5 HOT BOOKS: David Hajdu on American Pop Music, a Philosophy Memoir, and More

These are five books people are talking about this week -- or should be:

1. Love for Sale: Pop Music in America by David Hajdu (FSG)

Hajdu, music critic of The Nation magazine and a professor at the Columbia School of Journalism, is a smart and generous guide through the history of pop music.  He begins this fascinating book by reaching back to the 19th Century with first chapter “The Sheet Music Era: The Zenith of the Popular Music Craze,” and continues on through video, hip-hop and digital streaming. Hajdu's chapter “Singers and Songwriters: Potty About Dylan” was of course written before Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize, but it is an eloquent articulation of how he has drawn from varied sources, from Anglo-Saxon folk songs to Negro spirituals, to express the social conscience of a generation. No matter where his own personal enthusiasms rest, Hajdu writes about a wide range of music styles with a critical eye and contagious exuberance.

2. Of Arms and Artists: The American Revolution through Painters’ Eyes by Paul Staiti (Bloomsbury Press)

In this wonderfully engaging account of the important role of American painters in the establishment of the republic, Mount Holyoke College professor Staiti weaves together the lives and work of five artists.  He focuses on Charles Willson Peale, John Singleton Copley, John Trumbull, Benjamin West, and Gilbert Stuart and explains how they “illuminated the era.”  Staiti deftly discusses their paintings – including portraits of leaders like George Washington, scenes from battles like Bunker Hill, and moments like the signing of the Declaration of Independence – and explains how these images worked to inspire disparate people to come together as a nation.

3. The Red Car by Marcy Demansky (Liveright Publishing)

In Dermansky’s pitch-perfect novel, Leah’s former boss was a divorced older woman who looked like Liza Minnelli and scared almost everyone in the office. The two have lost touch, but and after the boss's sudden death she bequeathed Leah her red sports car, which was located across the country, and a vehicle Leah had not particularly liked. Leah leaves an oppressive marriage and life of underachievement to retrieve the car — and try to understand the meaning of this mysterious gift. Sprinkled with dark humor and many literary references, Dermansky’s novel is ultimately one of compassion, optimism, and fierce feminism, in which an unmoored young woman enmeshed in bad relationships with men resets her life path.

4. IQ by Jo Ide (Mulholland Books)

Isaiah Quintabe, a quirky-smart high school dropout, is the brainchild of crime novelist Ide, a Japanese-American who grew up in South Central Los Angeles, the setting for this very original debut.  IQ, as he is known, cannot hold a job, but he does have a knack for solving crimes that defy the L.A. police. His clients often cannot pay, however, and as a result, his financial situation is precarious. Lured by the money, and a high school frenemy, IQ takes on a case involving a rap star whose life has been threatened. This fast-paced drama is enriched by Japanese-Asian-African-American culture conflicts as well as generation gaps, with tech-oriented, pop-culture-loving young people in battle with their elders.

5. American Philosophy: A Love Story by John Kaag (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

“Is Life Worth Living?” asked Willam James in a famous 1895 Harvard lecture.  In his new book American Philosophy: A Love Story, Kaag grapples with that question both theoretically and personally on the New Hampshire White Mountains estate of William Ernest Hocking, a student of James and his Harvard colleagues. In this highly original work of biography, philosophy, and memoir, Kaag — who has undertaken the project of cataloguing Hocking’s library of about 10,000 books — explores American philosophy in a way that is both lucid and deeply personal.  Kaag’s father dies, his marriage dissolves, and he falls in love with a colleague (a feminist Kantian), as he works among the first editions of the giants in philosophy, ponders the marginalia, and considers the life he wishes to live.