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John Wilson


January Highlights

Plus a gem coming in April.

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One of the pleasures of a bookish life is anticipating "forthcoming" books. I can't remember exactly how old I was when this notion sank in—sometime in my late teens—but from the first, it seemed a bit magical to me. You know those drawings—often deliberately fanciful—that purport to show what takes up space in the brain of a typical member of this or that group. A good chunk of space in my brain—with processing power that could be devoted to significant subjects such as the state of the U.S. economy, or investment strategies—is occupied by a wildly miscellaneous and ever-shifting mass of information about books that are coming out soon, or next year; others are "works in progress" that may not be completed for a long time.

Working in publishing for decades, I've become accustomed to seeing many books in galleys (which, lately, may be digital form), several months before they're officially published. Even now, it still feels like a privilege. What I see, of course, is only a small fraction of all that gets published every week, every month, every year, but at least I can report on that.

Of all the books I've already read among those due to be published this month, the one that made the strongest impression is A Curious Madness: An American Combat Psychiatrist, a Japanese War Crimes Suspect, and an Unsolved Mystery from War II, by Eric Jaffe. Here's what I wrote about it for my Bookmarks column in the January/February issue of CT:

The combat psychiatrist in question, Major Daniel S. Jaffe, was Eric Jaffe's grandfather. The war crimes suspect was Okawa Shumei, neither a military officer nor a government official but a writer and speaker whose ideas helped to lead Japan into war. Starting with the moment at the 1946 Tokyo counterpart to the Nuremberg trials that brought the two men into contact, Jaffe skillfully shifts back and forth between their stories while filling in the historical context. His narrative is fascinating on multiple levels—not least for a Japanese perspective on the war.

If you end up reading A Curious Madness, I'd love to hear from you.

Other January titles I read in galleys stood out as well. I always look forward to a new book by Richard Powers. His latest, Orfeo—which D. G. Myers will be reviewing for Books & Culture—is, among other things, the first novel I've read to make significant use of Twitter. Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems of William Stafford, edited by the poet's son, Kim, could serve equally well as an introduction to Stafford's work or as the basis for a retrospective judgment. (Michael Robbins is reviewing it for B&C.) Silence Once Begun is the fourth novel by Jesse Ball, a writer who should be much better known. (His previous novel, The Curfew, was one of my Favorite Books of 2011.)

Finally, I want to jump ahead to April, when Ayelet Waldman's Love & Treasure is scheduled to appear. Read the first page or so. If you don't find it irresistible, as I did, nothing more that I could say here will avail. I'm pretty sure already that this novel will end up on my list of favorites at the end of the year.

John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.

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