The holidays are not everybody’s favorite time of year, I realize. There’s a lot of chaos and dashed expectations, and families can be complicated. Still: I have a soft spot for the season’s spirit, and a fond nostalgia for the extended break that swings, like a kid on a jungle gym, from Christmas or Hanukkah to New Year’s, leading us out of one thing and into the next, out of the past and into the future.
It’s an ideal time for reading, that break. Maybe you unwrapped a new book on Christmas morning and now it offers an oasis in the hubbub, a dream world unfolding alongside the real one. Or maybe you’re still looking for your next book. We’re here to help. Our fiction recommendations this week include a story collection about the responsibilities of parenting, a novel about the return of a prodigal daughter and the latest winner of Britain’s Booker Prize. In nonfiction, we recommend a history of ancient Rome, a sports biography and a memoir by the Fonz, along with a book about the waning of the royal family, an account of the raw materials we rely on and the story of a famous fight between a painter and an art critic. Happy New Year. Happy reading. — Gregory Cowles
The Life of Earvin “Magic” Johnson
This scrupulously researched biography is rich in basketball and cultural lore, but the best parts are not about basketball at all. Through examining Magic Johnson, Lazenby (the author of previous books about the Los Angeles Lakers) provides a portrait of an era.
“What ‘Magic’ gives us is a wealth of detail, a huge cast of characters and, in a way, the tapestry of our time as illustrated by this supremely talented and beguiling figure.”
From Thomas Beller’s review
Celadon | $40
James Whistler, John Ruskin, and the Battle for Modern Art
Paul Thomas Murphy
When the eminent Victorian art critic John Ruskin gave James McNeill Whistler a negative review in 1877, Whistler objected by way of a lawsuit that riveted the London art world. Murphy’s lively chronicle recounts a case that changed the way we think of criticism.
“Entirely enjoyable in its breezy enthusiasm. … This is an unashamedly approachable ‘good read,’ as befits an author with several advanced degrees in Victorian studies.”
From Adrian Dannatt’s review
Pegasus | $29.95
Inside the Royal Family and the Monarchy’s Fight for Survival
Scobie, perhaps best known to Americans as a sympathetic biographer of the Sussexes (Harry and Meghan), comes out swinging at the wider Windsor clan, arguing that Britain is apathetic toward or even offended by inherited power.
“Scobie warns the Windsors must get a grip or face extinction. … Unless Charles and his heirs act quickly, Scobie underscores, they risk losing the crown, or at the very least, any remaining cultural relevance.”
From Eva Wolchover’s review
Dey Street | $32
Set in a version of contemporary Dublin, this year’s Booker winner follows a family’s upheaval in the face of an undescribed but apocalyptic political emergency. Even as the novel reaches for the force of allegory, it draws its emotional power from the specific details of the mounting disaster.
“As catastrophe deepens, relentlessness itself proves persuasive. Lynch is extraordinarily good at the bureaucratic intricacies of the descent into chaos. … There is no relief from anxiety, only an unending sentence that refuses to reach a full stop.”
From Benjamin Markovits’s review
Atlantic Monthly Press | $27
WELCOME HOME, STRANGER
In her unflinching eighth novel, Christensen puts readers in the shoes of an award-winning journalist who returns to Portland, Maine, after her mother’s death. There, she finds herself demoted to a state of perennial adolescence — and up against the daunting task of sifting through a complicated family history.
“It’s exhilarating to read an uninhibited female character who is rife with contradictions. … Christensen also does a skillful job of animating difficult family relationships while avoiding a conventional arc of forgiveness.”
From S. Kirk Walsh’s review
Harper | $28.99
The Six Raw Materials That Shape Modern Civilization
Conway, a science writer, focuses his lively book on the materials — salt, sand, lithium, iron, copper and oil — that power modern existence. He also looks at the costs their extraction exacts, both from an environmental and human standpoint.
“Everywhere, Conway sees the tragic ironies of progress.”
From Alexander Nazaryan’s review
Knopf | $35
The Fonz … and Beyond
Henry Winkler with James Kaplan
This candid memoir explores what fame didn’t bring Winkler: emotional maturity, social confidence and, for a long time, getting past the Fonz. Sharing his weaknesses makes the actor lovable on the page.
“Under the juddering neediness lies a mensch. … Winkler’s story is also aided by the fact that his deepest work as an actor — on the terrific recent HBO series ‘Barry’ — came directly after the therapy sessions that helped Winkler with his intimacy issues.”
From Henry Alford’s review
Celadon | $30
War and Peace in Rome’s Golden Age
This history of ancient Rome focuses on the period between the suicide of the emperor Nero in 68 A.D. and the death of the emperor Hadrian in 138, tracking the lives of emperors and citizens alike to demonstrate an expert feel for the lived experience of antiquity.
“The imperial throne wasn’t the only goal for ambitious Romans in this relatively fluid society. Holland’s account is filled with local merchants who prospered on the edges of the imperial government.”
From David Potter’s review
Basic Books | $32.50
With Watkins’s sharp eye and signature voice, this collection follows a range of mothers and caretakers forced to make difficult decisions: whether to reveal the parentage of a cult leader, how to tell children their father is dead.
“Together the collection asks: Whom can we protect and at what cost? Atmospheric and cinematic, ‘Holler, Child’ is well worth your time.”
From Jonathan Escoffery’s review
Tiny Reparations | $28