by Nick Hornby (Putnam)
Funny, empathetic, morally aware, attuned to popular culture and lingo, Hornby has always had the makings of a “young adult” novelist. His first foray into the genre features the poorly timed fatherhood of a likable teenage skateboarder. The product of a teenage relationship himself, our boy is more worried about telling his mother than about the consequences for his life, and, it turns out, rightfully so. As always in Hornby’s world, just stepping up to the plate goes a long way, and though our hero ends up more overscheduled than he’d like, this is hardly a cautionary tale. Young-adult readers are in for the treat of Hornby’s wit and warmth, but legions of more mature fans will be disappointed. This book lacks the counterpoint of melancholy and wistfulness that makes the humor of Hornby’s adult novels so rich—the vague and troubling sense of time lost, never to be recovered, and of experience that forever leaves a dark mark. After all, how bad could anything be when most of life is still ahead?
A Free Life
by Ha Jin (Pantheon)
This engrossing chronicle of the contemporary Chinese immigrant experience is far more loosely structured and wide-ranging than Jin’s National Book Award–winning novel, Waiting—for better and worse. But admirers of Jin’s work will recognize his direct, unaffected style and slightly foreign rhythms, which suit his subjects. Jin decided to make America his home just after the Tiananmen Square massacre, and he uses that incident here as an impetus for his characters (a brooding man with literary aspirations and his wonderfully resolute wife) to break with China and make their lives in the United States. As the narrative moves the couple down the East Coast, trying out various jobs and circumstances, it accumulates the details of modern American life and illuminates the gradual maturation of a man’s vision of freedom and success.
Cheating at Canasta
by William Trevor (Viking)
In this pensive short-story collection, the prolific Trevor exposes, with precision and grace, the complex motives underlying his characters’ behavior. A wide range of voices—from teenage Irish working girls to urbane English gentlemen—create a fully realized world, discrete in its particulars but universal in its concerns. Clarifying without ever simplifying, Trevor is at his best when trafficking in guilt, doubt, deception, and shame. And though darkness pervades these stories—murder and blackmail, illness unto death, adultery, sins both careless and malicious—it never overwhelms them. Instead, it’s tempered by hope, mostly in the form of human understanding and love, whose strength here owes far less to romance than to forgiveness and tolerance.
Silent Movies: The Birth of Film and the Triumph of Movie Culture
by Peter Kobel, foreword by Martin Scorsese, introduction by Kevin Brownlow (Little, Brown)
Despite its lofty title, this is chiefly a picture book. The text thinly surveys the development of silent film in somewhat arbitrary sections—“Promotion and the Press,” “The Art of Film,” “The Stars.” But, to quote the introduction by Brownlow (whose classic account The Parade’s Gone By probes the subject far more profoundly), the book makes “an ideal introduction to the silent cinema,” chiefly because of Kobel’s delight in his subject and the splendid pictures from the Library of Congress’s film collection—production stills and portraits, lobby posters, et al.; more than 400 illustrations in all—most of which will be new to readers.
The Great Funk
by Thomas Hine (FSG)
A sequel of sorts to the successful Populuxe (which smartly considered cultural curlicues of the 1950s and ’60s), Hine’s latest social history is half as satisfying. Taking the form of a quixotic quest, it strives—discursively—to vindicate the ’70s by showing what the decade bequeathed to posterity (big cars and bad clothes, apparently—oh, and Annie Hall). A noble experiment, perhaps, but one that too often tests tendentious hypotheses: While it’s hard to dispute the period’s societal-nadir status (crime, oil, war, etc.), it’s easy to dismiss the notion that Jaws is a post-Watergate allegory. Hine manages some nifty observations (particularly with regard to fashion and design), and his clean prose is never less than engaging, but it’s all in the service of a thesis as scattershot as the “Me Decade” itself.
What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848
by Daniel Walker Howe (Oxford)
In this latest installment of the Oxford History of the United States, Howe has produced a comprehensive, richly detailed, and elegantly written account of the republic between the War of 1812 and the American victory in Mexico a generation later. This was a period of enormous change, not only in politics but in religion, economics, transportation, communication, social and intellectual culture, the very foundations of common life. And Howe covers it all—the Jacksonian and market “revolutions,” the rise of sectional tensions, westward expansion, the Transcendentalists, revivalism— through astute pen portraits, authoritative analysis, and gripping narrative. The Oxford series has been uneven, but this volume is a masterpiece.
by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan)
Figes—author of the dazzling books A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891–1924 and Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia—presents a tapestry of the Stalinist era woven from the personal experiences and words of Soviet citizens, both betrayers and betrayed. As in his earlier works, the research is extensive and subtle, much of it here drawn from the outpouring of oral history in the 1990s, which he uses to elucidate the texture of daily life and the ways humanity was perverted by a regime of fear.
Discovery! The Search for Arabian Oil
by Wallace Stegner (Selwa)
It might be a stretch to call this lost work—finished in 1956, published in 1971 (though only in Lebanon), promptly forgotten, and now reissued—a “classic,” but “prescient” would be something like criminal understatement. Stegner, best known for his Pulitzer Prize–winning Angle of Repose, went to Saudi Arabia in 1955 to write a history of Aramco’s early years. What resulted was a deeply reported, exquisitely sensitive account of the people who founded the company. More important to today’s reader, it describes how oil was discovered in the region, why Ibn Saud allowed Western drilling in his kingdom, and how those two fateful facts have bound Saudis and Americans—politically, culturally, and economically—ever since.
A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917–1932
by John Richardson (Knopf)
A meticulous biography and a subtle art history in one handsome edition, this third volume in Richardson’s ongoing study of Picasso’s life and work maintains the level of hushed excellence achieved by its predecessors (and may even surpass them visually, in that its expansive gallery—a fine case of show and tell—reveals the master in his prewar prime, painting, drawing, and sculpting his way through France and Spain). This time we find Picasso dabbling in the world of theater, cavorting with the Lost Generation, and making his way to love and marriage (or something akin: wife, child, mistress). We also get considered looks at Three Musicians, Crucifixion, and many other masterworks. In lesser hands such an ambitious project might err on the side of overmuch, but Richardson’s calm, doctorly ones deliver yet another magisterial winner.
Mandela: A Critical Life
by Tom Lodge (Oxford)
This brief, incisive study by a distinguished British political scientist is the best overall assessment of Mandela to date. Lodge is superbly attuned to the shoals and eddies of South African politics—old and new—and is equally adept at analyzing his complex subject. Readers who want to understand Mandela’s symbolic and actual achievements—and what he failed to accomplish during his presidency—will find more information, insight, and judgment in this slim volume than in the many weightier titles devoted to this protean figure.
Mr. Basketball: George Mikan, the Minneapolis Lakers, and the Birth of the NBA
by Michael Schumacher (Bloomsbury)
Proof that size does matter, at least in Dr. Naismith’s game, Mikan was the original “big man”: A 6-foot-10 gentle giant, he prefigured Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Shaquille O’Neal; prompted league rule changes to accommodate his size; and later helped found the American Basketball Association (which in turn helped make the NBA a vast, multibillion-dollar sporting empire). Few such archetypal athletes have received such scant biographical due, and Schumacher wades into the breach with an exhaustively researched work of richness and rigor. His occasional lapses into hyperbole (the modulated hubris of the title is a good indicator) notwithstanding, this is a detailed, atmospherically true tale of tallness.