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A Monthly Culture Matrix For the International Citizen

“Not contagious between people; it’s controllable and preventable.” These eight words—repeated over and over again by official Chinese media sources during the early weeks of the coronavirus outbreak—are at the heart of Wuhan Diary: Dispatches from a Quarantined City, writer Fang Fang’s daily account of her time in lockdown in Hubei Province. Catherine Belton’s Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took On the West details another account of corrupt government, this one the “alliance between Putin, his KGB allies and organized crime.” She also explains how Putin continues to get away with it all: “Ultimately, financial interests [of the West] would outweigh concerns about his regime’s abuse of the law and democracy.”

The Russian-American writer Masha Gessen turns her lens on the U.S. with Surviving Autocracy, an expansion of a 2016 essay she wrote for the New York Review of Books. In that article, published shortly after the presidential election, she wrote how the reactions of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and others, “however well-intentioned … assume that Trump is prepared to find common ground with his many opponents, respect the institutions of government, and repudiate almost everything he has stood for during the campaign. In short,” she wrote, they “treat[ed] him like a ‘normal’ politician. There has until now been little evidence that he can be one.” Not much has changed since then, and Surviving Autocracy clearly articulates the frustrating anomaly that is the U.S. president. In Mary Jordan’s The Art of Her Deal, Trump’s wife, Melania—trophy? soulmate? robot?—is explored.

Meanwhile, Curtis Sittenfeld’s new novel, Rodham, imagines the life of Hillary without Bill: “I feel so much has been written about what does Hillary mean?,” said Sittenfeld in a recent interview with The Times of London. “A much more interesting question is ‘What does the world look like to Hillary Clinton?’” In Breasts and Eggs, Mieko Kawakami shows us the world through the eyes of three Japanese women: “All the books and blogs catered to couples. What about the rest of us, who were alone and planned to stay that way?” And marriage is a thing of the past for Ottessa Moshfegh’s latest protagonist, the elderly widow in Death in Her Hands.

Curtis Sittenfeld’s new novel imagines the life of Hillary Clinton without Bill …

As hard as it is to believe, summer is around the corner. For a beach read with substance pick up Dorothy Strachey’s Olivia, originally published in 1949 by Leonard Woolf and dedicated to his wife, Virginia. André Aciman, who was under the spell of Olivia when he wrote Call Me By Your Name, supplies the foreword to this new edition. Also see new novels from Emma Straub—All Adults Here—and Brit Bennett—The Vanishing Half. On the nonfiction front, memoirs from Stephanie Danler (Stray), Mikel Jollett (Hollywood Park), and Susanna Moore (Miss Aluminum, reviewed in AIR MAIL by Sheila Weller) are windows into drastically different lives. And now for the ultimate beach read: Both in book and movie form, Valley of the Dolls was iconic; Stephen Rebello gets behind the legacy with Dolls! Dolls! Dolls!

There may be no better time than now to reminisce about the days of eating out. William Sitwell’s The Restaurant dishes out a 2,000-year history of our favorite activity, while Witold Szablowski offers an amusing take on food and bad guys with How to Feed a Dictator, reviewed in AIR MAIL by Joel Stein. Finally, keep your kids busy with Parvati Shallow’s children’s book, Om the Otter, and dream of travel with Assouline’s Amalfi Coast and Zanzibar collections.

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