5 Hot Books: N.Y. Times Film Critic A.O. Scott's Brilliant Meditation on Criticism, Behind the Scenes at Broadway Musicals, and More

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

1. Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth by A.O. Scott (Penguin Press)

From a chief film critic at The New York Times, this brilliant work of philosophy in six chapters and four dialogues argues that criticism is necessary for all forms of creativity to flourish. This is not a book by a movie buff, for movie buffs – or not just that. It is infused with a deep knowledge of artistic expression in many forms – from Pixar’s animated Ratatouille to Susan Sontag – from a writer who believes in criticism and audiences.

2. The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice by Patricia Bell-Scott (Knopf)

This dual biography of two extraordinary women, one the granddaughter of a mulatto slave, the other a Mayflower descendant, is the unlikely story of an enduring friendship that influenced the fight for civil rights. In this deeply researched book, Bell-Scott demonstrates how Pauli Murray, a black lesbian, and reformer-First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt forged their relationship, sustained it over decades, and influenced one another to stand up to the prejudice of the day and become leaders in the fight for equality.

3. The Secret Life of an American Musical: How Broadway Shows Are Built by Jack Viertel (Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

From a thirty-year veteran of the Broadway theater world comes a vivid book about the art and craft of making musicals, from the opening number and first-act climax all the way to curtain call. Viertel loves the classics old and new: Gypsy, Fiddler on the Roof, Guys and Dolls, Hairspray, and Book of Mormon are all discussed at length. His deconstruction of them, along with the backstories of their production, may make it hard for readers to resist picking up one of the original cast albums conveniently listed in the back of the book.

4. The Point Is: Making Sense of Birth, Death, and Everything in Between by Lee Eisenberg (Twelve)

How do our life stories come to be? That’s the question animating this witty book about how we shape our own narratives – when we don’t know how the story will end. Eisenberg draws on some great thinkers, like E.M. Forster, as well as new advances in neuroscience and psychology, but the most resonant parts of The Point Is reflect his own insights, and the stories of his friends and family.

5. The Heart by Maylis de Kerangal, translated from the French by Sam Taylor (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

It sounds deceptively simple:  a 24-hour drama of the harvesting of the organs of a teen-age boy who dies in a car crash and the transplanting of them to a young woman. But this exquisitely written, poetically constructed novel, a bestseller when it was published in France, rigorously documents every step in the process and captures the emotions of everyone involved in the drama – grieving parents, the conscientious medical professionals – and magically connects the living and the dead.