This week, new Murakami, racial reassignment surgery, and looking for Jack Kerouac.
The Philosophy of Praxis: Marx, Lukacs and the Frankfurt School by Andrew Feenberg (Verso) - n this book of elucidating scholarship, seasoned author Feenberg revises the assertions of his first book, Lukács, Marx and the Sources of Critical Theory (1981). The book's insight derives from the fruit of over three decades of rumination on these ideas. Feenberg traces a history of praxis from the early work of Marx through Lukács to its later formulation by the Frankfurt School. Broadly speaking, "philosophy of praxis" designates these theorists' accounts of the intertwining of theory and concrete cultural, historical, and lived reality. Feenberg reads this in Marx's and Lukács avowal that philosophy is grounded in the concrete and historical and that philosophy should aim to transform the world through political reform and revolutionary action. In the aftermath of failed political resistance, the Frankfurt School reappraised the possibility and telos of a philosophy of praxis. Here, Feenberg focuses on the work of Adorno and Marcuse, and he closes with reflections on the contemporary applicability of a philosophy of praxis especially as it pertains to the political potential of the internet.
Courage for Beginners by Karen Harrington (Little, Brown) - Mysti Murphy has to brave at least three major trials at the onset of seventh grade. The first is having an agoraphobic mother, who never leaves the house even to chauffeur her children to classmates’ houses or extracurricular activities. The second is losing her only friend, Anibal, who has “decided to be a hipster this year” to pursue a girl and wants to avoid publicly associating with Mysti. The third obstacle is the most difficult of all, when her father falls from a tree and is hospitalized. Now Mysti must find a way to be strong and responsible while her mother becomes sadder and more withdrawn.
Three Bargains by Tania Malik (Norton) - Madan is 12 when Avtaar Singh, his protector, mentor, and replacement father, first offers this advice: “You must always have a purpose. Your opponent can be anyone, but to win, it’s not who or what you’re fighting against, as much as what you’re fighting for.” Guiding and grounding Madan for years to come, this message is made even more poignant when Avtaar Singh becomes his nemesis. Over the course of this stunning debut novel, which begins in 1983 in Northern India, Madan grows up, enduring his father’s absence, his mother’s indifference, and the sale of his younger sister, who is brutalized but eventually returned to their small town on the Yamuna River, thanks to Avtaar Singh’s intercession. But when Madan follows his heart and betrays Avtaar Singh’s trust, he barely escapes with his life, and makes a split-second decision he will come to regret.
The Modern Mercenary: Private Armies and What They Mean for World Order by Sean McFate (Oxford Univ.) - Private military security contractors such as Academi (formerly known as Blackwater) receive plenty of publicity (mostly negative), yet “for nearly a decade, contractors have constituted half the United States forces in war zones.” PMSCs are the wave of the future, argues McFate, a former paratrooper and an associate professor at the National Defense University, in this thoughtful examination of mercenary armed forces. Mercenaries constituted the core of most fighting forces throughout history, until strong, centralized states appeared around 400 years ago and monopolized the use of force; but this exclusivity has dwindled since the 1990s, reviving what McFate calls “neomedievalism.” He gives most credit to the triumph of free-market, small-government capitalism. America now fights wars without conscription, resulting in a critical shortage of soldiers and requiring profit-making contractors to deliver essential services.
The Frozen Dead by Bernard Minier, trans. from the French by Alison Anderson (Minotaur) - French author Minier’s assured debut adroitly combines a genuinely creepy series of crimes, a literally chilling atmosphere, and a dogged detective. Commandant Martin Servaz, of the regional crime unit in Toulouse, is annoyed to be pulled off the sadistic murder of a homeless man for a case that doesn’t even involve homicide. The mutilated and beheaded corpse of a horse was left suspended at a cable car terminus, terrifying the workers at a water power plant that the tram services. The horse belonged to ultrawealthy Eric Lombard, who owns the plant and has companies all around the world, as well as friends in high places.
Colorless Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami, trans. from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel (Knopf) - Murakami’s latest novel, which sold more than a million copies during its first week on sale in Japan, is a return to the mood and subject matter of the acclaimed writer’s earlier work. Living a simple, quotidian life as a train station engineer, Tsukuru is compelled to reexamine his past after a girlfriend suggests he reconnect with a group of friends from high school. A tight-knit fivesome for years, the group suddenly alienated Tsukuru under mysterious circumstances when he was in college. For months after the break, not knowing what had gone wrong, he became obsessed with death and slowly lost his sense of self: “I’ve always seen myself as an empty person, lacking color and identity. Maybe that was my role in the group. To be empty.” Feeling his life will only progress if he can tie up those emotional loose ends, Tsukuru journeys through Japan and into Europe to meet with the members of the group and unravel what really happened 16 years before.
New Selected Poems by Les Murray (FSG) - This first career selection since 2000 from the man who is arguably (and controversially) Australia’s national poet gives U.S. readers another chance to see what makes him original, ambitious, cantankerous, much-honored, sometimes awkward, and sometimes great. Raised in the farm country of New South Wales, Murray (Taller When Prone) remains a champion of the agrarian landscape and of Australia’s varied terrain. Early georgic and pastoral masterpieces show unforced attention to the details of flora, fauna, soil, and air, along with Murray’s brilliantly ungainly line: “the sun is an applegreen blindness through the swells, a white blast on the sea face, flaking and shoaling.” Murray also writes superbly about animals, how we see them, and how they might see their world; about an Australian ideal of informality and acceptance; and in defense of the socially excluded.
