These are five books people are talking about this week — or should be:
1. Commonwealth by Ann Patchett (Harper)
Patchett is the literary equivalent of the It Girl. She writes best-selling novels, like Bel Canto and State of Wonder, that have won literary plaudits. TIME magazine named her one of its “most influential people in the world.” She co-owns a vibrant Nashville bookstore, and is a champion for independent bookstores everywhere. And now, her new novel may just be her best yet. Patchett stamps Commonwealth with her trademark theme of assorted people thrown together in unanticipated circumstances, but this extraordinary novel is more epic in scope than her earlier works. Nuclear families bust up, remake themselves, and blend together over a span of half a century. Children lurch into adulthood and fashion their own origin stories. And Patchett captures it all with deep insight and wry charm.
2. American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804 by Alan Taylor (W. W. Norton)
With American Revolutions, Taylor challenges the traditional narrative of idealistic colonists in rebellion against British authority. He offers a counter to the idea of a “united and an heroic American people who rise up against unnatural foreign domination by Brittons, cast as snooty villains.” Taylor, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner (The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832 and William Cooper's Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic) pays particular, and welcome, attention to slaves, women and indigenous people. Taylor also puts the American Revolution in a global context, bringing in uprisings in European empires around the world. The result is exciting, myth-busting history.
3. The Fortunes by Peter Ho Davies (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Though classified as a novel, this powerful and expansive new book from the author of the critically acclaimed The Welsh Girl is structured as a suite of four novellas. It reaches from the 19th Century to the present day, from railroads built by Chinese workers to early film-industry California to the dying, seedy Midwest. Davies links his characters subtly, through parts titled “Gold,” “Silver,” “Jade,” and “Pearl,” and finds interconnections between different historical eras in this carefully crafted, emotionally rich work of fiction.
4. Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies by Ross King (Bloomsbury)
Monet’s beloved paintings of water lilies are the focus of King’s new work, and he uses their creation to understand the larger arc of the artist’s life. King recounts how Monet, late in his life, as World War I neared, with his wife and son dead, and with his vision failing, fell into a despair so deep that he could not paint. At the urging of his friend Georges Clemenceau, Monet went on to produce his most famous work. King has distinguished himself as an art historian who focuses on masterpieces – as he did with Brunelleschi’s Dome – to illuminate the full life of the master. In this fascinating biography, King has found a dramatic central character and a remarkable moment in his career — which produced one of the great achievements of modern art.
5. Juniper: The Girl Who Was Born Too Soon by Kelley and Thomas French (Little Brown)
Their baby girl weighed 570 grams — the equivalent of $2.28 in pennies, a bottle of Gatorade, a woman’s left lung, or a raw bone-in rib eye. The Frenches include these sorts of vivid details in this account of their daughter’s battle to survive as a micro-preemie who spent much of her first year in a neonatal intensive care unit. The authors, who are Pulitzer Prize-recognized journalists (he was a winner, she was a finalist) handle the science of neonatology and the ethical questions surrounding it with equal aplomb. This tender account is vividly rendered, with husband and wife writing alternating chapters, so the story is told from different perspectives, and in distinct voices, but with a shared energy and urgency.