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CURRENT AFFAIRS

Ethical Realism
by Anatol Lieven and John Hulsman (Pantheon)
Two foreign-policy hands with divergent politics make common cause to argue against the messianic excesses of current U.S. foreign policy. Lieven and Hulsman are passionate in their sobriety and remarkably concrete about the steps to be taken, calling for a realistic assessment of national interest and a skeptical restraint à la Reinhold Niebuhr.

The Conservative Soul
by Andrew Sullivan (HarperCollins)
Reacting against a similar strain of moralistic maximalism, a New Republic senior editor and prominent blogger attempts to resuscitate a conservatism rooted in limits, humility, and doubt. Sullivan’s conception of “conservatism” is quite narrow, however, defined as it is in opposition to a vague “fundamentalism” (which here seems to run the gamut from leftism to Bushism to Islamism); the result is an abstract creed, oddly self-congratulatory in its self-effacement.

The Trouble With Diversity
by Walter Benn Michaels (Metropolitan)
A withering examination of how the celebration of cultural and ethnic difference obscures our yawning economic divide. Michaels argues that “diversity” is a shibboleth because it presents a false ideal of social justice, one that in fact serves the interests of the most educated and advantaged segments of society. This is a refreshing, angry, and important book.

Soldier
by Karen DeYoung (Knopf)
Although this biography is not the long-awaited (and possibly never-to-be) tell-all in which Colin Powell reveals everything he was really thinking during his tenure in the Bush administration, it is a consistently interesting recollection of his varied career, shot through with heavy doses of duty, honor, and rectitude.

HISTORY

God’s War
by Christopher Tyerman (Harvard)
Tyerman, an Oxford scholar, combines vigorous argument and nuanced analysis in this deeply learned chronicle of the Crusades. A work that concentrates on the “utopianism armed with myopia; the elaborate, sincere intolerance; the diversity and complexity of motive and performance,” it’s the best single-volume treatment of this still-controversial and fraught subject.

Dynasties
by David S. Landes (Viking)
An economic historian examines the divergent legacies of eleven powerful business families. Although today’s conventional management wisdom looks askance at the family firm, Landes argues that it is crucial as a business model, both for its inherent stability and for the powerful example it offers entrepreneurs in the developing world.

SOCIETY and CULTURE

Norman Rockwell: The Underside of Innocence
by Richard Halpern (Chicago)
An occasionally ridiculous but nevertheless persuasive Freud-tinged assessment of the myriad perversions (sexual and otherwise) that lurk just beneath the surface of the illustrator’s wholesome oeuvre. Rockwell emerges not as a dirty old man, but rather as an engaged artist fiercely alive to the complexities of the subtitular virtue.

Awake in the Dark
by Roger Ebert (Chicago)
A greatest-hits collection from the famed movie critic, including interviews with directors, essays on a variety of topics, and the original review of Ebert’s favorite film from each year between 1967 and 2005.

The Homework Myth
by Alfie Kohn (Da Capo)
Parents take note: this is a stinging jeremiad against the assignment of homework, which the author, a prominent educator, convincingly argues is a wasteful, unimaginative, and pedagogically bankrupt practice that initiates kids into a soul-sucking rat race long before their time.

Through the Children’s Gate
by Adam Gopnik (Knopf)
A collection of the longtime New Yorker writer’s essays about his family’s return to Manhattan after five years of living in France. If you like your provincial cosmopolitanism delivered in flawless prose, then this charming, insufferable book is for you.

The Blind Side
by Michael Lewis (Norton)
The author of Moneyball turns his analytical gaze to football, and the sequence of events by which the left offensive tackle—once an anonymous outpost for oafish fat kids—has become the second-highest-paid position in the NFL. Interwoven less than seamlessly is the gripping and uplifting tale of a promising left-tackle prospect who overcame a rough childhood in inner-city Memphis to make it to the college-football big time.

BIOGRAPHY and MEMOIR

Point to Point Navigation
by Gore Vidal (Doubleday)
In a sort of sequel to his excellent 1995 memoir, Palimpsest, Vidal chronicles the past forty years of his life among various clutches of literati, glitterati, and royalty. Mortality haunts this volume (the most affecting passages cover the recent death of Vidal’s partner of fifty years), but what’s perhaps most poignant is the book’s unevenness—a fierce literary wit having grown somewhat weaker with age.

