by Jane Smiley
Jane Smiley's leisurely new novel, Private Life, covers nearly six decades, from 1883 to 1942, a historic period when technological innovations brought the country from a relatively slow-paced life to the dawn of the nuclear age. This time of intellectual and technological ferment is the backdrop to Smiley's subtle and thorough portrait of the toxic nature of the institution of marriage. The book's epigram sets the stage: "In those days all stories ended with the wedding." As Margaret Mayfield narrates her story of marrying an astronomer, and moving from small-town Missouri to a naval station near Vallejo, Calif., Smiley creates some vivid historic scenes, including a "real-time" reporting of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, in which Margaret's visiting mother-in-law perishes, and the internment of Margaret's Japanese neighbors in 1942, an episode that creates the frame for the novel and catalyzes Margaret's moral dilemma.
320 pages, $15.95, Anchor
by Carl Hiaasen
In Star Island, the author and Miami Herald columnist takes aim at American celebrity and paparazzi culture. It's the story of vacuous celebrities being stalked by a hygiene-challenged freelance photographer; corrupt land developers and the politicians they've bribed; and an altruistic, if flawed, hero. With its sunny Florida setting, Star Island could easily be mistaken for a light beach read, but there are serious issues in there — starting with the book's title. "Star Island is an actual place in Miami Beach, and a lot of celebrities live there," Hiaasen tells NPR's Don Gonyea. "It's also sort of a double meaning because the star, this young singer, is isolated and detached in a way that she might as well be on an island — she's not very connected to reality anymore."
368 pages, $14.99, Grand Central
by James Lee Burke
Best known for his series of mystery novels about Louisiana cop Dave Robicheaux, crime writer James Lee Burke moves westward in his latest novel, Rain Gods, to the dry landscape of Texas. Burke's protagonist, a 70-year-old widower and recovering drunk named Hackberry Holland, is a character the author introduced in his 1971 book Lay Down My Sword and Shield. Burke tells Linda Wertheimer that he wrote the new novel because he felt he "owed Hackberry an amends. ... His story wasn't quite over yet." Hackberry belongs to a family, which — though fictional — is based closely on the author's own. The novel is set in the present and "deals with the violence that is ongoing on the Texas-New Mexican-Mexico frontier," Burke says. Opposite Hackberry is a psychopathic religious demagogue named Preacher Jack Collins, whom Burke describes as "the most intriguing antagonist or villain I think I've written about."
464 pages, $16, Pocket
Spies Of The Balkans
by Alan Furst
In the latest of what he calls "historical espionage" novels, spy writer Alan Furst is working at the top of his powers. Spies of the Balkans takes us to Salonika in 1940 — just as Mussolini has decided to invade Greece — and carries us along with convincing historical details and heart-pounding plot-making, as well as supple prose. This fine mix conveys the brutal military and social history of Europe in World War II from a feeling perspective. Furst draws us into the world of a Macedonian police detective, Costa Zannis, who is a canny Salonika investigator with a lot of local political connections, a British girlfriend, a mother and a dog. Before we know it, his moral hackles have risen and he has created a network to help a Jewish woman from Berlin smuggle German Jews targeted for arrest down through the Balkans to Turkey. Along the way, Zannis' morality grows, almost as though it's a flower in a stop-motion film.
268 pages, $15, Random House Trade Paperbacks
The Fever: How Malaria Has Ruled Humankind For 500,000 Years
by Sonia Shah
There have been deadlier, scarier and more stubborn diseases, but few that have affected human evolution and global culture as much as malaria has. In The Fever: How Malaria Has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years, journalist Sonia Shah provides an absorbing overview of the causes, treatments and effects of the disease, from the birth of the Plasmodium falciparum parasite in Africa thousands of years ago to global health initiatives of the past decade. In previous books, Shah has chronicled "the story of oil" (Crude) and written about pharmaceutical companies testing drugs on indigent patients (The Body Hunters). In The Fever, she displays the same curiosity, eye for history, and anger on behalf of the oppressed. (Drug companies take it squarely on the chin here as well, particularly in the chapter titled "Pharmacological Failure.")
320 pages, $16, Picador Books
Charlotte Abbott edits "New in Paperback." A contributing editor for Publishers Weekly, she also leads a weekly chat on books and reading in the digital age every Friday from 4-5 p.m. ET on Twitter. Follow her at @charabbott or check out the #followreader hashtag .
The heroine of Jane Smiley's latest novel, Private Life, lives with her husband at the naval shipyard on Mare Island, north of San Francisco. There, while in bed one evening in 1906, she feels the earth move — and it has nothing to do with her husband. A lamp falls off the bedside table — just minor damage. But, over on the mainland, all hell breaks loose as San Francisco collapses in the Great Earthquake and subsequent fire. Margaret Mayfield Early is a quiet woman who keeps her own counsel, a watcher rather than an actor in history's great dramas. It's appropriate that she lives in an insular place like an island, where she can hear of catastrophes taking place across the water but is only glancingly affected by them herself. The years roll on, and other events transpire: sailors leave Mare Island for service in World Wars I and II, and the Spanish flu epidemic and the Great Depression hit. Margaret lives, at a remove, through them all — until one day she quietly realizes that the man she has spent most of her life married to is, at best, a fool; this time, the epicenter of the earthquake is in her brain.
