Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Gabriela Ybarra, Mandy Berman, Jill Lepore, David Epstein, and more—that are publishing this week.
The Dinner Guest by Gabriela Ybarra (translated by Natasha Wimmer)
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Dinner Guest: “Ybarra draws on two deaths in her family for this affecting, memoirlike novel, her first to be translated into English. In 1977, three masked assailants burst into the house of Ybarra’s paternal grandfather, Javier, a prominent businessman in the Basque Country of Spain. They kidnap him and later demand an exorbitant ransom. Ybarra imagines the family’s desperation over their inability to provide the sum, and the lengths they go to, including using divination and a complicated scheme to communicate with Javier via crossword puzzles. Even the discovery of Javier’s body after about a month of captivity provides incomplete closure to the family. In 2011, Ybarra’s mother, Ernestina, is diagnosed with cancer. She immediately moves to New York for treatment, where Ybarra takes a leave of absence from school and work to be with her. Ybarra revisits sites of Ernestina’s treatment following her death and reflects on the pain of her loss. Ybarra favors deep emotion over clear explanations and provides only passing references to her family’s wealth and the political components of the kidnapping. This novel’s honest rawness of coming to terms with premature death will resonate with readers.”
A King Alone by Jean Giono (translated by Alyson Waters)
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about A King Alone: “This strange and disquieting novel from Giono (Melville) is set in an unnamed Alpine village and begins in 1843, when its residents begin disappearing. First, a young woman disappears, then a pig is slashed, then a hunter disappears. Captain Langlois is called in to investigate, and the killer is found. The serpentine novel then jumps years forward with Langlois now in charge of protecting the village from wolves, and then leaps forward again to relate Langlois’s ill-fated search for a wife to marry, leading to a startling finale. Rather than episodic, the twisting narrative reads like a game of telephone passed through generations, with Langlois at the center as a sort of legendary totem to the villagers. Intriguingly, his inner thoughts are never revealed, and the villagers can only guess at what he is thinking. Highlights include stellar landscape descriptions (‘All around us the larks were making noise like knives squeaking in green apples’) and some spectacular scenes, including a wolf hunt and a chilling sequence that begins with a grisly discovery in a beech tree. Giono’s novel is a startling and exhilaratingly enigmatic experience.”
The Learning Curve by Mandy Berman
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Learning Curve: “The complexities of intimacy and consent are explored in this smart, engaging coming-of-age story from Berman (Perennials). Fiona Larkin and Liv Langley are best friends and codependent polar opposites in their senior year of college, though Fiona lags a semester behind, having taken time off to deal with the death of her 13-year-old sister. Fiona and Liv’s relationship is strained when both women start crushing on visiting professor Oliver Ash, despite, or perhaps because of, the rumors about his inappropriate sexual relationship with an underage student at the last school at which he taught. As the girls make halting attempts to untangle their own desires, grow closer with Oliver, and communicate honestly with each other, Oliver’s wife and five-year-old son, left behind in Berlin, deal with his absence. Things come to a head on a disastrous trip to Paris, where all three women, the novel’s narrators, collide. Readers expecting a typical love triangle won’t find one. Instead, Berman delivers a thorough and incredibly timely investigation into relationship power imbalances that’s sure to start a lot of conversations.”
This America by Jill Lepore
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about This America: “In this somewhat underdeveloped ‘long essay,’ historian Lepore (These Truths) sets out to summarize nationalism for a lay audience and rally historians to fight against its encroaching presence in American life. She takes readers through a history of nationalism’s contradictory and overlapping meanings, skipping between debates among the country’s founders and Donald Trump’s recent self-identification as a nationalist in order to examine the moral and philosophical struggles of citizenship, nationalism, and identity in a country that has at one time or another espoused everything from universal suffrage to the stripping of citizenship from those who cannot pass for white. Lepore differentiates between patriotism and nationalism and, in a move that may surprise readers, blames the 20th- and 21st-century resurgences of nationalism on historians who failed to construct a convincing, patriotic counternarrative as a bulwark against it (a mantle she took up herself with These Truths). While Lepore’s sense of personal urgency in taking up this topic is clear, the structure here is choppier and more repetitive than in previous works. Readers expecting Lepore’s usual precision and depth in characterizing the historical record will be disappointed.”
