These are five books people are talking about this week — or should be:
1. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (Random House)
When his short story collection Tenth of December appeared in 2013, The New York Times announced: “George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year.” Saunders’ brilliant new novel Lincoln in the Bardo is drawing similarly ecstatic praise, and the good news is that it is worthy of the enthusiasm. “Bardo” is a Tibetan Buddhist concept, a place of suspension between death and rebirth that offers opportunity for liberation – and it is both the setting for this novel and its central metaphor. In 1862, a grief-stricken President Abraham Lincoln visited the crypt where his 11-year-old son, a victim of typhoid, had been laid, and there are differing accounts of what happened there. Saunders has imagined his own version of the pain of a father who was also presiding over a bitterly divided nation. Saunders' novel is a beautiful, multi-voiced narration akin to Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. The audiobook version promises to be a literary extravaganza, with 166 different speakers, ranging from stars like David Sedaris, Julianne Moore, and Susan Sarandon to family, friends, and employees of Random House.
2. Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town by Brian Alexander (St. Martins)
In the post-war years, Forbes featured Lancaster, Ohio as a perfect, all-American town. It was a classic version of a prosperous, well-ordered company town, with Anchor Hocking Glass – then the world’s largest manufacturer of glass tableware – the reliable anchor of the citizenry’s prosperity. In this fascinating new book, Alexander traces how that anchor came loose and how — through the forces of deindustrialization, low wages, petty local politics, and more recently, a heroin epidemic — an ideal town came undone. and Lancaster became what it is today: a shell of its former self.
3. On Turpentine Lane by Elinor Lipman (Houghton Mifflin)
Genuine, deft and witty, Lipman’s On Turpentine Lane, doesn’t skewer American contemporary life as much as roast it. Faith Frankel, the beating heart of Lipman’s novel, returns to her alma mater, Everton Country Day, for a “Stewardship” job, which entails writing thank-you notes to donors and showing up at alumni cocktail parties and reunions. Faith stops Stuart at one of these events because he is not on the guest list, and is wearing a T-shirt depicting a silk-screened tuxedo, which he defends as a “perfectly reasonable interpretation of ‘black tie optional.’” Twice-divorced — from the same woman — Stuart embarks on a crowd-funded cross-country walk, wearing a sign that reads “IN SEARCH OF STORIES” on one side, and “FREE HUGS” on the other. Faith tracks his progress, placing push-pins in a wall map, which her officemate dubs “Stuartship.” Lipman’s neat plot twists and smart repartee propel the novel, but it is its sharp social observations and far-ranging curiosity that elevate it beyond the traditional romantic comedy, into a work of real heft and charm.
4. The Temporary Bride: A Memoir of Love & Food in Iran by Jennifer Klinec (Twelve Books)
In this culinary love and adventure story, Klinec, who left her native Canada for Dublin at 17, establishes a culinary school in London. From there, she sets off for Iran in pursuit of new recipes. Klinec, a truly indefatigable spirit, arrives in the beautiful and remote desert city of Yazd, famous for its labyrinthine old city filled with mudbrick buildings and ancient wind towers. In search of a Persian kitchen, she lands in a household with a wonderful cook, who happens to have a son – and her relationship with the cook’s son provides the drama of this vivid memoir. Klinec mixes her cooking experiences with her gradual understanding of traditional Iran’s strict mores, and the long arm of the nation’s theocratic law. Their solution was a temporary marriage, known in Farsi as Sigheh, which can last from just a few minutes to 99 years. It was a pragmatic solution for the couple, living in a nation with a strict ban on extra-marital sex, but far from a comfortable one: the arrangement is regarded by some as a form of female sexual enslavement.
5. Insane Clown President: Dispatches from the 2016 Circus by Matt Taibbi (Spiegel & Grau)
Four and a half decades ago, Rolling Stone magazine writer Hunter S. Thompson collected his campaign missives into Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, his classic narrative of covering the Nixon-McGovern race. Another Rolling Stone journalist was back on the trail last year, delivering an updated version of Thompson’s “gonzo” reportage. In Insane Clown President, Taibbi, celebrated political reporter and winner of the National Magazine Award for Commentary in 2008, brings his iconoclastic sensibility to the rise of President Donald Trump. He argues that Trump reflects the rot and corruption of the American political system, and that television and the media were a large part in the degradation. Taibbi extends the themes developed previously in his 2009 book The Great Derangement: A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics, and Religion, and this time he has stronger evidence than ever for his contention that the modern political campaign is a version of reality television.