Private Life is a powerful turn-of-the-last-century American novel in both chronology and style. It spans the decades from Margaret's childhood in Missouri after the Civil War up to the early years of World War II. Smiley has tried her hand at historical novels before (as well as an academic farce and even a suspense tale), but, at bottom, she has always been a master chronicler of the climate changes in relationships — I think especially of her great, great novella, The Age of Grief.
Here, her compelling story about a long marriage has an Edith Wharton, Henry James feel of sinister delicacy about it. Margaret is afflicted by the same strain of paralysis that defines Newland Archer in Wharton's Age of Innocence. In the opening section of the novel, shrewd older women around Margaret conspire to orchestrate her marriage — at the desperately ripe old age of 27 — to Capt. Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early, a Navy astronomer in his 30s and the most famous man that their little Midwestern town has ever produced. Describing their courtship, Smiley's deadpan omniscient narrator says that Margaret felt "pleasing dread" at Capt. Early's approach, and their wedding was "quickly accomplished." What layers of meaning are freeze-dried into those compact phrases! By the time Margaret understands both the betrayals she has been subjected to and the true character of her husband, her feeble spirit of defiance has all but calcified.
Margaret and Andrew move to Mare Island immediately after the wedding because he's put in charge of the observatory there. Andrew has made a tentative reputation for himself with his theories about double stars. Soon he's filling up their small house with dusty piles of scientific journals, churning out boulder-sized books with titles like The Universe Explained, and engaging in one-sided debates with his nemesis, Albert Einstein. Reflecting on one of his manuscripts (which, of course, she has been expected to type) Margaret thinks: "What Andrew's theory was, precisely she could not herself have said, though she partially understood the second half of the second volume, which was that if they could harness the power of the Aether, they would be as gods ... [H]aving been left to think and think and think, Andrew had made up his mind that thinking was everything."
Over the decades, Margaret, like a lot of women, carves out a small, separate life for herself without explicitly recognizing this as marital survival strategy. She befriends a Russian emigre, and a Nelly Bly-type female journalist, and a Japanese-American family. At 60, our narrator tells us, Margaret had gotten into the habit of congratulating herself for being "balanced." "But, she saw, she was balanced on a very narrow perch."
Private Life is a wistful and beautifully observed novel about nice girls finishing last. Margaret always listened to her practical mother who opined that: "Romance ... was always the first act of a tragedy." But, as Smiley makes clear, relationships that don't have their roots in passion are capable of their own peculiar devastations of spirit.
Jane Smiley's leisurely new novel Private Life covers nearly six decades, from 1883 to 1942, a historic period when technological innovations brought the country from a relatively slow-paced life to the dawn of the nuclear age. This time of intellectual and technological ferment is the backdrop to Smiley's subtle and thorough portrait of the toxic nature of the institution of marriage. Smiley's epigram sets the stage: "In those days all stories ended with the wedding."
Margaret Mayfield, the narrator, is the eldest daughter of a doctor in small-town Missouri. By the time she is 8, her two older brothers have died, and her distraught father has committed suicide. Her once sickly mother, now energized, moves Margaret and her two younger sisters back to her father's farm.
There, Lavinia Mayfield trains her daughters to be wives and mothers. In a lengthy middle section of the novel, in which the younger daughters grow up and marry, Smiley captures the unhurried rhythms of 19th-century America. Margaret reads Dickens, Horatio Alger and Kate Chopin, sews, takes long walks, and makes jams and cordials. Her first bicycle ride is a revelation: "Riding a bicycle was living life at a much faster pace, and very stimulating."
Finally, at 27, Margaret marries Captain Andrew Early, 34, an astronomer who has returned to his hometown under a cloud of scandal. The two move to the Mare Island naval station near Vallejo, Calif., and Margaret attempts to follow her mother's lessons: "A wife must only do as she's told for the first year," and, "Habit proves stronger than passion."
Margaret is reminiscent of the independent-minded protagonist in Smiley's 1999 novel, The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton, which is set in the 1850s and explores a new marriage on the prairie and the daily complexities of the antebellum era. But Lidie Newton's marriage is vital and loving in contrast to Margaret's loveless, childless union. And Margaret lacks the spunk to keep herself from being gradually suffocated by the passivity the female role of her time requires.
Smiley creates some vivid historic scenes, including a "real-time" reporting of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, in which Margaret's visiting mother-in-law perishes, and the internment of Margaret's Japanese neighbors in 1942, an episode that creates the frame for the novel and catalyzes Margaret's moral dilemma.
With admirable clarity, Smiley lets us experience how Margaret observes firsthand the mind of a scientist, buzzing with ideas, and how gradually she realizes that Andrew can be so far off base as to seem insane, and that his more paranoid theories may have endangered people she cares about.
Smiley is at her most persuasive in the final chapters of the novel, as she details Margaret's dawning awareness of the bitter truths and long-term consequences of the choices she has made in her "private life."