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.
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.
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)