Isla and the Happily Ever After by Stephanie Perkins (Dutton) - Perkins (Anna and the French Kiss) completes her trilogy of interlinked romances with a strong finale that examines the emotional intensity of a relationship from its earliest stages. Isla, a senior at the School of America in Paris, has had a crush on fellow senior Josh since freshman year, but it is only now that he reciprocates her feelings; their relationship quickly gathers steam. Perkins takes full advantage of her romantic Parisian setting, though the intimacy she establishes between her characters through penetrating dialogue and insight into the agonies and ecstasies of first love would shine anywhere. When Josh gets expelled and the couple becomes estranged, Isla spirals into despair that Perkins explores with aching intensity. Isla's vulnerability, coupled with her burgeoning sense of identity and desire to maintain her individuality in life and in love, makes her an especially rich character.
Your Face in Mine by Jess Row (Riverhead) - This furiously smart first novel from Row (who wrote the short story collection The Train to Lo Wu) opens up difficult conversations about race and identity. The narrator, Kelly Thorndike, is back in his hometown, Baltimore, after his wife and daughter die in an accident. Now in his mid-30s, Kelly reconnects with Martin, a friend from his high school days. Back then, Martin was a white Jewish kid known as Martin Lipkin, but he suffered from racial dysphoria and later underwent “racial reassignment surgery.” Now Martin is a black man named Martin Wilkinson, and he recruits Kelly to tell his story. Martin’s relationship to the truth is flexible, and there’s potentially a lot of money to be made.
Looking for Jack Kerouac by Barbara Shoup (Engine/Lacewing) - In this strong work of historical fiction set in the 1960s, Paul feels understood for the first time after finding a copy of On the Road during a high school trip to New York City: “Like the book knew who I was, knew what I wanted, and was speaking back to me somehow.” Paul’s mother’s unexpected death upsets his determination to break from his girlfriend’s dreams of marriage, until Duke, a fellow Kerouac devotee, entices him on a road trip to Florida to find their hero. Shoup (Wish You Were Here) creates full-fleshed characters filled with yearning, both those Paul leaves behind and those he meets on his journey. Changes in music, politics, race relations, and attitudes toward Vietnam illuminate the volatile era, rendering Paul’s sense of loss and longing both symptomatic of his era and timeless
My Body Is a Book of Rules by Elissa Washuta (Red Hen) - Washuta, a Seattle writer and member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, is a survivor and cautionary tale. In her harrowing chronicle of bipolar disorder, sexual violence, and struggles with Native identity, she provides a window into this country’s failures when it comes to responding to mental illness, rape and the negative messages women receive about their sexual agency. A friendless student obsessed with holding onto her scholarship at the University of Maryland, Washuta was a virgin when she was raped by an acquaintance. In denial over what happened and without faith in the justice system, she didn’t take legal action. When she finally sought help more than a year later, a woefully inadequate clinic staff misdiagnosed her and prescribed the wrong medications. Although Washuta’s story is not an easy read, the fact that she has been able to build a life for herself is a credit to her fierce strength. It’s one that parents, educators, mental health providers, and young women will find immensely valuable.
Dirty Work by Gabriel Weston (Little, Brown) - A physician in crisis is at the heart of this intense debut novel from doctor and memoirist Weston (Direct Red). Nancy Mullion is a talented obstetrician-gynecologist, who, as the novel opens, blunders during surgery, leaving her patient in a coma. As a result, Nancy faces suspension and an inquiry into the incident. She spends the following weeks in front of review boards and is subjected to psychological evaluations. She’s left fighting for her career and questioning her commitment to her work. As Nancy begins to crack under the pressure, she dwells on her memories of childhood, adolescence, and her student days. She has suppressed her deep outrage at the medical system’s disregard for patients’ feelings, but over time has also lost her sense of self. A medical and moral tour de force.
Rough Country: How Texas Became America's Most Powerful Bible-Belt State by Robert Wuthnow (Princeton Univ.) - Wuthnow, the director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University, argues that Texas, dubbed “rough country” by its first European explorers, has become conservative state most influential in shaping the nation’s culture, values, and politics. Armed with a wealth of information gathered from news accounts, oral histories, government records, and census data, Wuthnow concludes that Texas, with its wealth and sheer numbers of conservative Protestant voters, evolved from a bastion of frontier justice into a powerhouse of traditional moralism on such hot-button issues as vice, abortion, homosexuality, immigration, and race. Mostly refugees from the Deep South, early Texans embraced religion as a spiritual gauge for their daily lives, but their harsh attitudes toward race and equal rights remained largely unchanged until President Lyndon Johnson, a Texan, signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Anyone seeking to examine the relationship between modern American religious conservatism and politics needs to look no further than Wuthnow’s authoritative, encyclopedic survey of Texas’s influence on national trends.