These are five books people are talking about this week -- or should be:
1. Mischling by Affinity Konar (Little, Brown)
In this stunning novel, identical 12-year-old twin sisters are deported from their home in Lodz, Poland to Auschwitz, where they are targeted by Nazi “Angel of Death” Josef Mengele for his cruel experiments. Obsessed by genetic abnormalities – and, in particular, by twins -- and by the building of a master race, Mengele wants to know if these fair-haired twins are ‘mischling,’ German for half-breed. Pearl and Stasha are a mix of another kind: one is happy, one sad, one future-focused, the other fixated on vengeance. Konar structures her novel in alternating chapters, and focuses less on the atrocities than on the resilience necessary to survive horror.
2. The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine, and Motherhood by Belle Boggs (Graywolf Press)
Graywolf Press has a well-deserved reputation for publishing original and genre-defying writers like Eula Biss (On Immunity: An Inoculation) and Leslie Jamison (The Empathy Exams), who leap from their own personal experiences to an exploration of the American psyche. Boggs joins them with this brilliant fusion of memoir and cultural study of reproductive fertility, and pays special attention to social isolation and an imagined world of idealized families. Boggs draws from literature (Virginia Woolf and Tillie Olson, in particular), psychology, and politics for this eloquent book, which highlights the fraught political, economic, and psychological experience of reproduction.
3. His Final Battle: The Last Months of Franklin Roosevelt by Joseph Lelyveld (Alfred A. Knopf)
Starting in late 1943 when Franklin Roosevelt met Stalin in Tehran, and ending 16 months later with the President’s last breath in Warm Springs, Ga., Lelyveld captures the full sweep of F.D.R.’s character and accomplishments. In focusing on Roosevelt’s fourth and final term, Lelyveld — the former executive editor of the New York Times, and Pulitzer Prize-winner for Move Your Shadow: South Africa, Black and White — is mining rich historical territory: the Four Freedoms, the end of World War II, and the creation of the framework for the United Nations. With a profound sense of history’s nuance, Lelyveld depicts an ailing but ever-savvy F.D.R. looking ahead to a world without him — and imparts a new appreciation for our 32nd President’s enduring importance.
4. True Believer: Stalin’s Last American Spy by Kati Marton (Simon and Schuster)
In this highly readable biography, Marton tells the story of Noel Field, a pleasant, Quaker-born, Harvard-educated State Department employee who came to believe fervently in Communism and became a Soviet spy. In a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction twist, Field ended up arrested by the KGB and incarcerated, and then remained in Eastern Europe. With access to the Field family papers and Soviet police records, Marton brings alive not only Field and his hard-line idealism, but the larger history of Communism. Marton, who was born in Hungary, wrote about Eastern Europe from a personal perspective in her memoir Enemies of the People: My Family’s Journey to America, a National Book Critics Circle finalist, and she imbues True Believer with that same knowing sensibility.
5. Perfume River by Robert Olen Butler (Atlantic Monthly Press)
Butler’s A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, his thematically linked short story collectioncentering on Vietnamese immigrants, won the Pulitzer Prize. His new novel continues to wrestle with the legacy of that war, this time thorough a Florida family. The patriarch survived World War II, and while one son served in Vietnam, the other fled to Canada. Once again, Butler masterfully shows how the war reverberates through individual lives, and how lingering war secrets and memories undermine relationships.