Eco, Erdrich, Khizr Khan, Kevin Young, & More | Barbara’s Picks, Nov. 2017

Eco, Umberto. Chronicles of a Liquid Society. Houghton Harcourt. Nov. 2017. tr. from Italian by Richard Dixon. 272p. ISBN 9780544974487. $24; ebk. ISBN 9780544974579. PHILOSOPHY/ESSAYS
Novelist, essayist, literary critic, philosopher, and semiotician nonpareil (see his star turn in Laurent Binet’s sensational The Seventh Function of Language, which supposes that Roland Barthes was murdered), Eco began writing a regular column for the Italian weekly magazine L’Espresso in 1985. Called “La Bustina di Minerva,” which referred to a brand of matchbook that had blank spaces handy for notes, it ranged from current events and pop culture to thoughts on Herodotus, the Brothers Grimm, and Popeye. In particular, Eco pondered our “liquid society,” where community has been lost and friends and colleagues turned into competitors. Endless material for conversation.

Erdrich, Louise. Future Home of the Living God. Harper. Nov. 2017. 352p. ISBN 9780062694058. $28.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062694072. LITERARY FICTION
Winner most recently of the National Book Critics Circle Award for LaRose, Erdrich does something a little different, catching the dystopian zeitgeist from her own inimitable perspective. In an upended world, evolution itself seems to be running in reverse, with women giving birth to what appears to be a primitive species. Cedar Hawk Songmaker, adopted in her infancy by a liberal Minnesotan couple and now 32, is desperate to find her Ojibwe birth mother before telling her parents that she is pregnant. When she returns from the reservation, her parents have vanished, and with martial law and a registry of expectant mothers loudly rumored, Cedar is on the run.

Jasanoff, Maya. The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World. Penguin Pr. Nov. 2017. 400p. ISBN 9781594205811. $30; ebk. ISBN 9780698137479. Downloadable: Penguin Audio. LITERATURE
Coolidge Professor of History at Harvard College and winner of National Book Critics Circle, Duff-Cooper, and Windham-Campbell Literature honors, Jasanoff argues that Joseph Conrad did more than represent the spirit of his age. With his parents dead after forced relocations for his father’s revolutionary activities in Russian-controlled Poland and his sojourns worldwide as a sailor showing him both the oppression wrought by imperialism and the swift changes wrought by technological advances like the telegraph, Conrad speaks to the turmoil of our day. To make her point, Jasanoff examines four great Conrad novels—The Secret Agent, Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness, and Nostromo. I’ve already signed up to read this one.

Khan, Khizr. The American: A Memoir of Hope and Sacrifice. Random. Nov. 2017. 288p. ISBN 9780399592492. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780399592508. CD/downloadable: Random Audio. MEMOIR
Pakistani American Khan, whose middle child, U.S. Army Captain Humayun Khan, was killed in Iraq in 2004, addressed immigrant-adverse candidate Donald Trump at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, by saying, “Have you ever been to Arlington Cemetery? Go look at the graves of brave patriots who died defending the United States of America. You will see all faiths, genders, and ethnicities. You have sacrificed nothing—and no one.” Here he tells the story of his family’s immigration from Pakistan, his son’s life and death, and his own commitment to the U.S. Constitution, which he carries with him in pocket format. Khan will appear on the “Top Nonfiction” panel at LJ’s Day of Dialog.

Kotkin, Stephen. Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929–1941. Penguin Pr. Nov. 2017. 976p. ISBN 9781594203800. $40; ebk. ISBN 9780735224483. BIOGRAPHY
The John P. Birkelund Professor in History and International Affairs at Princeton University, Kotkin here offers his second in a magisterial three-volume biography of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, following Pulitzer Prize finalist Stalin: Vol. I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878–1928. In the first volume, Kotkin remade our understanding of Stalin and the larger history of the time, and we can expect the same assiduous work here as he details the five-year plans, collectivization, the Great Terror, the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact, and Stalin’s utter blindness to the German threat. Expect a blaze; as Russian poet Osip Mandelstam famously wrote at the time, “the centuries surround me with fire.”

McKibben, Bill. Radio Free Vermont: A Fable of Resistance. Blue Rider. Nov. 2017. 240p. ISBN 9780735219861. $22; ebk. ISBN 9780735219878. Downloadable: Penguin Audio. LITERARY FICTION
Leading environmental activist McKibben, who kicked off our understanding of climate change with 1989’s The End of Nature, here gives his ideas narrative form while representing America’s seismic discontent. His protagonist is 72-year-old Vern Barclay, host of Radio Free Vermont, which broadcasts from a top-secret location with the help of computer prodigy Perry Alterson. Its subversive message: Vermont should secede from the United States and operate under a free local economy, something Barclay and buddies try to make clear by hijacking a Coors Light truck and replacing the stock with local brew. A juicy good book-club possibility.

Thorpe, Helen. The Newcomers: Learning a New Language and Making a New Home in a Place Called America. Scribner. Nov. 2017. 416p. ISBN 9781501159091. $28; ebk. ISBN 9781501159114. SOCIAL SCIENCE
Thorpe, whose Soldier Girls was named the top nonfiction book of 2014 by Time, again probes unexpected lives as she chronicles the experiences of 22 immigrant teenagers at Denver’s South High School during 2015–16. Having fled war and famine, often arriving straight from refugee camps and sometimes without family, they entered an English Language Acquisition class created specifically for them, walking in with no language skills or grasp of American culture. An achingly relevant book.

Young, Kevin. Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News. Graywolf. Nov. 2017. 480p. ISBN 9781555977917. $28; ebk. ISBN 9781555979829. LITERATURE
It surely sounds interesting to hear about hoaxes, humbug, plagiarists, phonies, post-facts, and fake news, but it’s especially interesting when the author is multi-award-winning poet/critic Young, also director of the NYPL’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Here he presents the hoax as a quintessentially American phenomenon, following its history from P.T. Barnum’s sideshows to Donald J. Trump’s fake news and arguing that race is the most damning hoax of all. (Consider, for example, Barnum’s touting an African American man as a missing link in evolution or fake Native Americans Grey Owl and Nasdijj.) Sadly, the hoax looms larger in our culture than ever, eroding our faith in both reality and art.

Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.


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