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Trial and Triumph

This Week’s Hot Reads

This week, epistolary jeremiads, deadly Antarctic adventures, and a graphic memoir analyzing a legacy of abuse.

The Antagonist By Lynn Coady An intelligent and witty epistolary investigation of destiny and loyalty.Epistolary novels often function best as exercises in pacing. All is well with the correspondents in the beginning, before catastrophes begin to loom in small hints that they drop to each other, the danger revealing itself to the reader long before the characters. Not so in The Antagonist, a stunning new novel from Canadian Lynn Coady. The book opens with a drunken, vengeful email from a former hockey goon named Rank to his estranged friend from college, Adam, who has recently published a novel that poached details from Rank’s life, which he takes as a grave violation.

Extremes

This Week’s Hot Reads

From Ali Smith mixing a ghost story with a meditation on writing to Bill Streever seeking out lava, burning coals, and other hot stuff.

Artful By Ali Smith Weaving between a ghost story and a meditation on literature, the British writer offers a master class in what creative writing is and does.“The arts babblative and scribblative,” the poet Robert Southey once said. It’s not so much declarative as demonstrative, a sentence that displays its point: the arts are dumb, and they don’t need to “say” anything. Artful is Southey expanded. Through four chapters, Ali Smith muses “On time,” “On form,” “On edge,” and “On offer and on reflection,” alternating between commentary—usually in bullet points like “Putting the For in Form”—and a story where her lover, once a writer, comes back from the dead and haunts her house.

Transitional Stages

This Week’s Hot Reads

From a memoir about how to make and lose friends to a new novel of graffiti rage by the author of ‘Go the F**k to Sleep.’

She Matters by Susanna SonnenbergThe author collects female friends like kitchenware, but engineers many interpersonal collapses. One of the earliest stories in this searing volume recalls the weekend when author Susanna Sonnenberg’s mother visits her in college, meets her roommate Amy, and sets out to discover her secrets. She succeeds. After Amy confesses she and her boyfriend are having sex, Sonnenberg’s mother plans a birth-control expedition to Planned Parenthood with the girls.

Farewell, 2012

This Week’s Hot Reads

To bid farewell to 2012 and welcome 2013, here are some of the hottest books awaiting you in the first weeks of the new year.

The Physics of Wall Street By James Owen WeatherallA defense of more, not less, mathematics in finance, so that we know when models break down. But can that help prevent crashes altogether? The Black-Scholes-Merton equation made it possible to trade options before they mature by assigning an agreed value to it; in other words, it let investment banks manufacture derivatives. The renegade physicist Fisher Black’s move from academia to Goldman Sachs in 1984 initiated the era of the quants, changing finance forever.

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10 Best Hot Reads of 2012

From hip hop forefather Gil Scott-Heron's honest memoir to a novel based on Kafka's love letters, we collect some of our favorite hot-read reviews of the year. By Jimmy So, Mythili Rao, and Nicholas Mancusi.

The Last Holiday: A Memoir (reviewed Jan. 26) By Gil Scott-Heron Gil Scott-Heron’s death in May 2011 reminded us that hip-hop, a commerce machine today, once found at its center a devotion to righting social wrongs through the force of simple words. The musician and poet did not care for the label “godfather of hip-hop,” despite having released the still-powerful “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” But he should have found no shame in influencing second-generation rappers, like Chuck D, with his uncompromising political tongue.

Forgotten Lives

This Week’s Hot Reads

For the holidays, a biography of the quintessential American playwright Thornton Wilder to the newly translated, wild novel of the new Nobel laureate Mo Yan.

Thornton Wilder By Penelope NivenA biography of the private man whom many consider the best American playwright of his day, a great writer hidden in plain sight. If we bump into Thornton Wilder at all in our lives, it is probably in high school, where his novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey is still taught because it has “themes” and raises philosophical and theological questions that can be discussed in exams and term papers. Or we witness and perhaps take a role in Our Town, a mainstay of high- school drama clubs because it has enough parts for just about the whole club.

Progress?

This Week’s Hot Reads

From Ruth Rendell’s novel exploring this century’s ‘progress’ of gays and women to a study of Marcel Proust’s favorite books.

The Child’s Child By Barbara VineRuth Rendell, writing as Vine, puts a ‘manuscript’ about a 1930s gay brother and a pregnant sister inside the narrative of a similar modern-day sibling pair.“There’s small choice in rotten apples.” That’s Shakespeare. Ruth Rendell, whether writing her mystery novels or molting into Barbara Vine and burrowing deep into réalité intérieure, has always written thoughtful novels on the consequences of our choices—on how we make decisions and how certain acts, whether of violence or adultery, haunts us.

Characters Come Alive

This Week’s Hot Reads

This week, a fictionalization surrounding Kafka’s love letters and a history of a lesser-known crisis of Lincoln’s presidency. By Nicholas Mancusi.

Making an Exit By Sarah MurrayA journalist’s fascinating investigation into the different ways that various cultures of the world face death.If funereal practices are as much for the benefit of the living as they are for the deceased, then how we think about death says much about how we think about life. In Making an Exit, Financial Times contributor Sarah Murray attempts to catalog, in a lively manner very much in juxtaposition with the subject matter, the ways in which various cultures across the world approach death and mourning.

