1. The Bettencourt Affair: The World's Richest Woman and the Scandal That Rocked Paris by Tom Sancton (Dutton)
In this compulsively readable saga Sancton, a onetime Time magazine Paris bureau chief, untangles the dark roots of the $40 billion L’Oreal cosmetics empire. When aging heiress Liliane Bettencourt, the world’s richest woman, lavished her fortune on a much younger gay, male artist, her daughter charged that her mother suffered from dementia and was being extorted. The ensuing lawsuit revealed how the Bettencourts' wealth had quadrupled through Fascist and Nazi collaboration during the war years. Sancton writes with aplomb about l'affaire Bettencourt, a saga that fascinated France for a decade, drew in many of the country’s prominent figures, and ultimately led to national embarrassment, including the downfall of French President Nicholas Sarkozy.
2. The Red-Haired Woman by Orhan Pamuk; trans. by Ekin Oklap (Knopf)
The new novel by 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature winner Pamuk, set in the barren outskirts of Istanbul, focuses on an older master well-digger and his young, fatherless apprentice. Relying on ancient methods to find water and dig new wells, the two tell stories while they undertake their arduous labors, and along the way they forge a deep bond that reflects the conflict between modernity and tradition that grips Turkey today. Pamuk puts a complex father-son relationship at the center of this powerful novel, and then adds a twist on the Oedipal story when a mysterious red-haired woman arrives and upsets the equilibrium.
3. The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale by James Atlas (Pantheon)
Atlas, biographer of Delmore Schwartz and Saul Bellow, now turns his lens toward himself. This charming memoir is a master class in the history, art, and craft of writing the lives of others. Atlas begins in suburban Chicago, where he developed the curiosity and empathy that led him to be an “obsessive digger,” drawn to the “odd profession” of biography. Along the way, he provides an endearing, insightful chronicle of American intellectual life, guided by luminaries like Alfred Kazin and Dwight McDonald – and shows himself to be a worthy heir.
4. Autumn by Karl Ove Knausgaard; with illustrations by Vanessa Baird and translated from the Norwegian by Ingvild Burkey (The Penguin Press)
Literary sensation Knausgaard, virtuoso of reflection and observation, and author of the six-volume autobiographical epic My Struggle, returns with a very different kind of series. “Seasons Quartet” begins with the slender, delicately illustrated Autumn, to be followed in December of this year with the aptly named Winter. In short daily posts that are in sync with nature’s calendar, Knausgaard writes a letter to his unborn daughter, in chapters ranging from “Apples” to “Loneliness,” and once again demonstrates his singular ability to fuse the quotidian with the sublime.
5. Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin (Algonquin)
In this smart, funny novel, Zevin reimagines the Clinton-Lewinsky episode with a feminist twist. When the news of South Florida intern Aviva Grossman’s secret affair with her congressman boss goes viral, Aviva disappears and reinvents herself as Jane Young, a Maine wedding planner. Two decades later, technology makes it impossible for her to conceal her identity. Zevin, author of the best-selling The Storied Life of A. J. Firky, tells Aviva’s tragicomedy artfully through five narrators, from her “bubbe” to her daughter (in a series of emails to an Indonesian pen pal). The result is a sly, highly entertaining novel, with a wry take on slow-to-die double standards for women.