Our recommended titles this week are anchored by a sense of place، both physical and metaphysical. First the physical: John Banville’s “Time Pieces” offers a nostalgist’s reflective tour of Dublin، Mark Whitaker’s “Smoketown” excavates an overlooked bastion of African-American culture in Pittsburgh، and Patricia Vigderman’s “The Real Life of the Parthenon” surveys sites of classic antiquity in an attempt to puzzle out the relationship between art and its sources. For readers who favor metaphysical wandering — or wondering — Marilynne Robinson has an expansive، inquisitive new essay collection whose title pretty much says it all: “What Are We Doing Here?” (Mostly reading، I hope.) Finally، we also feature works of fiction exploring marriage and fate، by Tayari Jones; exile and the afterlife، by Ismail Kadare; and notions of evil and the other، in a book that pairs art by Del Samatar with text by his sister، Sofia Samatar، The New York Times reported.
WHAT ARE WE DOING HERE? Essays، by Marilynne Robinson. (Farrar، Straus & Giroux، $27.) In essays that are characteristically rigorous and combative، Robinson wrestles with various points of civics and theology. “It’s an intellectual autobiography — a starchy، ardent and، on occasion، surprisingly personal account of what it means to be the custodian of one’s conscience in a world saturated with orthodoxies،” our critic Parul Sehgal writes. “In other words، it’s a passionate treatment of one of Robinson’s longtime preoccupations” and “a dense، eccentric book of profound and generous gifts.”
TIME PIECES: A Dublin Memoir، by John Banville. (Knopf، $26.95.) The Booker Prize-winning novelist wanders Ireland’s capital city، recalling people and places that still live in his memory. Scattered throughout are suitably atmospheric photographs by Paul Joyce. As Roger Rosenblatt notes in his review، Dublin’s pull in the memoir is more or less impressionistic — “Pity the fool who’s reading this book to get a clear and orderly picture” — but irresistible nonetheless: “To Banville، an apostle of the ordinary، the deep appeal of city life is that here the ordinary may be made magical.”
THE REAL LIFE OF THE PARTHENON، by Patricia Vigderman. (Mad CreekOhio State University Press، paper، $21.95.) An American scholar visits classic sites of the ancient world in a book that’s part travelogue، part memoir and part musing on our contested cultural heritage. “Vigderman approaches her subject evenhandedly، noting that the repatriation of works of art can be seen as a victory for local communities and their sense of identity،” Bruce Boucher writes in his review، “but she also spots the questionable ties between the handiwork of an ancient Greek vase painter، say، and the inhabitants of modern-day Paestum. … Behind the examples in this thoughtful book lies the realization that the relationship between the spectator and art is inevitably complex. After all، we can’t return art or history to a lost past.”
SMOKETOWN: The Untold Story of the Other Great Black Renaissance، by Mark Whitaker. (Simon & Schuster، $30.) Whitaker recounts Pittsburgh’s role as a mecca for African-Americans in the mid-20th century — from figures like Billy Strayhorn and August Wilson to the local newspaper، The Courier، which covered it all. Our reviewer، Herb Boyd، calls the book an engrossing history that “brilliantly offers us a chance to see this other black renaissance and spend time with the many luminaries who sparked it. … It’s thanks to such a gifted storyteller as Whitaker that this forgotten chapter of American history can finally be told in all its vibrancy and glory.”
AN AMERICAN MARRIAGE، by Tayari Jones. (Algonquin، $26.95.) Roy and Celestial are a young black couple in Atlanta “on the come up،” as he puts it، when he’s convicted of a rape he did not commit and sentenced to 12 years in prison. The unfairness of the years stolen from this couple by a great cosmic error forms the narrative’s slow burn. Reviewing it، Stephanie Powell Watts says the novel is “beautifully written، with many allusions to black music and culture — including the everyday poetry of the African-American community that begs to be heard. … This is complicated emotional territory navigated with succinctness and precision.”
MONSTER PORTRAITS، by Del and Sofia Samatar. (Rose Metal، paper، $14.95.) Del and Sofia Samatar are brother and sister، and their beautiful new book، which braids Del’s art and Sofia’s text، explores monstrosity and evil while inviting a discussion about race and diaspora. Our science fiction and fantasy columnist، Amal El-Mohtar، describes it as “a book of discomfort، of itching beneath the skin — which dovetails beautifully with the fact that Del Samatar works as a tattoo artist، and that many of the images in this book are easily imagined inked onto bodies.” Sofia Samatar’s writing، she adds، “has dazzled me for years، and it does so in this book as well. … Every sentence that doesn’t cut is a handle wielding the blade of the rest. Reading this was like wandering out of a dream and into an awareness of something with claws sitting on my chest.”