTHERS’ TEARS, by Johannes Anyuru. Translated by Saskia Vogel. (Two Lines, $22.95.) In the Swedish-Ugandan author’s melancholic fourth novel, the narrator, who claims to come from the future, has been held at a high-security psychiatric clinic since her participation in a horrific terrorist attack. Anyuru’s ability to link present-day exclusion to future atrocities makes this more than a genre entertainment. “The novel has a powerful emotional core,” Hari Kunzru writes in his review. “The feeling of loss and betrayal is palpable.”
DEAD ASTRONAUTS, by Jeff VanderMeer. (MCD/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27.) The author of “Annihilation” delivers vital ferocity in this darkly transcendent novel set in a post-climate-change future, filled with phantasmagoric visions, body horror and tortured beings traversing a blasted desert hellscape. Think “The Last Judgment,” but with more animals. “Amid all its grimness, the novel finds some small redemption in the power of love,” our reviewer, Chelsea Leu, writes. “But VanderMeer’s brilliant formal tricks make love feel abstract and unconvincing by the end, a flimsy human ideal. … It’s precisely that ferocity that makes ‘Dead Astronauts’ so terrifying and so compelling.”
THE MUTATIONS, by Jorge Comensal. Translated by Charlotte Whittle. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25.) The Mexican writer’s tragicomic debut features an attorney rendered mute by tongue cancer who finds comfort in the profane squawks of a parrot. Reviewing it, Randy Boyagoda calls the book a “feisty first novel” and a “dark, extended lawyer joke” that “coheres around the question of how a person (as well as his family members, friends and colleagues) deals with the felt and future consequences of sudden dire news.”
OF MORSELS AND MARVELS, by Maryse Condé. Translated by Richard Philcox. (Seagull, $27.50.) In a wide-ranging series of musing, memoiristic essays, the Guadeloupean novelist writes about the links between her culinary and literary passions. Travel becomes a shared theme, with food as the connector from one place or time to the next. “Both Condé’s writing and her food … transcend national or cultural delineation,” Charlotte Druckman writes in her review. “She asserts food writing’s rightful place among the literary arts. Both the genre and its readers are all the richer for it.”
FAMILY PAPERS: A Sephardic Journey Through the Twentieth Century, by Sarah Abrevaya Stein. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $28.) This micro-history meticulously traces one Mediterranean clan to illuminate the forces that have shaped the way we live now. “Stein, a U.C.L.A. historian, has ferocious research talents — she collected papers in multiple languages from nine different countries on three continents — and a writing voice that is admirably light and human,” our reviewer, Matti Friedman, writes. “She became so involved in the Levy universe that they now copy her on some family emails. All of this has produced a superb and touching book about the frailty of ties that hold together places and people.”