Suggested reading from critics and editors at The New York Times.
Among the books we recommend this week are two histories of social ferment that led to consequential change in different places and eras and conditions: Christopher Clark’s “Revolutionary Spring,” about the unrest that swept Europe in 1848, and Paul Kix’s “You Have to Be Prepared to Die Before You Can Begin to Live,” about the civil rights struggle that unfolded in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963. In very different ways, both books feel as if they’re in conversation with this moment; you can’t go wrong reading either, or both.
Also on the syllabus this week: two books about the glories (and at times horrors) of human knowledge, as well as new fiction from Andrew Ridker, Jeffery Renard Allen, Ashley Audrain and more. Happy reading.
This brash, beat-the-clock adventure story about fathers, sons, guilt and the mysteries of the sea takes place in an absurdly improbable setting — inside the various stomachs of a 60-ton sperm whale, where a scuba diver has been trapped after being inadvertently swallowed for lunch.
“I was absolutely gripped. … The star of the book is the whale — magnificent, unfathomable, full of intelligence and pathos.”
From Sarah Lyall’s review
MTV Books | $27.99
YOU HAVE TO BE PREPARED TO DIE BEFORE YOU CAN BEGIN TO LIVE:
Ten Weeks in Birmingham That Changed America
The 1963 campaign to integrate Birmingham, Ala., led to shocking brutality: youths blasted by fire hoses and set upon by snarling police dogs. Kix, a journalist, weaves those images into a harrowing narrative of a crucial juncture in the civil rights movement.
“A gripping reminder that organizing is difficult work, that it requires faith and discipline, and that the best-laid plans can lead simultaneously to the worst and most successful outcomes.”
From Jefferson Cowie’s review
Celadon | $30
Although the internet has largely killed the trivia compendium as a genre, Schreiber (a podcaster) fills the void with this collection of esoterica that asks why people believe in crazy things. The result is a guide to the galaxy of the bizarre.
“Suitable for beach reading or for mainlining before a dinner party. Schreiber brings a formidable amount of research to bear, and he’s careful never to mock any of his subjects, even those who may deserve it.”
From Dan Piepenbring’s review
Morrow | $29.99
KNOWING WHAT WE KNOW:
The Transmission of Knowledge, From Ancient Wisdom to Modern Magic
It is perhaps appropriate that Winchester, one of our era’s true polymaths, should devote himself to the subject of knowledge generally, in this entertaining if doomed attempt to define knowledge and chart our acquisition thereof.
“Winchester has spent his literary career bestowing on readers things they never knew before. … The book may not, in the end, propound a new argument for the value of acquiring knowledge. But like all of Winchester’s books, it is one.”
From Peter Sagal’s review
Harper | $35
FAT TIME AND OTHER STORIES
Jeffery Renard Allen
Allen’s latest collection offers a dark and imaginative examination of the lives of Black people in America, explored through a series of probing, reality-warping, history-twisting, magical realist tales; in one, Muhammad Ali is text buddies with a teenage girl from the moon.
“These are difficult, inventive stories that, at their best, occupy a range of frequencies and otherworldly places.”
From Randy Boyagoda’s review
Graywolf | Paperback, $16
CLOSE TO HOME
This visceral debut novel, about a striving young Irishman whose one wrong move threatens to undo him, is a dark but illuminating portrait of Belfast, painted by a man who knows the lads, the bars, the bookstores and back alleys that litter his birthplace.
“Though the voice is decidedly Irish, the message of Michael Magee’s dead-on debut novel is universal. At its core, ‘Close to Home’ is about finding a way to transcend the pain, the people and the place you’re born into.”
From Eli Cranor’s review
Farrar, Straus & Giroux | $28
In his riotous and relatable new novel, Ridker finds the humor in a family’s fall from grace as a couple and their young adult children grapple with malaise, adultery and the danger of taking things for granted. Despite the bleak subject, the story handily earns its title.
“Brisk and assured. … Intelligent, bighearted, spew-your-gefilte-fish-funny.”
From Cathi Hanauer’s review
Viking | $30
This novel takes place in an upscale enclave where gracious living masks a web of secrets. At a party, neighbors overhear a mother castigating her 10-year-old son; a few months later, the boy plummets from a window and suspicions flare.
“Rage unites these women — rage that is expertly, subtly and powerfully rendered. … Delivers a sucker-punch ending you’ll have to read twice to believe.”
From Ivy Pochoda’s review
Pamela Dorman | $28
Seemingly all at once, in cities across Europe 175 years ago, liberal and radical insurrectionists banded together to challenge monarchical authority. Presenting the unrest at street level, Clark weaves an impressive tableau.
“Clark is drawn to color, sound and dress. … This kaleidoscopic accumulation of details and viewpoints greatly enriches our understanding of 1848 as a political phenomenon.”
From Alexander Zevin’s review
Crown | $40