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12 new books we recommend this week

Have you read Zadie Smith’s essay in defense of fiction yet, from the Oct. 24 issue of The New York Review of Books? You’ll need a subscription, but Smith is always worth it for her thoughts on the intersection of art and culture — here, she’s grappling with the vexed question of identity and appropriation, and siding (as she has before) with creative license and the primacy of the sentence over any kind of political calculation. Chew on that while you read Smith’s new story collection, “Grand Union,” which is one of our recommended books this week.

Brilliant, iconoclastic women are all over this week’s list. There’s Janis Joplin, the subject of Holly George-Warren’s new biography; Carmen Maria Machado, whose memoir traces the path of an abusive relationship; and Meghan Daum, who in her latest book gives the side-eye to much of today’s cancel culture. In “Unspeakable Acts,” Nancy Princenthal writes about Yoko Ono, Judy Chicago and other women who have used art to address themes of sexual violence. Elizabeth Strout and Edna O’Brien both have new novels about complicated women (one of whom you’ve met before), and Mary Ruefle has a new book of poems, “Dunce.” That one’s largely about death, as Elisa Gabbert notes in her review, but it’s also about life and memory and weather and joy. And reading! Here’s the title of one poem from the collection: “Dispirited While Packing My Books Away One Summer Morning, I Utilize Phrases From One That Was Destined for Fodder.” That’s a whole story right there, and we haven’t even gotten to the first line yet.

Gregory Cowles
Senior Editor, Books
Twitter: @GregoryCowles

JANIS: Her Life and Music, by Holly George-Warren. (Simon & Schuster, $28.99.) Janis Joplin died at 27 of an accidental heroin overdose, and her short life was full of both suffering and glory. Covering the singer’s life from her painful upbringing in a conservative Texas oil town to her emancipation through music to her life of fame and excess, this biography “performs a service by stripping away a lot of the noise around Joplin,” our critic Dwight Garner writes, “and telling her story simply and well, with some of the tone and flavor of a good novel.”

IN THE DREAM HOUSE: A Memoir, by Carmen Maria Machado. (Graywolf, $26.) Carmen Maria Machado’s account of her frightening and abusive relationship with another woman while in graduate school is a book in shards. Each chapter hews to the conventions of a different genre: road trip, romance novel, creature feature, lesbian pulp novel, stoner comedy. “What could seem gimmicky — I confess I braced myself at first — quickly feels like the only natural way to tell the story of a couple,” our critic Parul Sehgal writes. “What relationship exists in purely one genre? What life?”

UNSPEAKABLE ACTS: Women, Art, and Sexual Violence in the 1970s, by Nancy Princenthal. (Thames & Hudson, $34.95.) Throughout the art-historical record, sexual violence against women was a subject typically rendered by male artists for a male audience. Nancy Princenthal shows how that finally changed in the last quarter of the 20th century, during the political and cultural upheavals of the 1970s. “Unspeakable Acts” “takes a tangled history and weaves it into an elegant account,” our critic Jennifer Szalai writes. “It’s the irresolvable tensions that give Princenthal’s book, like the art she writes about, its pull.”

EDISON, by Edmund Morris. (Random House, $38.) Although Morris employs the unusual technique of telling Edison’s story backward, from death to birth, he leaves no doubt about the man’s astonishing brilliance, manic productivity and unparalleled impact on modern life. Our reviewer, David Oshinsky, observes that Morris (who died of a stroke in May, after finishing this book) was well suited to explain such a compulsive and far-reaching inventor. “Writing about someone who filed more than 1,000 patents, whose inventions ranged from incandescent electric lighting to immovable concrete furniture, who personally tested 15,000 native plants in a failed attempt to produce a domestic rubber supply, demands a working knowledge of electrical engineering, chemistry, radiography, metallurgy and botany — all of which Morris readily acquired,” Oshinsky writes. “Morris leans heavily toward the ‘more is better’ school of biography. … Few biographers, however, possess the narrative talents of Edmund Morris. His ability to set a scene, the words aligned in sweet rhythmic cadence, is damn near intoxicating.”

GRAND UNION: Stories, by Zadie Smith. (Penguin Press, $27.) In her first story collection, which contains some of Smith’s most vibrant, original fiction, the British novelist moves beyond traditional narrative into wilder, less charted territory. “Readers have known Zadie Smith as a novelist of tremendous scope, a maximalist with a global eye and mind,” Rebecca Makkai writes in her review. In this collection, “the best pieces achieve something less narrative and closer to brilliance. … Thrillingly, the best work in ‘Grand Union’ is some of the newest. Among its previously unpublished stories and the two most recently published ones, we find the surreal, the nonlinear, the essayistic, the pointillist.”

OLIVE, AGAIN, by Elizabeth Strout. (Random House, $27.) Everyone’s favorite retired schoolteacher returns in this sequel to Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Olive Kitteridge.” Welcome back to Crosby, Me., where Olive is grudgingly remarried and struggling to make sense of both her husband and her grown son. She might have mellowed with age, but she hasn’t lost her wit. “One of the strengths of Strout’s novel is that she realistically details the uncertainty and ambivalence, the revulsion and attraction, that these stubborn, no longer young people experience in each other’s company,” our reviewer, John McMurtrie, writes. “Strout, as in ‘Olive Kitteridge,’ is exquisitely attuned to the subtleties of her beloved character’s innermost thoughts; she makes us feel for Olive, giving us an intimate, multifaceted and touching portrait of someone suffering alone.”

GIRL, by Edna O’Brien. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26.) Maryam, the narrator of O’Brien’s latest novel, is kidnapped by jihadi fighters in northeastern Nigeria. She returns home bearing a jihadi’s child. “It’s a tribute to O’Brien’s skill as a writer — her ability to inhabit the minds of her characters and to craft virtuosic sentences — that ‘Girl’ is immensely painful to read,” Francine Prose writes in her review. “Our sympathy for Maryam is unquestioning and deep, even as she reveals aspects of her psyche that have been severely damaged by her experience.”

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