by Lore Segal (New Press)
A refugee from the Anschluss, Segal is particularly interested in how people establish and maintain connections when thrust into a new milieu. These wry, finely honed, interlocking stories (some first published in The New Yorker) center on a young Austrian woman, recently transplanted from New York, who joins an institute “that paid its members … to read and write and think” in a small Connecticut town.
by Annie Dillard (HarperCollins)
This is a humane story of the way a straying husband and a forgiving wife negotiate their decades-long relationship—a relationship that involves both infidelity and, eventually, an unusually complex domestic arrangement. Although Dillard’s examination of all manner of human interactions is nuanced, and her evocation of Cape Cod is at once precise and gorgeous, the author is more essayist and poet than novelist; she assesses emotion, rather than creating it, and so holds the reader at a distance.
SOCIETY and CULTURE
by Jeff Wiltse (North Carolina)
In this intelligent, compelling social history, Wiltse traces the development of American municipal swimming pools from 19th-century public baths intended to cleanse the Great Unwashed, to optimistic New Deal public works, to the postwar boom in private-pool construction that left millions “swimming alone.” A serious historian (“The consequences of the sexualization of pool culture have been profound, especially for women”) writing about a serious subject, the author details with palpable regret the public pools’ failure to live up to the democratic promise ascribed to them by one 1930s booster: “Take away the sham and hypocrisy of clothes, don a swim suit, and we’re all the same.” Wiltse also highlights the complex and ironic dynamics of social change (the first pool in the North to be integrated by gender, in St. Louis in 1913, for example, was also the first to be segregated by race), and he argues, poignantly and persuasively, that the great retreat into the backyard that accompanied suburbanization and the decline of the central cities has led to “atomized recreation and diminished public discourse.”
The Book of David
by David Steinberg (Simon & Schuster)
The likable, well-known Canadian comic’s first book finds him plying his well-worn sermonizing shtick and proto–Larry Sanders name dropping–cum–celeb bashing. His tongue-through-cheek pronouncements aren’t likely to win converts, but his hand-wringing, Old Testament–spoofing asides are a nice sop to the Borscht Belt faithful.
The Enigma Woman
by Kathleen A. Cairns (Nebraska)
At the time James M. Cain’s noir classic The Postman Always Rings Twice appeared, a real slice of that kind of Californian life was unfolding in a Los Angeles courtroom and in the sensationalistic press. After a trial in 1934 for murdering her abusive husband, which featured inadequate defense counsel and a judge who was summoned to take the witness stand against her, Nellie May Madison became the first woman in Southern California sentenced to execution. Cairns tells her story with considerable sociological and psychological acuity. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this tale is how the cut-and-dried, seemingly heartless justice system of the 1930s ultimately produced a punishment that was just and enlightened and would generally satisfy today’s more liberal attitudes toward spousal abuse and homicide.
Troublesome Young Men
by Lynne Olson (FSG)
That arch-determinist Tolstoy would doubtless have said that England in 1940 so desperately needed a savior that someone like Winston Churchill simply had to arise and rescue it from disaster. According to this riveting book, which mixes personal drama and gossip with high politics, it took a lot of scheming by a fascinating assortment of maverick and established politicians to bring the right man to 10 Downing Street at the right time. Olson tells her story with verve, never letting the reader forget what was really at risk—and what might have happened if these particular troublemakers hadn’t been so willing to stir the political pot.
The Road to Disunion, Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant, 1854–1861
by William W. Freehling (Oxford)
The second part of Freehling’s monumental study of the Civil War’s causes and the South’s road to secession skillfully outlines the political fissures within pre–Civil War Dixie. While the Deep South argued consistently against any sort of compromise, states farther north such as North Carolina and Virginia—less dependent on the slave economy—held out hope, even after Lincoln’s election, for accommodation with the Union. Occasional cringe-inducing efforts at an aphoristic, “literary” style notwithstanding, this sure-to-be- lasting work—studded with pen portraits and consistently astute in its appraisal of the subtle cultural and geographic variations in the region—adds crucial layers to scholarship on the origins of America’s bloodiest conflict.