Picnic Comma Lightning by Laurence Scott
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Picnic Comma Lightning: “Scott, a writing lecturer at New York University in London, considers the nature of reality itself in a world of internet exaggeration, digitally edited photos and doctored videos, and humanoid robots in this wide-ranging philosophical investigation. He uses the recent deaths of his parents as an entrance into this subject, demonstrating how reality becomes unmoored during periods of grieving (death, he declares, is like ‘the flicking of a light switch, although whether it has been turned on or off is unclear’). Most often, Scott considers reality through the prism of literary criticism, commenting, for instance, on the newfound popularity of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in an era of greater restrictions on women’s reproductive rights, or relating the ‘God-like’ voice of the Amazon Echo to the ‘insinuating oneness of all things’ explored in Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea. A chapter on symbolism and metaphor in tech is particularly clever, exploring how ‘the textualisation of our reality,’ through the internet and digital communication, has allowed stories from marginalized individuals and groups to proliferate, thus dispelling stereotypes. Scott’s acutely perceptive book delivers a thoughtful message about finding an authentic way to live at a time when reality itself can seem built on shifting sands.”
Range by David Epstein
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Range: “Journalist and self-identified generalist Epstein (The Sports Gene) delivers an enjoyable if not wholly convincing work of Gladwellian pop-psychology aimed at showing that specialization is not the only path to success. His survey finds no shortage of notable athletes, artists, inventors, and businesspeople who followed atypically circuitous paths. Some are household names, such as J.K. Rowling, who by her own admission ‘failed on an epic scale’ before deciding to pursue writing, and Duke Ellington, who briefly studied music as a child before becoming more interested in basketball and drawing, only returning to music after a chance encounter with ragtime. Others are more obscure, such as Nintendo’s Gunpei Yokoi, who turned his limitations as an electronics engineer to his advantage when he created the cheap-to-produce, durable Game Boy, and Jack Cecchini, ‘one of the rare musicians who is world class in both jazz and classical.’ Epstein’s narrative case studies are fascinating, but the rapid-fire movement from one sketch to the next can create the impression of evidence in search of a thesis. While this well-crafted book does not entirely disprove the argument for expertise, Epstein does show that, for anyone without 10,000 hours to devote to mastering a single skill, there is hope yet.”
I am in the habit of slipping objects between the pages of whatever book I am reading: sometimes to mark a place, more often because a book is the safest place I know for letters or receipts or tickets or whatever I need to bring with me somewhere.
I have carried books for over two decades of adult life now, years spent largely in Illinois and New York, but also on vacations and trips that go much farther afield. Earlier this month, I went through every book in our Manhattan apartment to see what I could discover. This meant flipping pages in roughly 700 books, mostly novels, but also poetry books, memoirs, and essays, searching for pieces of my own history.
The Orchard Keeper by Cormac McCarthy
A slim copy request slip from Columbia’s writing program, circa 1999. I was workshopping my first novel and adjusting to life in New York City. McCarthy’s rustic prose was like a postcard from the woodsy plain in Michigan where I grew up. On the flip side of the slip, a handwritten list of obscure words in the text I admired — slewed, purl, wale, rictus — words that, alas, I then tried to jam into my own doomed manuscript.
The Blue Estuaries by Louise Bogan
Torn strips of paper mark dozens of poems that I liked as an undergraduate at Northwestern, back when I wanted to be a penniless poet when I grew up. I remember announcing this career path to my parents one chilly bright autumn afternoon while we milled outside Ryan Field before a football game. They took the news remarkably well. Today, I remember nothing of what drew the 20-year-old me to poems like “The Frightened Man” or “Betrothed.”
John Adams by David McCullough
A full sheet (minus one) of Forever Stamps from the U.S. Post Office. The picture on the stamps: the Liberty Bell, of course
Stamboul Train by Graham Greene:
Two colorful ticket stubs, mementoes from an official starting point of my own: Flight 438 from Lisbon to Paris on May 30, 2004, Seats 23E and 23F, one for me and one for my wife, Raina, on the flight back home from our honeymoon.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
The business card of a Vice President of Strategy for Razorfish, a major Internet consultancy in the ‘00s — and perhaps the strangest bedfellow possible for a book about Stalinist oppression. But these were my late-20s, a time of routine contradictions, when I fancied myself a professional Web geek by day but a self-serious failed novelist at the night.
