Three books we love

Here’s the second in a series of special, year-end very short lists of great cultural stuff, perfect for gift-giving, that we haven’t covered in daily VSLs — things that came out before we existed, or that we just haven’t had room for. Today, three books:

1. Before Irène Némirovsky was sent to Auschwitz, where she died at 39 in 1942, she’d been at work on a suite of novels about the Nazi occupation of France. A Russian-Jewish immigrant, Némirovsky was already a well-regarded French novelist when she began the fictionalized telling of the very real-world events occurring around her. For six decades her manuscript remained in a handwritten scrawl in a series of notebooks kept by her daughters, until the work-in-progress was rediscovered and published last year in France. The English translation of Suite Française (published in hardback in April) consists of two gripping novellas that offer astonishingly vivid, deeply personal chronicles of everyday French citizens coping with the German invasion and occupation. (Némirovsky never finished the last three volumes of the intended five-part suite.)

2. Michael Kimmelman is the chief art critic for The New York Times, which might lead you to imagine that he’s a snob and a bore, and that liking his book would require a tolerance for all kinds of tedious, inside-baseball -isms and -ologies. Wrong, wrong, and wrong. The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa (which came out in paperback in July) is plenty learned about painting and sculpture, but it’s also unpretentious and wise, a book about “art” the way that Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was a guide to tuning small engines. That is, it’s actually a thinking person’s self-help book meant to help everyone look at life with more of an artist’s sensibility.

3. The fact that Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh, a brilliant young professor at Columbia, is a protégé of Steven Levitt, co-author of Freakonomics, makes sense: His Off the Books (published in hardback in October) is a drilled-down-deep case study as illuminating as his mentor’s bestseller. It’s a breathtakingly observant, detailed, insightful, close-up portrait of residents of a black ghetto in Chicago, showing just how a community of individuals — cleaning ladies, mechanics, preachers, street vendors, hairdressers, musicians, prostitutes, drug dealers, car thieves — manage to eke out livings alone and together. The book will be a revelation to most Americans.

BUY Suite Française

BUY The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa

BUY Off the Books

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Three books we love