12 New Books We Recommend This Week

It can be misleading to talk about “the church” — the Black church, the evangelical church, whatever — as a monolithic institution, since it blurs the real differences that exist among denominations or congregations, even among the different members of any given parish. The church is an institution in the same way as “the press” or “the judiciary,” which is to say: It is one, but it’s messy.

This week we recommend two books that analyze the history and identity of religious institutions: Christine Leigh Heyrman’s “Doomed Romance,” about a 19th-century scandal in the evangelical church, and Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s “The Black Church,” about links between the church and Black culture at large.

We also like a book of poems by Margaret Atwood, a couple of biographies (one about the mobster Bugsy Siegel, the other about the playwright Tom Stoppard) and new novels by Vendela Vida and Laird Hunt. We recommend one memoir by an abuse survivor and another by a cancer survivor, studies of cyberweapons and the role of Black women in pop music, and a Nobel laureate’s guide to the physics he loves. “Whether or not you’re accustomed to reading physics for pleasure,” our reviewer says about that one, “‘Fundamentals’ might be the perfect book for the winter of this plague year.” Amen.

Gregory Cowles
Senior Editor, Books
Twitter: @GregoryCowles

TOM STOPPARD: A Life, by Hermione Lee. (Knopf, $37.50.) Stoppard’s best-known plays include “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” “The Real Thing,” “Arcadia” and “The Coast of Utopia.” He co-wrote the movie “Shakespeare in Love.” Now 83, Stoppard has led an enormous life. Lee, an important biographer who has written scrupulous books about Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton and others, wrestles that life onto the page. The result is “astute and authoritative,” our critic Dwight Garner writes. “One reason this book entertains is that Stoppard has had an opinion about almost everything, and usually these opinions are witty.”

CONSENT: A Memoir, by Vanessa Springora. Translated by Natasha Lehrer. (HarperVia/HarperCollins, $27.99.) When this book was published in France last year, it was a sensation. It recounts the time when the author, at 13 years old, was approached at a party by a grown man she calls G.M., the first encounter in what became a two-year sexual entanglement. In France G.M. was instantly recognizable as Gabriel Matzneff, the acclaimed writer whose sexual predilections for young girls and even younger boys were well known and regarded with fond indulgence. Springora’s book is a “memoir of abuse that has been lavishly praised for transcending its type — even as it affirms the genre’s inherent power, rebuking received notions about sex and narrative,” our critic Parul Sehgal writes. “‘Consent’ is a Molotov cocktail, flung at the face of the French establishment, a work of dazzling, highly controlled fury.”

LINER NOTES FOR THE REVOLUTION: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound, by Daphne A. Brooks. (Belknap/Harvard University, $39.95.) Old-guard “taste makers,” Brooks writes, still seem hesitant to “imagine a pop (culture) life with Black women at its full-stop center rather than as the opening act, the accompanying act or the afterthought.” “Liner Notes for the Revolution” is in explicit conversation with “Lipstick Traces,” Greil Marcus’s genre-bending study of punk; both books seek to uncover a subterranean current between artists and thinkers who may never have been aware of one another. The book is at its best, our critic Jennifer Szalai writes, when it is “inviting voices to talk to one another, seeing what different perspectives can offer, opening up new ways of looking and listening by tracing lineages and calling for more space.”

BETWEEN TWO KINGDOMS: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted, by Suleika Jaouad. (Random House, $28.) This memoir from a young survivor of acute myeloid leukemia provides an unlikely road map to the new not-normal of the pandemic era. Through her treatment and subsequent cross-country road trip, Jaouad (who wrote about her cancer in a column for The Times) demonstrates the courage it takes to live with unanswered questions. “It is common instinct to insist that we can remain in place, intact, even as the world as we know it dissolves,” Chanel Miller writes in her review. “It is harder to accept that we’re hurtling toward the unknown, changing in unsettling and permanent ways. … To cope, Jaouad does not seek an escape from her agony; she seeks conversion — to make use of it, turn it into something meaningful. In the quiet she learns to hear herself.”

WE RUN THE TIDES, by Vendela Vida. (Ecco, $26.99.) In her sixth novel, about the rift that develops between eighth-grade best friends at a San Francisco girls school in 1984, Vida captures the unstable sensation of early adolescent reality, in which outlandish lies can seem weirdly plausible and basic facts totally alien. “Vida’s San Francisco is ramshackle and eccentric, home to heiresses but also tide pools of counterculture backwash,” Molly Fischer writes in her review. “The affectionate specificity of the portrait she offers is one of the book’s real pleasures.”

