A.O. Scott, The Times’s co-chief film critic, returns to the Book Review’s podcast this week to discuss the work of William Maxwell, the latest subject in Scott’s essay series The Americans, about writers who give a sense of the country’s complex identity. In his novels and stories, Maxwell frequently returned to small-town Illinois, and to, as Scott describes it, the “particular civilization and culture and society that he knew growing up.”
“In so many of these books,” Scott says, “he was trying in a sense to figure out himself by figuring how where he had come from. It was inexhaustible. The thing that’s really remarkable about his revisiting his family, his family’s story and the town where they lived is just how many layers are there. In what seems like a simple, small, provincial place, just how much depth and complexity and comedy and pathos live there.”
Eyal Press visits the podcast to discuss his new book, “Dirty Work,” about the lives of workers in slaughterhouses, correctional facilities and other morally fraught places. Press says that the people who do this work make inequality one of the book’s primary themes.
“One of the messages of the book is that it’s very rarely the privileged and the powerful,” Press says. “It’s more likely to be people at the bottom of the social ladder, people with fewer choices and opportunities, who are thrust into these ethically troubling roles that they carry out in a sense on society’s behalf and in our name.”
Also on this week’s episode, Tina Jordan looks back at Book Review history as it celebrates its 125th anniversary; Alexandra Alter has news from the publishing world; and Dwight Garner and Jennifer Szalai discuss books they’ve recently reviewed. Pamela Paul is the host.
Here are the books discussed by the Times’s critics this week:
“Reign of Terror” by Spencer Ackerman
“Playlist for the Apocalypse” by Rita Dove