11 New Books We Recommend This Week

On a video call recently, a colleague and I were discussing a book from last February when she stopped short. “Was that 2020?” she asked, wonderingly. “It feels like a lifetime ago.”

The pandemic has done weird things to our sense of time. But it won’t be here forever, believe it or not, and even as the first wave of Covid books is still cresting, at least one author is already thinking about what comes next: In his latest, the political commentator and CNN host Fareed Zakaria offers “Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World.” That’s one book we recommend this week. But if you’d rather avoid the coronavirus altogether in your reading, we also like a legendary coach’s book about his life in college basketball, and a memoir of group therapy, and two different Kennedy biographies: one about John and one about Ted. There are essay collections from the beloved authors Hilary Mantel and David Sedaris, and a study of the way science shaped Leonardo’s painting, and a look back at the lessons that America’s founders drew from antiquity.

In fiction, you can escape the grim news of Covid-19 by reading instead about a missing child and an anarchist collective, or a food critic turned cannibalistic serial killer. Bon appétit, everyone.

Gregory Cowles
Senior Editor, Books
Twitter: @GregoryCowles

I CAME AS A SHADOW: An Autobiography, by John Thompson with Jesse Washington. (Henry Holt and Company, $29.99.) When John Thompson took over as the men’s basketball coach at Georgetown in 1972, the college had a poor team with a losing record. Thompson slowly turned it into a powerhouse, including an NCAA championship in 1984. Thompson recruited young Black players, some of whom had less than sterling academic credentials. He fought for these kids. He thought they deserved a chance. This posthumously published autobiography — Thompson died in August at 78 — conveys his childhood, his iconic career and his potent political sensibilities. It’s “a consequential book with a plainspoken tone,” our critic Dwight Garner writes.

THE SHADOW DRAWING: How Science Taught Leonardo How to Paint, by Francesca Fiorani. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $35.) The art historian Francesca Fiorani argues that Leonardo’s interests were not as dizzyingly disparate as they seem. His mind sought synthesis. His artistic and scientific interests were conjoined. In painting, Leonardo could apply all he learned about geometry, shadow and light, about the interplay of the eye and mind in perception. “By no means is Fiorani the first to make this case,” our critic Parul Sehgal writes, “but she makes it with fresh force and pitches it against the misconception that Leonardo abandoned painting for science in his later years.”

THE BEST OF ME, by David Sedaris. (Little, Brown, $30.) You won’t find “Santaland Diaries” or other fan favorites in this collection of selected essays, which is less a greatest hits than a director’s cut; Sedaris says that the pieces included here — by turns poignant and wickedly gleeful — “are the sort I hoped to produce back when I first started writing, at the age of 20.” Our reviewer, Andrew Sean Greer, notes that the essays revolve around themes of family and love. “The genius of ‘The Best of Me’ is that it reveals the growth of a writer,” Greer adds, “a sense of how his outlook has changed and where he finds humor.”

TEN LESSONS FOR A POST-PANDEMIC WORLD, by Fareed Zakaria. (Norton, $26.95.) In contemplating life after Covid-19, Zakaria stays away from doom-mongering and daily battles about masks or lockdowns. Instead, he employs a wide lens, drawing on politics, economics and culture to celebrate our “resilient world” and offer suggestions for what the United States can take away from the crisis. “With his lively language and to-the-point examples, Zakaria tells the story well, while resisting boilerplate as served up by the left and the right,” Josef Joffe writes in his review. “Read ‘Ten Lessons.’ It is an intelligent, learned and judicious guide for a world already in the making.”

JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1956, by Fredrik Logevall. (Random House, $40.) In this first of two projected volumes, Logevall demonstrates how, even at an early age and despite his playboy reputation, John Kennedy took a serious interest in politics, forming a cleareyed sense of the world and his nation’s place in it. “The global stage where a president could bend the arc of world history remained Kennedy’s preferred arena and the presidency his obsession,” David M. Kennedy writes in his review. “Logevall artfully melds the biographical and historical approaches. Though crafted as a kind of bildungsroman, ‘JFK’ delivers something more than the traditional story of the callow wastrel’s maturation into the admirable adult.”

