by Anne Tyler
Liam Pennywell is a genial man whose life has been beset by a series of failures that he accepts without argument. When we first meet him, at age 60, he has just lost his job teaching philosophy at a middling private school and plans to live out the rest of his life reading books and avoiding his nagging ex-wife, three grown daughters and sister. As the story begins, Liam is shaken out of his dormant state by an intruder who enters his new apartment on the outskirts of Baltimore and knocks him unconscious. With no memory of the blow, Liam becomes obsessed with reconstructing his missing hours and sets off on a series of improbable adventures that reawaken him to his past. The story itself is no page-turner; the burglary, a romance, a betrayal and a plot twist all feel more flat than the characters experiencing them. But the actors, who aside from Liam are almost all women, spring fully to life.
304 pages, $15, Ballantine Books
The Invisible Bridge
by Julie Orringer
Orringer's debut story collection, How to Breathe Underwater, was mostly set in contemporary America, and was concentrated, subtle and microcosmic — and won great praise. Now, her first novel is both a love story writ large and an almost epic ride through the history of Europe just before World War II. The hero is Andras Levi, a young Jewish Hungarian who moves to Paris to study architecture in 1937 and falls in love with an older Hungarian dance teacher as the Nazis start to gain power. Orringer's prose is unfaltering, and she shows remarkable skill in weaving together the two main sections of the novel — the first part, a coming-of-age story; and the second part, a tense account of a family threatened with war and hatred. It's a bold, ambitious move for an author's sophomore effort, but Orringer's fans won't be surprised to know that it pays off.
784 pages, $15.95, Vintage Books
by David Malouf
In Ransom, the Australian novelist David Malouf re-imagines one of the great sequences in Homer's Iliad, and, many would say, in all of Western literature. It's the section where Priam, king of the soon-to-be-defeated Trojans, crosses the battle lines in disguise to plead with warrior Achilles for the body of his son Hector, whom Achilles has just slaughtered in combat. From this ancient material, Malouf hauls in his own cartload of treasure, a stately rendering of a magnificent poetic sequence. The landscape is starkly beautiful as the light changes from evening to night to dawn. Achilles' reception of the grieving king is also stark and memorable. You've seen the movie? Now read the novel made from one of the foundation poems of our culture.
240 pages, $14.95, Vintage Books
The Male Brain
by Louann Brizendine, M.D.
What makes a male a male? Why, his brain, of course. And because he has 2.5 times the brain space devoted to sexual pursuit compared with a female, a book about it makes the reading, well, sexy. Hormonal love potions can soften the toughest male, but women often notice that men's usual social behavior can depart quite a bit from the female way. Hence Brizendine's premise that under the influence of unique neural connections, the male brain simply follows other rules. Men, for example, may seem to respond to their girlfriends' distress with emotional distance. Brizendine rescues the male's reputation. Unlike the female, whose brain's empathic mirror neuron system is always active in these situations, the male brain's empathy system quickly hands the task over to the temporal-parietal junction, the problem-solving brain station. So, really, they could be listening. This sequel to Brizendine's best-selling The Female Brain is lucid, conversational and engaging, a result of her years in psychiatry and sexual medicine.
304 pages, $14.99, Three Rivers Press
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 .
In a country saturated with celebrity worship, novelist Anne Tyler has taken a contrarian approach, transforming everyday Americans into fully rounded, idiosyncratic characters and making us care about them.
In novel after novel, Tyler has populated Baltimore, where she has lived most of her adult life, with a cast of some extraordinary ordinaries: Cody, Ezra and Jenny Tull, whose dissembling mother, Pearl, has been deserted by their father (Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, 1982); Macon Leary, the reclusive travel-guide writer whose son has been murdered (The Accidental Tourist, 1985); Ira and Maggie Moran, the long-married couple whose lives shift in a matter of hours on the day of a funeral (the Pulitzer Prize-winning Breathing Lessons, 1988); and Rebecca Davitch, the newly widowed grandmother who embarks on a journey to a new self (Back When We Were Grownups, 2001).
Liam Pennywell, the central figure in Tyler's 18th novel, Noah's Compass, fits right in. He's 61 and has just been fired from a job teaching fifth grade at a second-rate private boys' school. In the first chapter, the unassuming Liam is downsizing into a starter apartment. Helping him move are Damian, his 17-year-old daughter Kitty's slacker boyfriend; and Bundy, his only pal from work. Both leave before the traditional end-of-moving-day beer and pizza. "This would likely be the final dwelling place of his life," Liam reflects on his first night in the new apartment.
How did he end up alone? Liam wonders. He adds it up: two failed marriages, three daughters who lead their own lives and a sister he seldom speaks to. After winning a philosophy award in college, Liam has, in his own estimation, spent the rest of his life failing, betraying his promise with a series of low-paying jobs for which he was overqualified.
Like most Tyler creations, Liam is due for something unexpected. With a terrible sort of grace, an unlatched patio door leads to violence. At the end of the first chapter, Liam wakes up in a hospital room with a concussion and an unsettling memory gap. He clearly fought off an intruder (there is a vicious human bite mark on his hand) but he is disturbed by the fact that he can't recall the incident. The injury — and his search for the missing hours — shocks him out of his solitude.
Noah's Compass evolves through a series of random encounters, family reconnections and memories. Through subtle shifts in perspective and a gradual unfolding of family ties, Tyler gives Liam a late-in-life chance to decide how far the power of love can take him ("So tiring sometimes, this business of engaging with other human beings," he muses). Can he open out to a life as yet unlived? Tyler's magical gifts make Noah's Compass both comforting and enlightening as it explores the familiar disappointments and challenges of our times.
