Beatrice And Virgil: A Novel
by Yann Martel
Yann Martel, the Canadian author of the Booker Prize-winning Life of Pi, enchanted readers around the world with his picaresque tale of an Indian boy who survives 227 days aboard a lifeboat with a 450-pound Bengal tiger. Martel's new novel, Beatrice and Virgil, is another parable involving animals, but the results are more mixed. As with Pi, Martel divides his tale into multiple parts — an introductory discussion of a successful author named Henry's failed attempts to create a part-fact, part-fiction book about the Holocaust; a midsection in which he meets a sinister taxidermist, who asks him to collaborate on a Beckett-style play in which a donkey (Beatrice) and a howler monkey (Virgil) are starved and tortured; and a coda that describes horrific human practices in the concentration camps. Martel's use of a naive tone to explore the question of evil is reminiscent of Voltaire's Candide, but it lacks Voltaire's satiric edge. Still, Beatrice and Virgil is likely to appeal to many of Martel's fans.
224 pages, $14, Spiegel & Grau
Angelology: A Novel
by Danielle Trussoni
What do you get when an Iowa Writers' Workshop graduate and critically acclaimed memoirist vies for the same readers who loved Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code? In the case of Danielle Trussoni's Angelology, the answer is a spellbinding quest novel built around puzzling lines in the Bible: specifically, the verse in Genesis that details how "the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bore children to them." In an eventful 48 hours, the young, beautiful nun Sister Evangeline discovers what she must do to protect humankind from the descendants of those angel-human unions — the monstrously beautiful Nephilim — who have been at war with mankind ever since. The novel succeeds despite Sister Evangeline's lack of life experience and depth, and a very long narrative flashback. Readers of The Da Vinci Code will find Angelology far less threatening to church doctrine — and almost as fascinating.
480 pages, $16, Penguin Books
The Heights: A Novel
by Peter Hedges
Peter Hedges has long had one foot in cinema and the other in literature. He adapted his novel What's Eating Gilbert Grape into a successful film and received an Oscar nomination for his screenplay of About a Boy. The Heights is his first novel in a decade, and it takes place in Brooklyn Heights, just across the river from Manhattan, where "you can't be bored because of the view," as one protagonist puts it. Hedges tracks the unfolding lives of gossipy parents known as "Mom with Moxie," "Mom Who Knows More About You than You Do" and even "Mom with a Beard." He bounces the narrative voice back and forth between Tim and Kate, husband and wife, as a glamorous newcomer moves into the Heights and pulls them into her orbit. The result is an inoffensive dramedy likely to resonate with anyone who daydreams about straying beyond the confines of their wedding vows.
304 pages, $15, Plume Books
by Diarmaid MacCulloch
MacCulloch, who teaches the history of the church at Oxford University, has put his interest in the multiple ways in which Christianity has morphed, clashed, invented and reinvented itself into a massive new book called Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. That subtitle isn't an error. MacCulloch says it was important to look back over the 1,000 years that preceded Jesus' birth to see how Christianity shaped itself, and at the timelines of the two cultures that influenced what the religion would become. Over its nearly 1,200 pages, MacCulloch's book looks at issues that split the church and helped it to grow: the language Jesus spoke, how churches and Christian communities spread after his death, the unpredictability of Rome becoming the center of the Christian world, and why some countries remain resistant to Christianity while their neighbors embrace it.
1,184 pages, $25, Penguin 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 .
Another animal fable from Life of Pi author Yann Martel; New Yorker editor David Remnick shows how President Barack Obama's life intersects with the story of race in America; and permissive parents cope with sex, drugs and a rebellious teen in Anne Lamott's Imperfect Birds.
Beatrice and Virgil
By Yann Martel
Yann Martel, the Canadian author of the Booker Prize-winning Life of Pi, enchanted readers around the world with his picaresque tale about Pi Patel, an optimistic 16-year-old Indian boy who survives a shipwreck and 227 days aboard a lifeboat with a 450-pound Bengal tiger. With his new novel, Beatrice and Virgil, Martel takes on a more ambitious and darker theme as he attempts to find a way to write imaginatively about the Holocaust. His narrator this time is an author named Henry who, like Martel, has written a hugely successful book. As with Pi, Martel divides his tale into multiple parts — an introductory discussion of Henry's failed attempts to create a part-fact, part-fiction book about the Holocaust; a midsection in which he meets a sinister taxidermist, also named Henry, who asks him to collaborate on a Beckett-style play in which a donkey (Beatrice) and a howler monkey (Virgil) are starved and tortured; and a coda that describes horrific human practices in the concentration camps.