Classics

Hot Reads: In Memoriam Edition

This week, before we prepare for 2013, we look back to works by old masters who have left us: José Saramago, John Updike, Caroline Blackwood, Natsume Sōseki, and Gore Vidal.

Raised From the Ground By José SaramagoThe Portuguese Nobel laureate’s 1980 novel of landless peasants is finally available in English in a translation by Margaret Jull Costa.Before the workers’-rights struggle began, life for the landless peasants on the Portuguese latifundios was brutal. Laborers were expected to work from dawn to dusk for next to nothing, facing backbreaking labor and, often, premature death. José Saramago’s Raised From the Ground, originally published in 1980 and now available in English, is an ode to the majesty of the land and the workers who poured their sweat and blood into it.

History

This Week’s Hot Reads

From a new translation of André Maurois’s semi-autobiographical 1928 novel to the letters of the charming and kind William Styron. By Mythili Rao.

Climates By André Maurois, translated by Adriana HunterA new translation of the bestselling 1928 French novel about a bourgeois man’s quest for the right atmosphere for love.Written in 1928 by French historian André Maurois, this semi-autobiographical novel chronicles the two marriages of Philippe Marcenat, a bourgeois paper-mill owner whose appetite for romance proves to be incompatible with his own happiness. Marcenat’s first love, the delicate beauty Odile, “more of a spirit than a woman,” is a prototypical “manic pixie dream girl.

BACK IN TIME

This Week’s Hot Reads

From a never-before-published novel by Lawrence Durrell to the second volume of memoirs by prolific Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o.

Judith: A Novel By Lawrence DurrellA posthumously published novel from the famed writer of 'The Alexandria Quartet' on the occasion of his 100th birthday.It is 1948, and on a rust-covered smuggling vessel running blockades in the Middle East, a salty veteran captain discovers that the crates he has just picked up from a dark quay contain not rifles and grenades but humans, two dead and two alive. So opens Judith, a posthumously published novel by British expatriate Lawrence Durrell, known mostly for his cycle The Alexandria Quartet, on the occasion of what would have been his 100th birthday.

AROUND THE WORLD

This Week’s Hot Reads

From Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka’s treatise on Africa to the last—the very last—novel of Roberto Bolaño. By Jimmy So and Lucy Scholes.

Of Africa by Wole SoyinkaThe Nobel laureate and Nigerian playwright tries to rescue Africa from racism, ignorance, and stereotype in this forceful manifesto.In 2009 a young man in Germany said to Soyinka: “Africans, you must admit, are inherently inferior. You must be, or other races would not have enslaved you for centuries.” Everyone at the table fell quiet, and “with equal quietness” Soyinka simply changed seats. But he couldn’t stay silent anymore, and Of Africa is his answer—in which Soyinka reckons with the promise of his troubled continent, and in language that announces him as the smartest person in the room.

ALIVE

This Week’s Hot Reads

From Oliver Sacks’s hallucinations to Alice Munro’s stories. By Mythili Rao.

Hallucinations by Oliver SacksThe neurologist peels back the poetry and terror of hallucinations.“Bliss can coincide with terror,” Oliver Sacks observes in one of his patient’s sleep-paralysis induced hallucinations. It’s an observation that seems to apply broadly to hallucinatory experience, which Sacks calls an essential part of the human condition. From the baroque visions of patients with Charles Bonnet Syndrome (they see handsome gentlemen, overly ornate floating rows of sheet music, battlements and bridges, or fanciful strangers in “Eastern dress”) to the kaleidoscopic patterns that visit migraine sufferers, no style or manner of hallucination is too fanciful or obscure for Sacks’ attention.

Home and Abroad

This Week’s Hot Reads

From one man’s WWII odyssey to a Pulitzer-winning novelist’s bond with his mother. By Nicholas Mancusi.

Elsewhere By Richard RussoA novelist recounts his upbringing, when he and his mother stood against what life threw at them.We read novelists’ memoirs to get a sense of an author’s success—a formula that can be followed, if not to be mimicked, then to at least give us the illusion of causality and explanation. This is a fool’s errand, but one encouraged by the search for what makes an artist an artist. But memoir functions best when it cleaves to memories, rather than self-psychoanalysis, as Richard Russo (winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Empire Falls) has done in Elsewhere.

Frontiers

This Week’s Hot Reads

From the essays of a master of presidential biographers, Edmund Morris, to the problems of the poems of Octavio Paz and the brilliant strangeness of Emma Donoghue. By Jimmy So.

Astray by Emma DonoghueThe author of ‘Room’ displays her mastery at inventing the speech of the most unlikely characters in this story collection. How do people sound? That’s one of the primary concerns of a writer. Get that right, and everything follows. Donoghue gets it right, as anyone who’s read Room would know. In that remarkable, terrifying novel whose very mention sends my heart rate up and up, she reproduces the speech of Jack, a 5-year-old boy who lives in a tiny room with his mother with no contact with the outside world.

About Hot Reads

Every week, we present brief but in-depth reviews of five fiction and nonfiction books.

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