This week, Anne Tyler's new novel explores one man's rudderless existence, and Elizabeth Gilbert offers an older and wiser follow-up to Eat Pray Love. Also, a narrative of life in North Korea, and in Summertime, J.M. Coetzee offers a fictional biography of the author ... J.M. Coetzee.
A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage
By Elizabeth Gilbert
Elizabeth Gilbert and Felipe, the man she fell in love with at the end of her best-selling memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, promised to love but never marry. (Both survived painful divorces.) They are forced into a decision by a Homeland Security agent who detains Felipe at an airport: They must marry or he cannot live with her in the U.S. During months in exile, she agonizes about her reservations and explores the meaning of marriage across cultures and its historic implications for women.
I read Committed in one sitting, fascinated by the idea that the megaselling author had ditched the first draft of the sequel to Eat, Pray, Love. My guess is, she changed in the course of the writing. She seems wiser the second time around. Her conversations with her mother and grandmother give a telling and touching three-generational perspective to Committed.— Jane Ciabattari, NPR reviewer
Hardcover, 304 pages, Viking Adult, List price: $26.95, pub. date: Jan. 5
By Anne Tyler
Liam Pennywell is a genial man whose life has been beset by a series of failures that he accepts without argument. When we first meet him, at age 60, he has just lost his job teaching philosophy at a middling private school and is downsizing into a prefab apartment complex next to a shopping mall on the outskirts of Baltimore. He plans to live out the rest of his life reading books and avoiding his nagging ex-wife, three grown daughters and sister — who buzz in and out of his life with an energy and purposefulness that stands in contrast to Liam's rudderless existence. As the story begins, Liam is shaken out of his dormant state by an intruder who enters his new apartment through an unlocked patio door and knocks him unconscious. Liam, who has no memory of the blow, becomes obsessed with reconstructing those missing hours and sets off on a series of improbable adventures that reawaken him to his past.
This is a book more about character than plot. The story itself is no page-turner; a burglary, a romance, a betrayal and a plot twist all feel more flat than the characters who experience them. But the actors, who aside from Liam are almost all women, spring to life as a bundle of exquisite details. People like Eunice, Liam's love interest, were, he observes, "subject to speckles and flushes; their purses resembled wastepaper baskets; they stepped on their own skirts." Liam's youngest daughter, Kitty: "her fingers long and flexible, ending in nail bitten nubbins — lemur fingers." His pushy sister, Julia, insists on bringing beef stew to a convalescing Liam even though he hasn't eaten meat in three decades. I know these women and they form a dysfunctional family that makes for an engaging read. Liam himself is more of a cipher who threatens to break through into a fully conscious adult, only to frustratingly retreat back inside himself.— Vivian Schiller, NPR president and CEO
Hardcover, 288 pages, Knopf, list price: $25.95, pub. date: Jan 5
Nothing To Envy
Ordinary Lives in North Korea
By Barbara Demick
North Korea is among the most opaque and wretched countries on the planet. Trying to write a narrative book about the closed, Stalinist nation is a task most journalists wouldn't take on a bet. But Barbara Demick has pulled it off. Demick, a former Los Angeles Times correspondent in Seoul, spent seven years interviewing defectors who lived in the North Korean city of Chongjin at the height of a famine that cost up to 2 million lives. Relying on their remarkably detailed recollections, she has crafted a vivid, oral history of a single city in the darkest days of one of the world's worst regimes.
The topic is so bleak, it took me three weeks to crack this book. But Nothing To Envy is much more than a chronicle of slow-motion starvation. At times, it's a page-turner; at others, an intimate study in totalitarian psychology. Demick's greatest achievement is rendering her North Korean subjects as complex and compelling characters — not the brain-washed parodies we so often see marching in unison in TV reports.— Frank Langfitt, NPR business correspondent and
former Beijing bureau chief for The Baltimore Sun
Hardcover, 336 pages, Spiegel & Grau, list price: $26, pub. date: Dec. 29
By J.M. Coetzee
Summertime is the third of J.M. Coetzee's fictionalized autobiographical novels. In the first two, Boyhood and Youth, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist provided glimpses of his coming of age in South Africa and London, respectively. In Summertime, he takes a different tack. The book is set soon after the death of the fictional writer J.M. Coetzee. It's told through a series of interviews between a fictional biographer and five people who knew the "late" writer before he became famous. The interviews are bookended by two sets of the writer's notebooks, which trace his metamorphosis into a novelist. In real life, Coetzee is a notoriously private man, and much of the fictional Coetzee's life differs starkly from the author's own experiences, so where fiction ends and autobiography begins is anybody's guess.
J.M. Coetzee is on most lists of great contemporary writers, but it wasn't until I read Summertime that I understood why. His prose is spare and elegant, gut-wrenchingly sad and, when you least expect it, funny. The book's central character, the late eponymous novelist, appears only in the recollections of various associates, yet his presence looms on every page. But if it's more of the writer's life one seeks, look elsewhere. Coetzee's tendency to give his fictional self a story that wildly varies from his own made the work all the more appealing. Key plot elements, such as the fictional Coetzee's relationship with his widowed father, are demonstrably false, while others, such as hints about why he returned to South Africa from the U.S., seem to point at the truth. Frustrating? Sure, but the book left me guessing, and wanting more. Still, there is little doubt that Summertime is an intensely personal novel that gave me a glimpse into the minds of one of the great writers of our age — or did it?— Krishnadev Calamur, editor, NPR Digital News