Just in time for holiday shopping: a biography of the fascinating Josephine Baker, a radio host turned underground renegade and more.

Share story

Time again for a new paperbacks roundup! This week: a Booker Prize winner, a history of improv and a thoroughly delicious box set.

Milkman” by Anna Burns (Graywolf Press, $16). Reviews have been mixed on Northern Irish writer Burns’ third novel: The New York Times, describing it as a “willfully demanding and opaque stream-of-consciousness novel,” called it “interminable”; The Washington Post agreed that it was challenging but ultimately “remarkable,” recommending it to those who love “strange and complex” modern fiction. Nonetheless, it’s the winner of the prestigious 2018 Man Booker Prize; I know I’ll be taking a crack at it soon.

Josephine Baker’s Last Dance” by Sherry Jones (Gallery Books, $16). Josephine Baker’s eventful life seems the stuff of fiction: Born into poverty in the American South, she became an acclaimed dancer and singer in Jazz Age Paris, and later an agent of the French Resistance. Calling Jones’ novel “a satisfying life of one endlessly fascinating person,” Kirkus Reviews wrote that “Jones’ deft juxtaposition of Baker’s internal and external worlds throughout the novel is what readers will appreciate most.”

The “Crazy Rich Asians” series by Kevin Kwan (Knopf, $48 box set). I am always bewailing the lack of truly funny fiction; this delightfully satirical series, the first of which became a hit movie this year, is a rare exception. A sly peek into the lives of an ultrarich Singaporean family (complete with footnotes that are practically a comic novel in and of themselves), the three volumes make for the sort of lightning-fast reading that’s pure pleasure. Now out in a rather elegant-looking box set, the series would make a nice holiday gift for someone who loved the movie — or who’s in need of laughter.

Radio Free Vermont: A Fable of Resistance” by Bill McKibben (Penguin, $15). “McKibben, known primarily as an environmentalist who writes for the layman, never lets his politics sour what is, at heart, a romp,” wrote Seattle Times reviewer Claudia Rowe of this novel about a Vermont radio host turned underground renegade. “But he wraps his jokes around a heartfelt plea, described through [his protagonist’s] late-in-life awakening to the forces of corporate media, corporate coffee and corporate beer.”

The Museum of Modern Love” by Heather Rose (Algonquin, $15.95). Winner of several Australian literary awards, this novel makes its American debut in paperback. Its main character, a fictional American composer at an artistic impasse, encounters the performance artist Marina Abramovic at New York’s Museum of Modern Art; the experience changes his life. (The nonfictional Abramovic, for her part, gives a nice blurb on the back cover: “I loved this book.”)

Improv Nation: How We Made a Great American Art” by Sam Wasson (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $15.99). Wasson, author of “Fosse,” explores the roots and the present day of American improv, from McCarthy-era experimental theater to Second City to “Saturday Night Live.” Seattle Times reviewer David Rollison described it as “a fast-paced, thoroughly engaging road map of how improv — that rapid-fire art of entirely unscripted performance — came to infiltrate and shape the American pop-culture landscape.”