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This Week's Hot Reads

This week: brilliantly witty, surprising essays from Geoff Dyer, a surprising history of American imperialism by Sarah Vowell, Walter Mosley’s latest mystery, a matriarch rules in Stewart O’Nan’s new novel, and a family memoir about a war-hero father who wasn’t quite.

03.24.11 4:40 PM ET

Otherwise Known As The Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews
By Geoff Dyer 432 pages. Graywolf Press. $18.
From one of the wittiest writers around, a new collection of essays on Miles Davis, W.G. Sebald, and just about everything else.

Twenty-five years of Geoff Dyer's sharp essays and criticism, all in one place. The collection showcases Dyer's far-ranging, genre-bending talents, with him writing on photography, jazz, literature, and sex in hotels. He writes about following in Camus' footsteps in Algeria and life on the dole in Brixton in the 1980s, about high fashion, and the Polish writer journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski—whose genre-bending reportage resembles Dyer's own. Dyer is the author of But Beautiful, Out of Sheer Rage—a National Book Critics Circle finalist—and, more recently, the brilliantly art fair and journalism send-up Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. Zadie Smith calls him “a postmodern Kingsley Amis,” hailing his writing as “acute and bad-tempered in the great British tradition, and his prose is the equal of anyone's in the country.”

Unfamiliar Fishes
By Sarah Vowell
The columnist and author of three historical works zooms in on the United States’ annexation of Hawaii in a provocative book about our nation’s ideological foundations.

Unfamiliar Fishes By Sarah Vowell 256 pages. Riverhead Books. $25.95.

1898 was a defining year for America, Sarah Vowell argues, when the United States annexed Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Guam and established its roots as an imperial, meddling nation. Focusing on the United States’ annexation of Hawaii, Vowell’s book has a strain of heavy skepticism about America, but it’s a fair and accurate historical assessment of our country’s imperialistic, often cruel treatment of the island’s natives. Yet her comic sarcasm makes Unfamiliar Fishes an engaging, provocative read rather than a rant on American ideology. An anecdote about Bible worshippers banning the natives’ hula tradition because the dance praised their king’s genitalia is amusing, and one of many instances of Christian fanatics imposing their religion on the island’s natives. As the New York Times Book Review said, “Vowell makes an excellent travelling companion, what with her rare combination of erudition and cheek.”

When the Thrill Is Gone: A Leonid McGill Mystery
By Walter Mosley

With more than 34 acclaimed books under his belt, Walter Mosley has come out with another crime novel that brilliantly underscores his expertise in the genre.

When the Thrill is Gone: A Leonid McGill Mystery By Walter Mosley 359 pages. Riverhead Books. $26.95.

In his third installment of the Leonid McGill series, Mosley sets the stage for his murder mystery in the vast cityscape of New York, where his detective protagonist is searching for the missing wife of an elusive Fifth Avenue billionaire. McGill finds himself surrounded by danger, intrigue, and sin: a major mobster asks him for a personal favor; he finds a woman’s body in an East Village compost heap; his beautiful wife is cheating on him; and his son is dating a former Russian sex slave. Once again, the African-American detective with a dubious past has to find redemption in a world of vice. The Los Angeles Times praised When the Thrill Is Gone for being “so fundamentally sound, so in tune with the wants and needs of a crime novel, that plot points reveal themselves as if by instinct or by feel.”

Emily, Alone
By Stewart O’Nan

This sequel to O'Nan's bestselling Wish You Were Here returns to the Maxwell family matriarch, Emily, as she grapples with tragedy and unexpected joy in old age.

Emily, Alone By Stewart O’Nan. 255 pages. Viking. $25.95.

Growing old is no fun. But if we could learn to make the best of it as Emily Maxwell does, we might find new meaning in life, even as death approaches. Emily’s life is carefully constructed around daily routines, comfort zones, and trite interest in town gossip—all attempts to sweep the inevitable under the rug, along with her dead husband and grown children. When her closest friend suffers a stroke, Emily shifts her outlook on life. She strives to see beauty in the banal, finding a renewed sense of hope and vitality even as the realities of old age loom over her like a scythe. O’Nan has the rare ability to make the ordinary seem unordinary in a way that is reminiscent of Updike.

Almost a Family: A Memoir
by John Darnton
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John Darnton delivers a heartfelt memoir that is both a tribute to the father he never knew and an emotional quest to uncover the true facts of his death.

Almost a Family: A Memoir By John Darton 343 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $27.95

John Darnton was born into a family of journalists—his father Barney Darnton was a war correspondent for the New York Times, his mother a successful Times reporter and editor. But John was only a baby when his father was killed in World War II, leaving his mother—known as “Tootie”—to feed her sons’ memory of their father as a hero who died for his family and his country. Decades later, John and his brother set off to discover the true story of their father’s life—from late nights as a young journalist gallivanting in New York’s Greenwich Village during the roaring '20s, to his final months as a war correspondent and his death on a boat in Papua New Guinea. Almost a Family is Darnton’s story of childhood memories tragically disillusioned, but ultimately reworked in a true account of his father’s life. A rare, beautiful work of a journalist turning his own sharp eye on his family.