CATCHING THE WIND: Edward Kennedy and the Liberal Hour, by Neal Gabler. (Crown, $40.) Gabler relates how the youngest Kennedy brother overcame ridicule and scandal to become one of the most effective senators in U.S. history. In five decades, Ted Kennedy sponsored nearly 700 bills that became law, and left his imprint on scores of others. “Kennedy’s expansive life has yielded no shortage of biographies, but Gabler’s is on its way toward becoming the most complete and ambitious,” Jeff Shesol writes in his review. “As a character study it is rich and insightful, frank in its judgments but deeply sympathetic. … ‘Catching the Wind’ lends a cinematic sweep to Kennedy’s legislative crusades.”

MANTEL PIECES: Royal Bodies and Other Writing From The London Review of Books, by Hilary Mantel. (4th Estate, $26.99.) Nearly 30 years’ worth of essays are compiled in Mantel’s bracing collection, with subjects ranging from Madonna to Marie Antoinette. Between rebels and rulers, it’s clear where her sympathies lie: Royals are mythic, but it’s their assassins whom she loves. “Her true province is history,” Fernanda Eberstadt writes in her review, and it’s “once Mantel-as-reviewer digs down hard into its rich soil, delving into biographies of Tudor aristocrats or Danton or Robespierre or Marie Antoinette — fortune’s darlings who end up headless in the Tower or the Tuileries — that she truly warms up, moving into a prose whose rhythmic and allusive range, whose nonchalance, bite and wayward erudition are always surprising, often thrilling.”

FIRST PRINCIPLES: What America’s Founders Learned From the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country, by Thomas E. Ricks. (Harper/HarperCollins, $26.99.) Ricks traces the intellectual journeys of our first four presidents to show the profound impact the classical world had on their thinking. Virginia DeJohn Anderson’s review calls it an “instructive new book” that “offers a judicious account of the equivocal inheritance left to modern Americans by their 18th-century forebears. … American revolutionaries turned to this ancient knowledge as a practical guide in justifying their rebellion and forming new governments. It taught them that the success of their enterprise depended above all on the cultivation of virtue, placing the public good before private interest.”

A CERTAIN HUNGER, by Chelsea G. Summers. (The Unnamed Press, $26.) Following a seductive foodie serial killer, Summers’s debut has the voice of a hard-boiled detective novel, as if metaphor-happy Raymond Chandler handed the reins over to the sexed-up femme fatale and really let her fly. “The descriptions of violence and gourmet cuisine are so visceral that I felt alternatingly hungry and sick to my stomach,” Amy Silverberg writes in her review. “And yet, there was also something soothing and escapist about reading a fictional villain’s story, especially at a time when real life feels like its own horror show. They say books instill empathy, but it can be just as exhilarating to read a novel in which the narrator doesn’t have any.”

GROUP: How One Therapist and a Circle of Strangers Changed My Life, by Christie Tate. (Avid Reader, $27.) A rudderless, perfectionistic lawyer found solace and direction among strangers in group therapy. This is her raw and honest memoir of learning to open up, branch out and allow herself to be seen and known in that room and the world. “We witness, up close, a young woman as she takes halting, awkward baby steps toward becoming herself,” Dani Shapiro writes in her review. “As she speaks aloud her most shameful secrets and realizes that no one has shunned her, she slowly becomes tenderized, and her heart — she had been so sure it was defective — begins to open, both to herself and others.”

THE SUN COLLECTIVE, by Charles Baxter. (Pantheon, $27.95.) In Baxter’s new novel, an aging couple‘s search for their missing son leads them to a quasi-anarchist group. With generous, keen humor, the author suggests that their real problem might be mortality: not our tumultuous times, but time itself. Jess Walter, in his review, calls it a “tense, wry and ultimately touching new novel” that “vividly recreates the oscillating sense of dread familiar to anyone who hasn’t spent the last four years in a coma. … Baxter’s true gift is in describing the tender complexities of a relationship.”

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