War rages in many of this week’s recommended titles, from the gritty details of a specific World War II battle to a historical overview of bloody combat as a defining cultural force for humans at large. Christina Lamb sheds light on the frequent and underacknowledged occurrence of rape as a war crime, and Roberto Lovato revisits the effects on his family of the U.S.-sponsored civil war in 1980s El Salvador. We also look at the decades before America’s own Civil War, when enslaved families in Maryland took to the courts to sue for emancipation, and — in two memoirs — at the lasting reverberations of the U.S. campaigns against Indigenous nations.
Away from the battlefield, we recommend a couple of novels: the delightfully oddball “Lake of Urine: A Love Story,” by Guillermo Stitch, and the somber Nordic crime novel “The Kingdom,” by Jo Nesbo. (Yes, there’s still plenty of violence in that one.) And if you want something a little sunnier, settle in with Tom Zoellner’s “The National Road,” about his travels across America looking for common ground, or the monumental anthology “The Glorious American Essay,” in which Phillip Lopate curates the best the country has to offer, from colonial times to today. Peace (and I cannot stress this enough) out.
Senior Editor, Books
LAKE OF URINE: A Love Story, by Guillermo Stitch. (Sagging Meniscus, $21.) Two of the main characters in this wild satirical novel are the sisters Urine and Noranbole Wakeling. Supporting characters have names like Mimi Tourette, Tilly Bumpus and Rose Flimsy. It’s unclear when and where the story is set. (People write with quills and drive stagecoaches but also have USB ports and Facebook.) The novel offers “strange harbingers, offbeat mental exfoliations, subterranean impulses, verbal ambuscades and warty, warty manifestations of joy, wit and lust,” our critic Dwight Garner writes, and “invites you to view the world as fundamentally absurd and usually awful, but also to recognize that laughter is a mighty, and cleansing, recompense.”
A QUESTION OF FREEDOM: The Families Who Challenged Slavery From the Nation’s Founding to the Civil War, by William G. Thomas III. (Yale, $35.) Dred Scott is one of the few freedom lawsuits that are familiar to Americans by name, but “A Question of Freedom” makes only passing reference to it. William G. Thomas III devotes the rest of his book to the seven decades that preceded the Dred Scott decision, tracing the stories of several enslaved families in Maryland through the generations. Altogether, the families pursued more than a thousand freedom suits, a number of them successful. “It’s a rich, roiling history,” our critic Jennifer Szalai writes, “that Thomas recounts with eloquence and skill, giving as much attention as he can to the specifics of each case while keeping an eye trained on the bigger context.”
THE GLORIOUS AMERICAN ESSAY: One Hundred Essays From Colonial Times to the Present, edited and with an introduction by Phillip Lopate. (Pantheon, $40.) Many of these essays “speak vividly to our present moment,” Phillip Lopate writes in his introduction, about issues that “keep recurring on the national stage.” The collection includes speeches and letters as well as more traditional essays. The great majority of the pieces have august bylines: Douglass, Whitman, Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, Du Bois, Twain, Wharton, Mencken, Fitzgerald, Baldwin, Sontag, Didion. “Give in to its choral quality for stretches of time,” our reviewer John Williams writes, “and it’s easy to feel not just the sweep of our centuries but the dialogical nature of our grandest ideas and most persistent struggles.”
WAR: How Conflict Shaped Us, by Margaret MacMillan. (Random House, $30.) This is a short book but a rich one with a profound theme. MacMillan argues that fighting and killing is so intimately bound up with what it means to be human that viewing it as an aberration misses the point. War has led to many of civilization’s great disasters but also to many of its greatest achievements. “MacMillan shows how the need to protect oneself — or one’s tribe or nation — has influenced nearly every aspect of human history,” Dexter Filkins writes in his review. “The greatest pleasures of this book are the historical anecdotes, moments and quotations that MacMillan marshals on nearly every page to illustrate her points. They are bold, arresting and various, and they make the book come alive.”
