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FICTION

The Air We Breathe
by Andrea Barrett (Norton)

Near the end of this surprisingly suspenseful novel, Barrett quotes from a chemistry textbook: “Every chemical … reaction … can only take place under a condition of most intimate and close contact of the re-acting substances.” Setting her story in a public sanatorium in the Adirondacks in 1916, she puts her characters—mostly working-class immigrants well educated in their native countries—into just such an intimate situation, ripe for reactions. They room together, eat together, spend long hours taking their rest cures side by side, in air charged with turbulent national and world events: labor organizing, the Great War, and rising nationalism. (Comparisons to The Magic Mountain are inevitable.) Feelings of frustration, betrayal, and unrequited love drive the action, but these people have intellectual, as well as emotional, obsessions. Here, as in several of her other works of fiction, including the National Book Award–winning Ship Fever, Barrett enriches her story with science—in this case, paleontology, organic chemistry, relativity, and, most interestingly, radi-ology. In fact, her style, always stylish and exact, is at its most compelling when she’s describing her characters’ engagement in their scientific studies.

Run
by Ann Patchett (HarperCollins)

Patchett’s novels are constructed with precision, and her characters, while disparate at the outset, end up bound tightly together. In this gracefully executed book, she starts with an Irish family, adds two adopted African American sons, and then, on a snowy night in Boston, tosses in an 11-year-old girl and her mother, who turns out to be … well, let’s not spoil the excellent plot. Patchett’s themes are weighty, and the emotional connections she builds among her exceedingly well-developed characters are powerful, yet the read is effortless.

BIOGRAPHY AND MEMOIR

La Nilsson: My Life in Opera
by Birgit Nilsson (Northeastern)

First published in Nilsson’s native Sweden in 1995, a decade before her death, the celebrated soprano’s autobiography was intensely acclaimed after its 1997 translation into German. Finally translated into English from that edition, it’s worth the wait. Despite the double translation, this book still vibrates with Nilsson’s voice. Although copious photographs show her looking like a diva from central casting, her authorial persona is the opposite of what you’d expect: Warm, down-to-earth, joshing, never afraid to poke fun at herself, Nilsson is a delightful writer. La Nilsson, a welcome antidote to such attention-grabbing memoirs as fellow diva Régine Crespin’s, shows a star who knew how to keep drama where it belonged: onstage.

Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography
by Gail Levin (Rizzoli)

First published in 1995, this painstakingly detailed biography of the hard-wearing American master painter was “updated and expanded” in time for the blockbuster Hopper exhibition. Among the new materials are nearly 100 illustrations—most of them small, decently colored reproductions of Hopper’s now-nostalgically haunting paintings—and 40-odd pages of text dealing with Hopper’s persistence in American visual arts, including cinema. Most interesting, however, is Levin’s defense of her heavy reliance on the private diaries of the artist’s wife and collaborator of more than 40 years, Josephine Nivison Hopper—a woman whose considerable talent and insightful voice her husband frequently attempted to suppress. In the same spirit, the Whitney destroyed most of her paintings soon after it received the great Hopper bequest, in 1968, but her diaries survived and are largely responsible for making this one of the best biographies of any American artist.

Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern Life
by Mark Francis (Cornell)

Those of us who have studied 19th-century history, even casually, know something about the social philosopher Herbert Spencer. And much of what we think we know is wrong. The irony, according to Francis, is that this thinker who attempted to bridge various spheres of knowledge in his life’s work has been broken up into so many parts, seemingly unrelated, and each of them finally misleading. In this stunning intellectual biography, Francis provides a compelling portrait of the man and the work, by interpreting the writings within the complicated contexts of the technical debates of Spencer’s time. Tortured, full of self-doubts and admitted inadequacies, Spencer was an enormously subtle and complex thinker, empathetic and ironic in his self-deprecating dealings with the world. Still, his writings affected just about every area of modern intellectual life: ethics, metaphysics, sociology, anthropology, political theory, philosophy, and psychology.

