11 New Books We Recommend This Week

Happy Thanksgiving to our American readers. Our recommended books this week include a presidential memoir, a couple of looks at the culture of big tech (in Silicon Valley and in rural China), a remembrance of a road trip with Jorge Luis Borges and a graphic novel about Syrian refugees in America, among others.

Gregory Cowles
Senior Editor, Books
Twitter: @GregoryCowles

A PROMISED LAND, by Barack Obama. (Crown, $45.) This 700-page memoir, the first of two planned volumes about Obama’s time in the White House, stops in May 2011, shortly after his roasting of Donald Trump at the White House Correspondents Dinner on April 30 and the killing of Osama bin Laden the day after. Obama offers close-up views of the major issues that he faced during his first term, including the economic stimulus, health care, immigration, the environment and the forever war in Afghanistan. The book is “as deliberative, measured and methodical as the author himself,” our critic Jennifer Szalai writes. “At a time of grandiose mythologizing, he marshals his considerable storytelling skills to demythologize himself.”

FUNERAL DIVA, by Pamela Sneed. (City Lights, $16.95.) The poet Pamela Sneed was vigorously involved in AIDS activism at the height of the crisis in New York City. Her new book, a blend of poetry and memoir, recaptures that time — especially the contributions and leadership of lesbians, whose labor has gone largely unacknowledged and whose grief has counted for so little. The book swoops through the many experiences of Sneed’s life. “Sneed is an acclaimed reader of her own poetry, and the book has the feeling of live performance,” our critic Parul Sehgal writes. “Its strength is in its abundance, its desire for language to stir body as well as mind.”

WHAT TECH CALLS THINKING: An Inquiry Into the Intellectual Bedrock of Silicon Valley, by Adrian Daub. (FSG Originals x Logic, paper, $15.) From his vantage point as a Stanford humanities professor, Daub peers at the intellectual pretensions of tech-world discourse, exposing the machismo and greed behind the industry’s counterculture facade. “There are so many scintillating aperçus in Daub’s book that I gave up underlining,” Virginia Heffernan writes in her review. “It’s energizing to read a book about tech philosophy aimed at thinkers in beater cars and not thought leaders in Teslas.”

VISION OR MIRAGE: Saudi Arabia at the Crossroads, by David H. Rundell. (I.B. Tauris, $27.) A longtime Foreign Service officer with extensive experience in Saudi Arabia offers a wise and knowing survey of a troublesome ally with values very different from those of the United States. Our reviewer, Kenneth M. Pollack, calls it a superb overview of the country’s political, economic and social landscape: “Rundell covers the kingdom from top to bottom with vast wisdom, depth and understanding. Yet it would be unfair to call his book a primer because that suggests a superficiality that is entirely at odds with the vast learning encompassed in this slim volume.”

DARK ARCHIVES: A Librarian’s Investigation Into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin, by Megan Rosenbloom. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26.) Rosenbloom, a rare-books specialist drawn to issues of mortality, plumbs a practice experts call anthropodermic bibliopegy. If you put aside your distaste, it turns out to have a fascinating history. “Rosenbloom takes us from library to library,” James Hamblin writes in his review, “recounting her conversations with other librarians, as well as with historians, collectors and medical students in the act of dissecting cadavers. She includes no shortage of memorable scientific minutiae and clarifications of misunderstood history along the way.”

BORGES AND ME: An Encounter, by Jay Parini. (Doubleday, $27.95.) Parini reflects on a road trip he once took in Scotland with one of the 20th century’s greatest writers, Jorge Luis Borges, whose thirst for exploration was rivaled only by his need to speak his mind. This charming memoir brings Borges sharply to life, in all his whimsy and genius. Our reviewer, Michael Greenberg, notes that Parini cleverly frames the experience “as an inconvenience rather than a privilege. A callow poet, hungry for guidance, is cluelessly alone with one of the most formidable writers of the 20th century; his task is to open his eyes and discover the blind man’s brilliance. Parini wonderfully describes Borges as he experiences him, free of reverence or awe.”

LIGHTNING FLOWERS: My Journey to Uncover the Cost of Saving a Life, by Katherine E. Standefer. (Little, Brown Spark, $28.) When the author was shocked by the defibrillator that monitored her genetic heart condition, she started questioning how the device was made and whether or not it was necessary. Her memoir takes readers on a circuitous, thoughtful search for answers. “If you’ve ever felt overwhelmed by a scary diagnosis, are tired of quarterbacking your own health care or simply need company while on hold with a doctor’s office, this book will make you feel less alone,” Elisabeth Egan writes in her latest Group Text column. “Pick it up and you will hear a human voice.”

THE ADVENTURES OF CHINA IRON, by Gabriel Cabezón Cámara. (Charco Press, paper, $15.95.) Cabezón Cámara’s exhilarating novel recasts the young wife of the fabled gaucho Martín Fierro as a liberated adventurer on the Argentine plain. Lush prose and sharp wit animate this feminist reimagining of a national epic. “It’s easy to categorize ‘China Iron’ at first as magical realism,” our reviewer, Jamie Fisher, writes, “but it’s something else entirely, a historical novel that reminds us, in Cabezón Cámara’s entrancing poetry, how magical and frankly unpleasant it is to live through history.”

WELCOME TO THE NEW WORLD, by Jake Halpern and Michael Sloan. (Metropolitan/Holt, $21.99.) This graphic novel, which first appeared in the opinion pages of The New York Times and won a Pulitzer, tells the story of a family of Syrian refugees and their struggles to adapt to life in America. “The narrative succeeds in part because of its slow reveal; readers connect with the family members as personalities before we begin to see the miseries of their past,” Hillary Chute writes in her latest Graphic Content column. “Sloan and Halpern deliver a story that fully inhabits its comics form, and breathes with an easy visual elegance.”

BLOCKCHAIN CHICKEN FARM: And Other Stories of Tech in China’s Countryside, by Xiaowei Wang. (FSG Originals x Logic, paper, $16.) Worried about China’s urban-rural divide, the country’s leaders have ensured that even the most far-flung regions can take part in the internet economy. With a keen eye for the steampunk-like details of ancient rural areas now shot through with internet opportunity, Wang documents the changes. Our reviewer, Clive Thompson, calls it a “nuanced and thought-provoking” account: “It is not easy to tell, after you’re done reading it, how rural China will fare — whether its tiptoe toward prosperity and tech savviness is durable. Given that China’s economic fate is now so entwined with the world, one hopes it can thread the needle.”

THE TYRANNY OF MERIT: What’s Become of the Common Good? by Michael J. Sandel. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $28.) Sandel raises important questions about the meaning of “fairness” in our society and the possibility of the so-called meritocracy hardening into an aristocracy. “The credentialed have come to imagine themselves as smarter, wiser, more tolerant — and therefore more deserving of recognition and respect — than the noncredentialed,” Arlie Russell Hochschild writes in her review. “Even the poorly educated, Sandel notes, look down on the poorly educated.”

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