THE BLACK CHURCH: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song, by Henry Louis Gates Jr. (Penguin Press, $30.) Relying heavily on the voices of myriad scholars and clergy members, Gates explains in this engaging companion volume to his new PBS series that the Black church was the soil in which Black culture and political action flowered. “To tell the story of the Black church is something of a risk even to a scholar as secure as Gates, for voices in the arena of racial justice have long diminished religion as overly safe and accommodationist,” Jon Meacham writes in his review. “Yet Gates writes here as a historian, and the historian can chronicle progress, assess its origins and commemorate its course while noting its incompleteness.”

DOOMED ROMANCE: Broken Hearts, Lost Souls, and Sexual Tumult in Nineteenth-Century America, by Christine Leigh Heyrman. (Knopf, $28.95.) This account of a love triangle that roiled the country’s burgeoning evangelical movement in the late 1820s is scholarship at its most entertaining and insightful, as Heyrman, mining smoldering letters by aspiring missionaries, chronicles the ambition, hypocrisy and sexism at the heart of a crusade. The book “may seem at first like a charming confection,” Caroline Fraser writes in her review. “It is that. But in Heyrman’s telling, it becomes far more, as she remorselessly dissects the fragile male selfhood at the heart of evangelical Protestantism and its ‘vexed relationship with ideals of manhood.’”

THIS IS HOW THEY TELL ME THE WORLD ENDS: The Cyberweapons Arms Race, by Nicole Perlroth. (Bloomsbury, $30.) Perlroth writes in the propulsive prose of a spy thriller to offer an intricately detailed, deeply reported — and frightening — account of the gray market for digital weapons and the worldwide cyberweapons arms race. “Deterring cyberattacks turns out to be much, much harder than deterring conventional ones,” Jonathan Tepperman writes in his review. “Despite all its offensive power, the United States, as one of the most wired nations on earth, is also more vulnerable to such attacks than many of its less-connected enemies.”

ZORRIE, by Laird Hunt. (Bloomsbury, $26.) This novel about a modest life in the rural Midwest serves as a luminous history of 20th-century America. Hunt renders the titular character’s resilience in hard times — and her fragile, often fleeting bonds with others — with ardent precision, detail by lean detail. “Hunt is not shy about his elegant ambitions with this small novel,” Alyson Hagy writes in her review. “What Hunt ultimately gives us is a pure and shining book, an America where community becomes a ‘symphony of souls,’ a sustenance greater than romance or material wealth for those wise enough to join in.”

FUNDAMENTALS: Ten Keys to Reality, by Frank Wilczek. (Penguin Press, $26.) Wilczek, a Nobel-winning physicist, writes with breathtaking economy and clarity about the forces that shape our physical world. His pleasure in his subject is palpable, whether writing about dark matter or the possibility that we might “terraform” a new planet. The book, Nell Freudenberger writes in her review, is filled with “the kind of question adults think they can answer until their children ask. How long until the Earth is swallowed by the sun? How does GPS work? How many thoughts can a person have in a lifetime? (Based on an average speech rate of two words per second, Wilczek estimates approximately a billion.) Although Wilczek’s voice here is endearingly humble, it’s clear that his mind was never like that of most kids piping up from the back seat.”

BUGSY SIEGEL: The Dark Side of the American Dream, by Michael Shnayerson. (Yale University, $26.) Making good use of memoirs and F.B.I. files, Shnayerson tells the story of a glamorous murderer who was once known as the “supreme gangster … the top man,” a mobster with matinee-idol looks, expensive haberdashery and an affable, honeyed manner. Shnayerson’s keen eye for detail “enlivens the traditional rise-and-fall narrative,” Jenna Weissman Joselit writes in her review; the book, she adds, is “written in a rat-a-tat style where money jingles and the American dream is in reach of ‘anyone with guts, good taste and a gun.’”

DEARLY: New Poems, by Margaret Atwood. (Ecco, $27.99.) Atwood, celebrated for her fiction, is also a prolific poet; the work in her 16th collection is concerned with ecology and with time — most interestingly, with how the present moment, “our too-brief history,” will look in the future. “Here we see Atwood at the height of her poetic powers: her imagery made tangible with sound,” Emilia Phillips writes, reviewing the book alongside two other volumes of poetry. “The more Atwood wields specifics, the more of the world she skewers with her fantastically sharp imagination.”

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