I was fascinated with the way Yann Martel was able to make so many readers suspend disbelief and lap up his sometimes preposterous Life of Pi. So I was eager to read Beatrice and Virgil to find out if lightning would strike twice. The answer: Not this time. Martel's efforts to grapple with profound questions falter on many fronts. Beatrice and Virgil are, in effect, expressing human longings, pain and suffering in animal form, but the analogy of possible animal extinction with the Holocaust didn't work for me. Martel's use of a naive tone to explore the question of evil made me think of Voltaire's Candide. But without Voltaire's satiric edge, it fell flat. Despite its flaws, I suspect Beatrice and Virgil will appeal to many of Martel's fans. — Jane Ciabattari, NPR book reviewer
Hardcover, 224 pages; Spiegel & Grau; list price, $24; publication date, April 13
The Life and Rise of Barack Obama
By David Remnick
Largely told through the prism of race, David Remnick's The Bridge is an exhaustive history of America's first African-American president. The New Yorker editor takes the reader from colonial Kenya, where Barack Obama's father grew up, to the gritty world of South Side Chicago politics, where Obama cut his political teeth, to the historic presidential race in 2008. Based on numerous on-the-record interviews with friends, associates and Obama himself, The Bridge is the most expansive look yet at where Obama came from, how he came to train his eye on the presidency and how he executed that vision.
Even if you think you know all there is to know about Barack Obama, Remnick's take on his life and influences offers context and perspective that is unrivaled in its detail and appeal. His prose draws you in and keeps you reading through the nearly 700 pages of text as though you'd never heard anything about the man who became the first African-American president of the United States. — Courtney Dorning, Morning Edition editor
A top editor in chief writing about the commander in chief. How could this not be extraordinary? The problem is, Remnick has set himself a nearly impossible task. Thanks to Obama's own two memoirs, the public has been familiarized with much of the territory covered in The Bridge. And Obama's rise has been so recent that it's hardly history yet. Most of the people reading The Bridge will have witnessed it in real time. The section of the book that recounts the 2008 election seems to restate the obvious. And his life and presidency are still unfolding. In trying to bring the book up to the minute, Remnick risks obsolescence. His epilogue, written in January, is already out of date. The best Remnick can do is elaborate on the facts, delve into the footnotes and expand upon the broader historical contexts. — Susan Jane Gilman, All Things Considered reviewer
Hardcover, 672 pages; Knopf; list price, $29.95; publication date, April 6
By Anne Lamott
In Imperfect Birds, Lamott dips back into the life of Rosie Ferguson, a beautiful, brilliant 17-year-old who has appeared in two earlier books. Rosie's loving, permissive mother, Elizabeth, and slightly harder-line stepfather, James, think they're living well and happily in the cosseted liberal affluence of Marin County, Calif. Elizabeth is a stay-at-home mom who is diligently tending to her own hard-won sobriety. James is a writer who lives to get weekly commentaries aired on NPR. (Really.) They see their lives as pretty complete. What Elizabeth and James don't see is that Rosie, like most teens, has a life she carefully keeps hidden from them. Her assertion of independence takes a horrifying form: use of a nightmare kaleidoscope of drugs, everything from pot to swilling cough syrup and sniffing plastics. After Rosie breaks their trust repeatedly, Elizabeth and James make the hard decision to send her to an outdoor-survival-based rehab program in Utah. And that's when all three Fergusons start to grow up.
I love Lamott's writing; few people have her ear for real-life folks who are grappling with faith issues. But while I felt badly for Rosie and her family, I couldn't relate to them. Maybe it's age — I grew up in the '50s and '60s, and my parents were fairly strict. Maybe it's race. The black parents I know tend to be pretty old school; they're always parents first, although they are often friends as well. Rosie's mother, Elizabeth, seems to have an especially hard time laying down the law and sticking to it because she wants to maintain a friendly relationship with her only child. Her inability to consistently attach consequences to Rosie's acting-out not only harms Rosie but also erodes Elizabeth's relationship with her husband. In the end, she takes a deep breath and does what she knows she needs to. You're left thinking that Rosie, after some struggle, will be OK — but wishing everyone had gone off to Utah for a little reality therapy. — Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR correspondent