Cosmic Quests, Cuban History, Harlem Shuffles: New Book Picks

books
Mitch Kaplan of Books & Books

According to Mitch Kaplan of Books & Books, September is a particularly strong month for new releases—as evidenced by these four wide-ranging but critically acclaimed books on a wide variety of themes and topics, from a gripping read about a heist gone wrong in 1960s Harlem to a father who looks to the stars to help figure out his troubled son.

Bewilderment by Richard Powers

Powers’ 13th novel is less than half the length of his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Overstory (2018). But it promises to be just as rich with insights about the natural world—both its limits and possibilities. Looking outward as well as inward for its existential questions and conflicts, Bewilderment centers on Theo Byrne, a widowed astrobiologist searching for the existence of extraterrestrial life in the cosmos while raising a 9-year-old boy, Robin, who presents his own set of challenges. Finding comfort in his elaborate paintings of endangered animals, Robin is facing a school expulsion for attacking a classmate; Theo fears a future of psychoactive drugs for his troubled boy. As is often the case with Powers’ work, expect Bewilderment to straddle a cerebral but accessible nexus between cold science and mercurial humanity.

Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

It could happen to anybody: A (mostly) upstanding furniture salesman, striving to make ends meet while operating on the (basically) straight and narrow finds himself the collaborator of schemers whose grand attempt to rob a posh hotel (inevitably) goes haywire. It’s a vintage narrative of underworld temptation wrestling with aboveboard morality, only this time it’s scripted by Colson Whitehead, author of The Nickel Boys and one of the most celebrated novelists of his generation. Setting this cinematic scenario in 1960s Harlem, Whitehead studs the story with site-specific details and supporting characters, from mobsters to pornographers, creating a city symphony layered with both socioeconomic commentary and page-turning entertainment.

Beautiful World, Where Are You? By Sally Rooney

The insights are bountiful in this virtually plotless and interior third novel from Ireland’s Sally Rooney (Conversations With Friends, Normal People), who at just 30 has accrued a lifetime’s knowledge of human behavior. Beautiful World, Where Are You? follows best friends Alice and Eileen. The former is a critically acclaimed novelist who meets a humble warehouse worker through a dating app and takes the relationship to deeper places than it probably deserves; the latter works at a literary magazine in London who rekindles a flirtation with a childhood acquaintance. Rather than being another solipsistic writers-writing-about-writers scenario, Rooney’s work ends up sharing smart and self-effacing revelations on numerous timely topics.

NONFICTION

Cuba: An American History by Dr. Ada Ferrer

The largest island in the Caribbean has been much in the news lately, and this expansive and extensive history of the nation, and its complicated relationship to ours, arrives at an opportune moment in the zeitgeist. One of the world’s leading experts on Cuba, Spain and the United States, Ferrer explores Cuba dating to before the arrival of Christopher Columbus, but focuses most of her scrutiny on the post-1961 era, and the impact of the United States’ severance of diplomatic ties with the socialist nation. Even more recently, Ferrer lends her astute reporting and analysis on Barack Obama’s controversial opening of the thaw, Donald Trump’s more hardline approach, and the potential future of relations under the Biden Administration.


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