It’s Kind of a Funny Story, by Ned Vizzini (Miramax)
In 2004, Ned Vizzini had a nervous breakdown and landed in Brooklyn’s Methodist Hospital for a five-day stay. Then he left and wrote this semi-autobiographical novel—and damned if it isn’t way better than you’d expect it to be, given that description. In fact, except for a bit of wish fulfillment in the final pages, it’s terrific: funny, incisive, disarming. Vizzini, 25, is a former teen wunderkind who wrote personal essays for the New York Press (also better than you’d expect them to be, given that description), and here he captures with sociological wit the unpleasant sexual gamesmanship of semi-sophisticated city kids. Vizzini’s 15-year-old hero suffers from a type of situational depression that might as well be listed in a Manhattan DSM, one triggered by a toxic combination of magnet-school anxiety and backbiting friendships. But though the book may look like a teen novel, anxious workaholics all over the tri-state area will certainly relate.
Triangle, by Katharine Weber (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Inspired by a grandmother who finished buttonholes for the Triangle Waist Company, Katharine Weber has turned the infamous 1911 Shirtwaist sweatshop fire into a haunting exercise in memory (in a Greenwich Village nursing home, a 106-year-old survivor named Esther isn’t quite telling the truth) and property rights (her granddaughter refuses to relinquish the meaning of Esther’s story to a feminist ideologue)—and an eerie prefiguring of 9/11 (bodies falling out of the sky in flames). Every narrator in Triangle is unreliable, yet we believe the lot of them: Esther, who went through a locked door with a library card and a union pin; granddaughter Rebecca, a counselor in Yale’s clinical genetics department; Rebecca’s genius boyfriend, George, who composes symphonies and string quartets out of tide tables and DNA profiles; even egomaniacal Ruth, the author of Gendered Space in the Workplace. As George makes music out of anything, so Weber makes art of it all.
Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel (Houghton Mifflin)
The author, whose syndicated strip, “Dykes to Watch Out For,” has drawn a cult following, is breaking into the graphic-novel mainstream—such as it is—with an ambitious book she calls “A Family Tragicomic.” Her father, a funeral-home owner, English teacher, and closeted gay man, spent more time decorating their restored Victorian than tending to his splintered family, then died suspiciously soon after Bechdel came out as a lesbian. Invoking Ulysses, the myth of Icarus, and Remembrance of Things Past, Bechdel is an alchemist, arranging words, symbols, and drawings into something wholly new. She annotates a (very accurate) drawing of Christopher Street with signposts of its various smells (BRUT, MENTHOL, URINE AND ELECTRICITY). And, in her father, she paints a portrait as tragically complex as those of the literary greats she so admires.
The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World, by Matthew Stewart (Norton)
There is no better way to make the history of ideas come alive than by focusing on a run-in between two intellectual titans. On one side, Baruch de Spinoza: reviled Jewish “heretic”; Enlightenment hero; handsome, noble of character, and reclusive; creator of a subversive metaphysics in which God equals Nature and personal immortality is a delusion. On the other, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz: foppish “courtier”; scheming servant of crown and church; contriver of a comically optimistic “best of all possible worlds” philosophy; and, for all that, perhaps the last universal genius to walk the Earth. In 1676, these two men had a brief and mysterious encounter. Did it portend the triumph of secular modernity (Spinoza) over the forces of religious reaction (Leibniz)? That’s the book’s claim, and, though it may be a bit of a stretch, one scarcely minds, so cinematic is the prose. Indeed, Stewart, an Oxford-educated ex-Manhattanite, has done such a nice job that we can almost forgive him for informing us, in the author’s note, that he retired from his management consulting firm “in order to pursue a life of contemplation.”
Henry Adams and the Making of America, by Garry Wills (Houghton Mifflin)
This is an odd book, a defense of the perspicacity of Henry Adams (specifically, his nine volumes [!] on the history of America during the Jefferson and Madison administrations) when all but professional historians could be forgiven for not knowing he was under attack. But Wills’s spirited counterstrike takes him to fascinating places. Against those who accused Adams of being a one-note defender of his own family and its ancient New England values, Wills shows that he was deeply aware of the cold perfectionism and huge human costs involved in his family’s political success. Abigail Adams, the model political wife, was the fierce steward of this machine for forging presidents. Sons and grandsons who failed to achieve were essentially cast out. John Quincy’s son George, in debt, alcoholic, being blackmailed over his illegitimate son, threw himself from the steamer Benjamin Franklin and was never seen again. Such tragedies, Wills argues, made Adams hyperaware of historical irony. In the epilogue, Wills decries our efforts to “get right with the founders.” They weren’t saints—as an Adams would know better than anyone.