Things I Didn’t Know
by Robert Hughes (Knopf)
The noted art critic recounts his Australian boyhood, his deepening romance with the art world, and the heady atmosphere of 1960s London, as well as the horrific 1999 traffic accident that almost took his life and made him a pariah in his homeland.

FICTION, POETRY, LITERARY STUDIES

Restless
by William Boyd (Bloomsbury)
In this espionage thriller and domestic drama by one of the very best prose stylists and storytellers in the English language, an eccentric English grandmother and garden enthusiast reveals to her daughter that she was a Russian émigré and a spy for Great Britain during the Second World War. Now she fears someone is trying to kill her.

One Good Turn
by Kate Atkinson (Little, Brown)
Atkinson’s energetic Whitbread-winning first novel was satisfying in every way; her subsequent three books, while sophisticated stylistically and intellectually, were too far removed from reality to be emotionally compelling. With book number 5, Case Histories, she hit the jackpot again, putting her skill with complex plots to excellent use, in a literary mystery infused with her characteristic quirk and verve. Now, clear-eyed Jackson Brodie reappears to become entangled in this new multilayered mystery set in Edinburgh.

The Road
by Cormac McCarthy (Knopf)
A man and his son struggle across a postapocalyptic landscape. A terrifying and moving story of mankind’s baseness and nobility, rendered in the self- conscious, affected prose that has consistently wowed the critics.

Thirteen Moons
by Charles Frazier (Random House)
Ten years after the mega-hit Cold Mountain, Frazier has produced another epic historical novel, this one a first-person account spanning the nineteenth century and set on the southern frontier. The protagonist tries on a variety of colorful careers—twelve-year-old trading-post operator, white chief of the Cherokees, Confederate colonel, U.S. senator—and pines for a lost love. It’s chockablock with vivid period detail, but annoying in its anachronistic, smug, predictably progressive attitudes.

The Aeneid
translated by Robert Fagles (Viking)
Fagles, who has rendered the best contemporary translations of Homer, now interprets the cooler, more stately, and in many ways less accessible Virgil. The result: a triumph, and the Aeneid for our age, if not necessarily for the ages.

All Aunt Hagar’s Children
by Edward P. Jones (Amistad)
These stories—formal in tone, precise in style, intricately imagined, and arrestingly specific in their evocation of place and time—offer an intimate and impressively varied look at African American life in Washington, D.C., throughout the twentieth century. Jones accords his characters so much respect that he seems almost to have observed them from the inside out, rather than to have created them. To date, his most famous work is The Known World, a novel about a black slaveholder. These stories (several of which were published in The New Yorker), too, demonstrate his understanding of the force of circumstance and the complexity of human nature.

The Right Attitude to Rain
by Alexander McCall Smith (Pantheon)
McCall Smith, best known for his plentiful No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books, featuring the Botswanan detective Precious Ramotswe, presents the third installment in a series about another headstrong heroine, Isabel Dalhousie. Together with her housekeeper, Grace, Isabel is always searching for the answers to local mysteries—and in this book, she finds not only answers but love, as well.

What Came Before He Shot Her
by Elizabeth George (HarperCollins)
Fans of the long-running Inspector Lynley series were stunned when, in the final pages of George’s last book, With No One as Witness, Lynley’s pregnant wife was shot by a stranger on their doorstep. What Came Before He Shot Her is the story of the time leading up to that event—from the perspective of the stranger himself. Another winner from the current master of the classic English mystery.

Lisey’s Story
by Stephen King (Scribner)
King sucks us in yet again, binding us so completely to the story and the characters that by the time he’s scaring the pants off us, we’re too committed to close the book. Lisey, the fiftysomething widow of a famous writer living in—where else?—inland Maine, takes on part of her dead husband’s madness as she goes through his study after his death. As much about the facets of longtime marriage as it is about the characters themselves, Lisey’s Story offers a poignant glimpse at abiding love and the tides of grief, and the internal language of relationships of all kinds.

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