SICILY ’43: The First Assault on Fortress Europe, by James Holland. (Atlantic Monthly, $30.) Holland offers straightforward military history, describing the rigors of war and concluding that the successful invasion of Sicily is an achievement that has not been fully appreciated. “Academic histories are all very well, but at times it is a pleasure to sit back and wallow in an old-school military tale of flinty-eyed men doing battle,” Thomas E. Ricks writes in his review. Holland “gives us a history of Anglo-Saxon males slaughtering one another while Italians mainly try to get out of the way. … In one memorable passage he portrays a German general gazing down at the huge American invasion fleet and concluding that Sicily was lost — and probably the entire global war as well.”
THE KINGDOM, by Jo Nesbo. Translated by Robert Ferguson. (Knopf, $27.99.) Nesbo’s Norway is populated with all kinds of creeps and psychos — in this case, two brothers whose family and friends have a tendency to meet distinctly unpleasant ends. The subtext is the narrowness and meanness of life in a small Nordic town where everyone knows everyone’s secrets, or wants to. “In the beginning the book seems less a mystery story than a Faulknerian saga about sibling rivalry and sexual jealousy,” Charles McGrath writes in his review. “But there is a dark family secret, it turns out … and, instead of one mystery, lots of them.”
UNFORGETTING: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas, by Roberto Lovato. (Harper/HarperCollins, $26.99.) This powerful memoir by a Salvadoran-American journalist straddles two cultures and recounts a life marked by the trauma of war. As Lovato’s grandmother tells him, “We’re all pieces of broken glass, stained with blood and struggling to put ourselves back together.” Reviewing it, Carolyn Forché writes that “Unforgetting” is “a story of two countries, inextricably bound, and Lovato is uniquely positioned to tell it. … His task is to piece together not only his fragmented identity, but the mosaic of testimony from the host of characters he assembles, all the while standing in the rubble of war’s aftermath.”
A MIND SPREAD OUT ON THE GROUND, by Alicia Elliott. (Melville House, paper, $17.99.) In her raw, unflinching memoir, a Mohawk writer who suffers from depression sketches a chart of Native brokenness and U.S. genocide — but also details her parents’ sustaining love for her in the face of overwhelming odds. Elliott “maps out the states of mind that could lead to suicide, and argues that feelings of worthlessness among Native peoples can be traced back to the cruel history of American colonialism and territorial greed,” Priyanka Kumar writes in her review. “But rather than drilling too deep into this history, she tells the impassioned, wrenching story of the mental health crisis within her own family and community.”
CARRY: A Memoir of Survival on Stolen Land, by Toni Jensen. (Ballantine, $27.) Jensen, the daughter of a Catholic mother and a sometimes violent Métis father, wants a new way to describe how historical injustices seep into the present. Finding the right words to crystallize her outrage becomes a moral stance. “With a controlled voice like a Philip Glass composition, smooth, meandering yet repetitive, Jensen considers her troubled past and begins the work of stitching herself back together,” Priyanka Kumar writes, reviewing the book alongside Elliott’s memoir (above). “History hovers over these pages like a bitter, ghostly scent.”
THE NATIONAL ROAD: Dispatches From a Changing America, by Tom Zoellner. (Counterpoint, $26.) A journalist who is also an old-fashioned American vagabond, Zoellner crisscrosses the country to discover what connects us as Americans at a time when divisions run deep. The result is “a chronicle of Zoellner’s wanderings and wanderlust,” Jody Rosen writes in her review, “what he calls his ‘unspecified hunger’ to cover the lower 48 states with ‘a coat of invisible paint.’ It’s also a sneakily ambitious book whose 13 ‘dispatches’ present a sweeping view of the American land and its inhabitants — how each has shaped, and deformed, the other.”
OUR BODIES, THEIR BATTLEFIELDS: War Through the Lives of Women, by Christina Lamb. (Scribner, paper, $18.99.) This wrenching but necessary book, by a veteran British foreign correspondent, offers one of the first thorough accounts of sexual violence as war’s most neglected crime. “The atrocities in ‘Our Bodies, Their Battlefields’ horrify, as they should,” Judith Matloff writes in her review. Lamb “does society a service by forcing us to look. … Her book is painful to read but should be required for everyone interested in military and global affairs.”