Being Shelley: The Poet’s Search for Himself
by Ann Wroe (Pantheon)

Visionary poets like Shelley seem to inspire visionary critics like Wroe, who here puts aside chronology for something more daring. She describes Shelley’s search for himself metaphorically, as a journey through the Greek elements, beginning with earth (he had a horror of dirt), moving on to water and air, and ending in the pure fire of the poetic imagination. This sounds abstruse, but it’s all anchored gracefully in biographical and textual detail—especially from material in Shelley’s notebooks.

Harold Robbins: The Man Who Invented Sex
by Andrew Wilson (Bloomsbury)

Does life imitate art, or is it the other way around? Few have confused the age-old question as thoroughly as Robbins, the “godfather of the airport novel.” Over the course of multiple marriages and a 50-year career, he sold some 750 million copies of his tawdry tomes—salacious, eminently readable stories of greed, sex, and moral compromise—and used the substantial means that ensued to largely decadent ends: drinks, drugs, boats, broads. Robbins met with early success as a grocery clerk (he claimed to have made his first million by age 20), lost his fortune, became a different sort of clerk at Universal Pictures, and worked as a bookkeeper before getting his break as a writer. He cited John Steinbeck and John Dos Passos as influences, counted James Baldwin and Pablo Picasso among his friends, and earned praise from the likes of Camille Paglia. The dissonance here is thus daunting and dizzying, and making sense of it no small task. Happily, the British journalist Wilson rises to the challenge: His account is appropriately chatty, but also crisp, elegant, and thorough—a mass-market tale told in near-literary terms. Robbins is brought to life, and would surely himself have turned page after page.

HISTORY

Lenin’s Private War: The Voyage of the Philosophy Steamer and the Exile of the Intelligentsia
by Lesley Chamberlain (St. Martin’s)

In 1919, while Lenin was engaged in the wholesale slaughter of the Russian grand dukes, Maxim Gorky pleaded with the Soviet leader to spare the life of one, Nicholas Mikhailovich, whose work as a historian he admired—to which Lenin supposedly replied, “The revolution has no need for historians.” This latest book from Chamberlain, that superb chronicler of all things Russian, demonstrates the extent of Lenin’s determination to rid his newly created state of its intellectual crème de la crème, whom he sent packing on two ships in the autumn of 1922. As always, Chamberlain is that rare cicerone for the reader, displaying learning, empathy, and deep understanding on every page.

That Neutral Island
by Clair Wills (Harvard)

Ireland’s determined neutrality in the Second World War was such a sore point for Britain that Churchill couldn’t restrain himself—even in 1945, in the hour of triumphant victory—from lashing out at that nation for the lives it had cost. Perhaps Irish Prime Minister Eamon de Valera’s recent condolence visit to the German diplomatic representative in Dublin on Hitler’s death had enraged him anew. But as Wills shows in her penetrating account of why and how Ireland stayed neutral while the global conflict literally washed up on its shores, more than passionate nationalist and anti-British feelings were at work in that policy. This far-ranging book not only explores the strategic and political reasoning behind Irish neutrality, which had almost unanimous domestic support, but draws on such resident chroniclers as Elizabeth Bowen, Louis MacNeice, and John Betjeman to paint a detailed picture of how life was lived on this island of light surrounded by a blacked-out world.

My Colombian War: A Journey Through the Country I Left Behind
by Silvana Paternostro (Henry Holt)

A nation’s narrative rendered through a personal prism, this evocative work succeeds where many similar efforts fail. The secret? Paternostro herself, a deservedly celebrated journalist, able to deftly interweave past and present and write with a compassion that resists pathos. A child of relative privilege, she left a violently changing Colombia for the States at age 15; decades later she returned as a reporter, and what follows is revelatory. Wrenching interviews with today’s Colombians, unflinching descriptions of the horrors wrought by drug cartels and paramilitary groups, and unusual details keenly conveyed amount to a moving, highly memorable take on how a country lost its moorings.

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