Reading recommendations from The New York Times writers and reviewers.
One of the unexpected joys of “On Writing (and Writers),” a new compendium of C.S. Lewis’s assorted thoughts on literature, comes in the title’s parenthetical phrase: Lewis’s views on his fellow writers may be an afterthought in this book, but it turns out they were firmly held and sometimes deliciously spiteful.
He appears to have held out special disdain for T.S. Eliot. “I don’t believe one person in a million, under any emotional stress, would see evening like that,” said the character “Prufrock.” Regarding “The Waste Land,” I believe that few men are strengthened against disorder by reading it, but rather that most men are afflicted with chaos as a result. The Waste Land is hellish poems, not The Inferno. How can a guy who is neither a knave nor an imbecile write so like both, Eliot asked when he was criticizing?
Lewis’s cattiness is as welcome in a time when literary discussion is almost too courteous; even on social media, which is hardly known for its etiquette, people refrain from mentioning the books they detest.
This week, new versions of Thomas Mann’s short tales, Adam Zagajewski’s poetry collection, and books by Walter Mosley, Rebecca Makkai, and Thomas Mallon are also suggested. Enjoy your perusing.
1. EVERY MAN A KING by Walter Mosley
A Black private investigator in New York looks into whether the government falsely accused a famous white supremacist in the second book of Mosley’s King Oliver series. The more he investigates, the more complex the plan becomes, involving Russian oil smugglers, alt-right militias, and jail contractor companies.
“Mosley enjoys reading poems as well as comic novels. He appears to have all the detachment of a Taoist philosopher when it comes to issues of what constitutes mystery and literature, what is stale and what is ageless, and what is elite or low.” From Daniel Nieh’s review.
2. ON WRITING (AND WRITERS): A Miscellany of Advice and Opinions by C.S. Lewis
This collection of advice on writing, and consequently, life, serves as a helpful reminder of the importance of real professionals. Lewis offers entertaining, sage, and simple guidance. For example, “You should read or hear each phrase you compose as if it were being spoken. Try again if it doesn’t sound good.
“I continue to believe that reading your betters is the only way to genuinely enhance your work, especially for fiction. Lewis is both charming and astute, despite the fact that writing about writing is frequently fatal.” From Judith Newman’s self-help column
3. UP WITH THE SUN by Thomas Mallon
The author, who specializes in writing fiction about historical figures, including American presidents, turns to the life of a relatively obscure person: Dick Kallman, a Broadway backup actor whose playing career was tragically ended by his murder in 1980. The delectable name-dropping takes precedence over the criminal narrative.
If not a psychopath, Kallman is a doomed cipher on whom “ambition stuck out like a cowlick” in Mallon’s meticulously studied imagination. ‘Up With the Sun’ is an unqualified triumph as a journey down the highway of old-style amusement (theater, movies, literature, music, and TV), with gossip columns on the side.” From Alexandra Jacobs’s review
4. TRUE LIFE by Adam Zagajewski
The famous Polish author Zagajewski (who passed away in 2021) achieved an epic scope throughout his career with an intimate, almost mild accent. The writing in this collection, which was released in Poland before his death and has now been translated by Clare Cavanagh, combines these seemingly opposing elements of historical perspective and personal tone.
”This poem has a more exacting and less forgiving sword of penetration than typical, rhetorical justice. The poetry push the boundaries of candor. They use subtlety as a magical protection.” From Robert Pinsky’s review.
5. THOMAS MANN: New Selected Stories by Thomas Mann
Damion Searls has recently translated a collection of Mann’s writings, including well-known works like “Death in Venice” and an extract from “Buddenbrooks.” The tale “Chaotic World and Childhood Sorrow,” which examines a father’s complex emotions for his children during a period of societal change, is the best, though.
”The author, Mann, “confronted his own reticence, writing fiction whose frankness belonged to the world of his elder children as they did what they pleased in the chaotic Germany of the early 1920s,” which is where the tale gets its force.” From Colm Toibin’s review
6. AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF SKIN by Lakiesha Carr
The long-lasting effects of suffering on the bodies of Black women are examined in Carr’s compelling premiere. The book examines what it means to be a Black woman in America today as it tracks three women whose different tragedies literally and figuratively torment them.
“Carr is fascinated by the body’s expressive power, and the book is expertly plotted to emphasize its lasting cultural significance. However, the novel is more concerned with dramatizing how it actually feels than it is with explaining or justifying that importance.” From Ladee Hubbard’s review
7. A SPELL OF GOOD THINGS by Ayobami Adebayo
Adebay’s sharp and timely book, which is set in modern Nigeria, focuses on the lives of a working-class boy and a rich young woman who cross paths. The book’s complex framework, which builds to a catastrophic collision, feels both unexpected and unavoidable.
”The characters’ errors in reasoning and delusions are vividly envisioned with empathy.”From Aamina Ahmad’s review
8. I HAVE SOME QUESTIONS FOR YOU by Rebecca Makkai
A podcast presenter goes back to her alma school in Makkai’s gripping, suspenseful book, her first since “The Great Believers,” to teach a class and solve a riddle that’s been bothering her for years.
”Makkai guides us away from red herrings and into courtrooms to find hidden evidence. Short, incantatory segments and lines that are as tight as piano wire characterize her writing, which is lush yet lean.” From Hamilton Cain’s review
9. EMPTY THEATRE by Jac Jemc
The lives of King Ludwig II of Bavaria and his relative Empress Elisabeth of Austria are reimagined by Jemc, whose keen satire on the follies of monarchy is driven by their eccentricities, obsessions, and profound loneliness.
“Empty Theatre,” a modern and mythic film, “measures the steep costs of our dream worlds while capturing the outrageous taste of an era.” From Katy Simpson Smith’s review