There’s a character in Adam White’s debut novel, “The Midcoast,” who at one point starts to chafe against her small-town circumstances and decides to do something about it. “She went to the library,” White writes, “and she started checking out every kind of book — romance novels, spy novels, biographies, memoirs, history books, cookbooks — anything in print.” That’s my kind of character, I thought when I reached that passage, and if it’s your kind of character too then you could do worse than adding “The Midcoast” (think “Ozark” meets “The Great Gatsby” in Maine) to your reading list this week.
Other novels we recommend include a jazz-era mystery by Katharine Schellman, Karen Jennings’s Booker-nominated tale of a lighthouse keeper in Africa, Jennifer Weiner’s story about a Cape Cod wedding and Katie Runde’s debut, “The Shore,” about a New Jersey family bracing for the death of its ailing father. In nonfiction our recommended titles include the biography of a pioneering surgeon, a cultural history of Fire Island, two books about America’s political divisions and Jhumpa Lahiri’s memoir about her midlife immersion in the Italian language. Happy reading.
Senior Editor, Books
THE FACEMAKER: A Visionary Surgeon’s Battle to Mend the Disfigured Soldiers of World War I, by Lindsey Fitzharris. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $30.) Fitzharris recounts the life and work of the pioneering reconstructive surgeon Harold Gillies, a specialist in mending those who survived the mechanized slaughter of World War I but were left with disfigured faces. Gillies, at least as he is presented here, was innovative, buoyant and relentlessly hopeful, with an encouraging bedside manner just as impressive as his technical skill. As a story of medical progress and extraordinary achievement, “The Facemaker” is “grisly yet inspiring,” our critic Jennifer Szalai writes.
LAST CALL AT THE NIGHTINGALE, by Katharine Schellman. (Minotaur, $27.99.) In this fizzy mystery series debut — set in Manhattan, 1924 — a young seamstress named Vivian whiles away her evenings at a champagne-soaked speakeasy, until a man is found dead outside and she decides to investigate the murder. “What follows is a veritable trip through the demimonde, populated with the idle, dangerous rich and the desperate, hungry poor, all with motive and means to kill,” Sarah Weinman writes in her latest crime column. “Vivian is a terrific character, plucky and resourceful, determined to choreograph a different life for herself.”
AN ISLAND, by Karen Jennings. (Hogarth, $25.) In the South African author’s first novel to be published in the United States, a reclusive old lighthouse keeper living on an island somewhere in the south of the continent encounters a live refugee washed ashore, who treats him with a trust and even a kindness he can ‘t perceive or hope to return. The novel “is beautifully and sparingly constructed,” Lydia Millet writes in her review. “In the flashbacks to Samuel’s coming-of-age and then torturous captivity, Jennings renders a gritty and stripped-down portrait of the bleak family dynamics and social conditions that made him who he is.”
THE MIDCOAST, by Adam White. (Hogarth, $27.) Set in the mist-shrouded town of Damariscotta, Maine, White’s vivid debut novel charts the trajectory of a lobstering family from humble beginnings to the top of a small-town criminal empire. It also casts a light on the kinds of people and attitudes midcoastal Maine produces, with its jarring juxtapositions of poverty and wealth. The book “demonstrates an urge to know the unknowable, to place the chaos of disintegration and violence into a kind of order,” Lee Cole writes in his review his. “Brimming with keen observation, not just of the landscape but of dialect and class distinctions and all the tiny, vital particularities that make a place real in fiction, ‘The Midcoast’ is an absorbing look at small-town Maine and the thwarted dreams of a family trying to transcend it.”
TRANSLATING MYSELF AND OTHERS, by Jhumpa Lahiri. (Princeton University, $21.95.) At the age of 45, Lahiri, the acclaimed Indian American writer, decided to start writing in Italian. This memoir of the experience, recounted with passion and insight, grapples with questions that are as much philosophical as technical. “Her pursuit of Italian is about something far bigger than synonyms or dictionaries or nouns,” Benjamin Moser writes in his review his. “Studying this foreign language is, or can be, a liberation, Lahiri says: ‘I write in Italian to feel free.’”
THE SUMMER PLACE, by Jennifer Weiner. (Atria, $28.99.) In the lead-up to a wedding on Cape Cod, family secrets bubble to the surface and threaten to upend not just the nuptials but generations’ worth of trust. A meditation on mothers and daughters, Weiner’s latest novel also explores class conflicts, identity issues and real estate dramas. In a mixed review, Michelle Ruiz singles out the family’s indignant novelist matriarch for praise, as well as Weiner’s willingness to shun sentimental views of motherhood in favor of a more complicated ambivalence: “That’s the sort of biting, delicious, terribly human revelation that makes a beach read,” Ruiz writes.
LIBERALISM AND ITS DISCONTENTS, by Francis Fukuyama. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26.) The renowned political philosopher raises serious questions about the way liberal democracy has been operating for the past several generations in America and around the world, and calls for a new centrism, both individual and communal, to ensure liberalism’s survival. “Fukuyama writes with a crystalline rationality,” Joe Klein writes in a review that also considers Yascha Mounk’s “The Great Experiment” (below). “Both authors suggest that some form of national service might be a way to bind the national wounds. … But Fukuyama disdains what he calls ‘a laundry list’ of policy proposals and, rather elegantly, settles on a plea for moderation.”
THE GREAT EXPERIMENT: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure, by Yascha Mounk. (Penguin Press, $28.) Although Mounk is concerned about growing inequality and identity-based politics, he makes the case for optimism, advocating for diversity and inclusion. “Mounk argues persuasively that progress has been made,” Joe Klein writes in his review his. “No doubt, it will be a challenge to overcome the encrustations of monopoly power and racial enmity, political gridlock and media cynicism. But a sense of helplessness is essential to the enemies of liberalism. Supporters of diverse democracies, Mounk writes, ‘will also have to keep in check the pessimists in their own midst.’”
FIRE ISLAND: A Century in the Life of an American Paradise, by Jack Parlett. (Hanover Square, $27.99.) Parlett’s concise and personal history of the legendary gay enclave off Long Island’s South Shore brings in everyone from Walt Whitman to Andy Warhol, but never devolves into a sepia-hued exercise in nostalgia. Wayne Koestenbaum, reviewing it, calls the book a “meticulously researched, century-spanning chronicle of queer life” that “captures, with a plain-spoken yet lyric touch, the locale’s power to stun and shame, to give pleasure and symbolize evanescence. ”
THE SHORE, by Katie Runde. (Scribner, $26.99.) In Runde’s heartfelt and bittersweetly funny debut, a family in New Jersey braces for the death of their beloved father, who has an aggressive form of brain cancer. The subject is difficult, but moments of levity abound. “This is Katie Runde’s first novel, and she writes with a fluid sensitivity to detail and mood, hitting tough questions hard and head-on,” Judy Blundell writes in her review. “It is absorbing, lucid and true. Anyone who has lost someone by inches will recognize the struggle to push through despair and affirm the dogged endurance of love.”
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