The National Book Review: 5 Hot Books

These are five books people are talking about this week -- or should be:

1.  Blue Money by Janet Capron (Unnamed Press)

In her Author’s Note, Capron describes Blue Money, her account of life as a New York prostitute, as “a memoir written in the guise of fiction.”  She grew up in dysfunction on Park Avenue, with live-in maids, paid for by her grandfather, whom she describes as a “retired newspaper publisher and quixotic champion of the workingman.” Beginning in August, 1971, she started turning tricks on the street, and now, forty years later, she recounts her descent into the trap of sex for money, which included living in a “whorehouse,” doing live sex shows, and more. Despite misgivings, she couldn’t quit “the life" -- the excitement, the money, and the friendly competition with “the harem.” Capron, who bottomed out before landing in rehab, has written a bracing personal narrative set against the backdrop of a simpler New York, before gentrification, the War on Drugs, and AIDS.

2 Grown-Up Anger: The Connected Mysteries of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and the Calumet Massacre of 1913 by Daniel Wolff (Harper)

In this ambitious work of narrative non-fiction, Wolff zeroes in on a little-known link between Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie: the Calumet & Hecla Mining Company Christmas catastrophe in which 73 people - workers and their children – died. Wolff, a writer and musician, was listening to Guthrie’s song “1913 Massacre” and noticed that Dylan had used the same melody for a song about Guthrie. The connection led him to the roots of the Calumet tragedy and the terrible conditions of copper mining in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, its role in building the labor movement, and ultimately to an understanding of how Dylan and Guthrie echoed one another across time. Wolff, whose previous books include How Lincoln Learned to Read and You Send Me: The Life and Times of Sam Cooke, fuses his own wide-ranging talents to vividly evoke not only Dylan and Guthrie, but Joe Hill, Pete Seeger and Alan Lomax, and a century-long tradition of populist music.

3. The Songs We Know Best: John Ashbery’s Early Life by Karin Roffman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Roffman’s extraordinary book stretches from John Ashbery’s birth in 1927 to 1955, when W. H. Auden’s selected Ashbery’s debut collection for the prestigious Yale Younger Poets Prize. She charts significant moments in Ashbery’s boyhood – the sad story of his brother’s death, how he was plucked from the family farm for Deerfield Academy and Harvard College, how as a teen he was named “Rochester’s Quiz Kid” and won a spot on the national radio show – and she places the formative years of his development as a poet within the context of the homophobia of the era.  Roffman bonded with Ashbery after he visited Bard, where she was then teaching, and he provided her with years of his diaries, working drafts of poetry, plays and stories, and facilitated access to his friends – with no strings attached. The Songs We Know Best illuminate the development of a brilliant creative mind. 

4. Our Little Racket by Angelica Baker (Ecco)

For those who made Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney’s debut The Nest a bestseller last summer, here comes Our Little Racket, which not only features a similar cover, but Sweeney’s enthusiastic endorsement. Rather than an inheritance squabble, as in The Nest, Baker focuses on what happens when wealth disappears abruptly and publicly. At the center of her novel is 15-year-old girl, Madison, whose father’s investment bank implodes amid rumors of financial impropriety. Baker is wry and perceptive in her depictions of the gossip mill as Madison’s family tumbles down the status ladder in Greenwich, and the fall reverberates in her insular world.

5. The Retreat of Western Liberalism by Edward Luce (Atlantic Monthly Press)

In this important new book, Luce charts the arc of liberalism from the Magna Carta forward,  with particular emphasis on the years from the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 to today’s rumblings of impending authoritarianism. Luce, a Washington columnist for the Financial Times and the author of Time to Start Thinking: America in the Age of Descent, focuses on America, the United Kingdom, and continental Europe – and he has much to say about the structural forces eroding the middle class. Through his deep reporting and clear-headed analysis, Luce explains popular frustration with liberalism, and the resurgence of nationalism.

pressKarin Roffman