5 HOT BOOKS: The Big Sex Scandal of 1936, a Revolutionary Painter, and More

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

1. A Revolution in Color: The World of John Singleton Copley by Jane Kamensky (W. W. Norton)

In this brilliant biography of John Singleton Copley, the premier painter of colonial America, Kamensky charts the trajectory of an artist known for his portraits of men like John Hancock and Paul Revere. Despite his close association with American patriots during the Revolutionary War, Copley backed Britain, where he spent considerable time living and painting. Kamensky conveys how Copley’s perspective evolved, and how he gazed across the Atlantic to the colonies and concluded that “allegiance came in many shades.” Kamensky sees the Age of Revolution through Copley’s slate-colored eyes, and renders his art, rise, and gradual downfall in all of its spectacular glory.

2. Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple (Little, Brown)

We’ve all had the “day from hell,” but we can’t make it as clever, fun, or whip-smart as Semple, the presiding queen of literary screwball satire. Her previous novel, Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, dealt with privilege, parenting, and sham holiness in Seattle. Semple returns to some of the same territory in her new novel, but this one compresses the action into one day, which adds to its velocity. A cult-famous cartoonist mother is pushed to the brink when every one of her relationships and routines seems to have gone off-kilter. Drawings, annotations, poems, email bits, and a comic book extend the novel’s dimension into the past and beyond Seattle to New Orleans’s Garden District, giving the novel a wonderful, unflagging energy.

3. Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936 by Edward Sorel (Liveright/W. W. Norton)

The legendary illustrator Sorel brings the golden age of Hollywood and tabloids to life in his visually arresting, illustrated account of a dramatic episode in the life of Oscar-winning actress Mary Astor, best known for her role in The Maltese Falcon. After Astor’s husband learned of a diary recounting her affair with playwright George S. Kaufman, a custody battle for their daughter ensued and nearly ruined Astor. It’s a great story, for sure, but what gives this physically beautiful book a special dynamism is that Sorel discovered it through old newspaper clippings under the linoleum in an Upper East Side kitchen during a renovation decades ago, and he laces his wry perspective into the story.

4. The Angel of History by Rabih Alameddine (Atlantic Monthly Press)

At the center of Alameddine’s fever dream of a novel, Yemini poet Jacob, a “congenital immigrant” raised in a Cairo brothel, lives in Beirut and then San Francisco at the height of the AIDS crisis. After surviving the loss of his lover and many friends, he checks himself into a Crisis Psych Clinic. The novel takes the form of conversations in his head, with Satan and Death playing prominent roles. Alameddine, whose last novel, An Unnecessary Woman, was a National Book Award finalist, writes with humor and tenderness, as Jacob’s memory loops and doubles back in a work full of literary allusions and saints.

5. The Wangs vs. The World by Jade Chang (Houghton Mifflin)

Chang’s charming and very funny debut, a twist on the contemporary immigration novel, features a Chinese-American family into fashion, style, and luxury goods who get slammed by the 2008 economic meltdown. Patriarch Charles Wang, who made a mint in the cosmetics industry, loses it all, and the family’s Bel-Air home is foreclosed on. The Wangs embark on a road trip to New York to live with their oldest daughter, a conceptual artist whose concepts haven’t worked out. Add a son trying to make it as a stand-up comedian, and a high-school-age daughter with a style blog, and the family comes together as a quirky version of the American dream gone comically awry.