Among our recommended works of fiction this week is Ali Smith’s “Winter,” an “insubordinate folk tale” that continues her projected quartet tied to the seasons. Two classic novels, Nella Larsen’s “Passing” (1929) and George S. Schuyler’s “Black No More” (1931), have been reissued in time for Black History Month. Ruby Namdar’s “The Ruined House” is an intense novel about Jewish life that won Israel’s most lucrative literary award.
And Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s “The World Goes On” is full of the sprawling sentences for which the Hungarian writer has become known. In nonfiction, a wide array of subjects: threats to democracy, ancient crafts, strategy during the Vietnam War, Ezra Pound in confinement and the Nobel Prize winner J. M. Coetzee’s literary criticism.
Daily Books Editor and Staff Writer
WINTER, by Ali Smith. (Pantheon, $25.95.) The second novel in Smith’s projected seasonal cycle is an insubordinate folk tale, with echoes of the fiction of Iris Murdoch and Angela Carter. In it, four characters gather in a big rambling house and have at each other. Our critic Dwight Garner says that the book’s elastic structure, like that of the previous novel, “Autumn,” “allows Smith the freedom to write as if improvising a bedtime story. The combination of dreaminess and acuity is what gives these books their tang.”
PASSING, by Nella Larsen. (Penguin Classics, $14.) BLACK NO MORE, by George S. Schuyler. (Penguin Classics, $16.) Racial passing is the central concern of both of these influential, if woefully under-read, American classics, which have been reissued in handsome new editions in time for Black History Month. “For their wildly differing approaches, the novels are both curious about what it means to feel, as well as be, truly free, and how freedom and safety might be at odds,” our critic Parul Sehgal writes. “They are derisive about fantasies of racial purity, black or white. They are unsparing on the madness of racial classification but frank, and very beautiful, on the lure of racial belonging.”
HOW DEMOCRACIES DIE, by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. (Crown, $26.) In this “lucid and essential” guide, two political scientists write about the norms that have sustained American democracy, and argue that President Trump has tried to eviscerate more than one of those norms. Our critic Jennifer Szalai, summarizing the book’s circumspect conclusion, writes: “There is no democratic paradise, no easy way out. Democracy, when it functions properly, is hard, grinding work. This message may not be as loud and as lurid as what passes for politics these days, but it might be the one we need to hear.”
CRAEFT: An Inquiry Into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Crafts, by Alexander Langlands. (Norton, $26.95.)Langlands is a sort of method archaeologist, unearthing the various ways that humans used their hands for thousands of years and taking it upon himself to do things like cutting hay, building a drystone wall and making a skep for beekeeping. Our reviewer Michael Bierut writes: “Langlands, surprisingly unsentimental for someone who made his fame doing historical re-enactments, resists the pull of nostalgia. Yet he makes a persuasive case that the surrender of our lives to machines represents a regression.”
THE RUINED HOUSE, by Ruby Namdar. (Harper, $29.99.) An award-winning novelist in Hebrew, Namdar likes to infuse the ancient and biblical into our contemporary world, creating a story that brims with blood and incense. Our reviewer Josh Lambert says “The Ruined House” is “a masterpiece of modern religious literature, exactly as deep, disturbing and unresolved as is necessary to remind us, habituated as we are to the shallows of contemporary Jewish life, what still lurks beneath — primitive, raw and exacting.”
THE ROAD NOT TAKEN: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam, by Max Boot. (Liveright, $35.) As an intelligence operative, Lansdale personified the view that the key to victory in Vietnam lay in winning the hearts and minds of the people. Boot argues that “his approach, successful or not, would have been more humane and less costly.”
THE WORLD GOES ON, by Laszlo Krasznahorkai. Translated by John Batki, Ottilie Mulzet and George Szirtes. (New Directions, $27.95.) In his marvelous new book, Krasznahorkai’s characters wander in search of meaning — and find none. Still, a playful irony undercuts all the anguish. The stories feature solitary men despairing in various locations. They despair in Kiev, Varanasi and Shanghai, “circling all around the globe like the second hand of a watch.”
THE BUGHOUSE: The Poetry, Politics and Madness of Ezra Pound, by Daniel Swift. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27.) Perhaps no other poet presents more forcefully than Pound the need to separate the life from the work — and the impossibility of doing so. Swift seeks insights into the poet through his years at the mental institution where he was confined.
LATE ESSAYS: 2006-2017, by J. M. Coetzee. (Viking, $28.) In his own work, the Nobel Prize-winning author may reinvent the rules of fiction, but his literary criticism hews to more traditional formulas, enriched with fascinating biographies of writers and brilliant psychologizing of their characters. The subjects of these 23 essays include Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter,” Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary” and Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych.”
Categories: Book review