Christine Falls by John Banville (writing as Benjamin Black)
The inspection certificate for our brand new Toyota RAV-4 from May 6, 2009. Despite having sworn never to have a car in the city again, Raina and I leased the Toyota because our daughter was two and we wanted to improve our ability to flee for the suburbs and the helpful hands of her parents whenever our nascent parenting skills failed us.
A Multitude of Sins by Richard Ford
Devil’s Dream by Madison Smartt Bell
The floor plan for the apartment that Raina and I moved into in 2011, right before our son — our second child — was born. Our new neighborhood’s streets were littered with more trash than our previous, and car alarms would trumpet the start of the work day for livery drivers at 6 a.m., but the apartment felt big enough for all four of us, plus our dog, and in New York City having enough space means having everything.
So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell
A yellow Post-It note that says “Waverly and Mercer” and “penne and chocolato,” written in my hand. I know I met many friends near the intersection of these two Village streets over the years — before we’d get pints of Belhaven at Swift or maybe cheap margaritas at Caliente Cab Company — but the meaning has gone just as those friends have left for Westport, Conn., or Chicago, Ill., or wherever friends go.
For 10 years, from 2003 through 2013, I commuted from New York to New Jersey each day — an hour each way. I used to tell people that I didn’t mind, because I had so much time to read books. And it’s true, I did a lot of reading then. But I did mind. I slipped three off-peak round trip passes for New Jersey Transit trains in the Beattie; 4 more receipts and three canceled tickets in the Baldwin; and, in the Sartre, six receipts, more than six round trips, perhaps a signal of how hard I worked to find joy in that joyless fusion of philosophy and fiction.
The Stranger by Albert Camus
City of Glass by Paul Auster; A Rage to Live by John O’Hara; God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater and A Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut; This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff; The 9/11 Commission Report; Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom by August Wilson; Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima; and on and on.
During that long commuting decade, I often took not just the New Jersey Transit train but also a local tram in Newark. To ride the Downtown line, I had to buy a lavender ticket from a machine at the top of a long escalator. On the platforms at select stops, conductors would surprise commuters and demand proof that we each had used the ticket punch clocks to validate our 50-cent passes. I find these lavender alibis slipped in the pages of dozens and dozens of books.
A Separate Peace by John Knowles
Inside this hardcover I find the phone number for a taxi company and words written in Spanish: Buena Vista Villas en la picinade abajo. Also, a receipt for a $26 car ride. I know that Raina and I were in Costa Rica for my brother’s wedding in 2005. But I don’t speak or write Spanish. And I don’t know where the taxi brought us.
The Master of Petersburg by J.M. Coetzee
A full-color 3×2 photo strip. Two duplicates of a portrait still from my daughter’s kindergarten year, her tiny face smiling out, forever five years old. I brought this book with me when I went to a writer’s retreat for a week in 2013. I tried but failed to engage in the Coetzee, never finished it. Spent a lot of time looking at the little girl.
The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford
A piece of notebook paper from 1999 with phrases from the text that I liked (“the smell of lavender,” “like a person who is listening to a sea-shell held to her ear”), and a toll-free telephone number. I dial the telephone digits now, curious, but a recording says the number is no longer in service.
The Triumph of Achilles by Louise Glück
There is, technically, nothing in this book. But it is hardly empty. I can still find the poem marked with a hard diagonal line at the page corner, as if the paper were folded over a knife. “Sooner or later you’ll begin to dream of me,” the poem promises. “I don’t envy you those dreams.” A haunting line called out by an ex-girlfriend who borrowed the book after we broke up. Two decades later, the curse has yet to come true.
Atonement by Ian McEwan
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
A Polaroid taken last year when it was my son’s turn to be in kindergarten: We are seated together in his classroom on a morning I don’t precisely remember — just as, I suppose, the father in The Buried Giant cannot quite recall his own son — although anyone can see this moment still matters by the bright and radiant looks on our faces. And will always matter, I like to think. Even if that’s not possible to prove.
After I finished this long walk through the books of the last 20 years, I asked myself whether I should leave the found objects or take them out. Should I strip the books clean for whoever comes through next — perhaps for my children when they are adults, if their taste in books resemble mine at all? Or shall I leave the objects more or less where I found them, a story-within-the-stories that tells the tale of one reader’s life for anyone who cares to sleuth out the details? This wasn’t a hard decision, as you’d guess. The objects go back. The page turns.