The Land Of Green Plums
by Herta Mueller
Mueller, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2009, began writing as a young Romanian intellectual under the regime of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. She was shadowed on the street, fired for refusing to inform on co-workers at a factory, and arrested. A friend committed suicide under similar pressure. In 1987, when she was in her mid-30s, she escaped to Germany, where she still lives. Mueller writes poetically about very grim things — exile, oppression, and the horrors of Nazi Germany, Soviet gulags and Eastern European dictatorships. Her later novels, including The Land of Green Plums and The Appointment, graphically portray the brutality suffered by modest people under totalitarianism.
The Land of Green Plums: 256 pages, $15, Picador
The Appointment: 240 pages, $15, Picador
The Last Time I Saw You
by Elizabeth Berg
As a small-town Ohio high school class of 1960 gathers for its 40th high school reunion, fear and self-loathing beset former jocks, geeks, wallflowers and beauty queens alike, in Elizabeth Berg's latest novel. For all of them, it's a second chance to re-examine a painful past and discover that the person on the inside doesn't always match the person on the outside. This could be a good choice for book clubs looking for an enjoyable, yet substantial and enlightening read.
288 pages, $15, Ballantine
My Dearest Friend
Letters of Abigail and John Adams
by Joseph Ellis, Abigail Adams, John Adams
Historian and author Joseph Ellis draws from decades of correspondence between John Adams and his wife, Abigail, to reveal the achievements of America's second president, and the sacrifice and influence of his first lady. Viewing each other as intellectual equals, the two exchanged more than 1,000 letters over the course of their relationship and, according to Ellis, intended for their correspondence to stand as a record of their lives for posterity — though John Adams insisted the letters were meant for his own family. "But he actually meant us," Ellis tells NPR's Neal Conan. "He was writing these letters as much to you and I at this moment in time, 200 years later."
528 pages, $19.95, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press
Heidegger And A Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates
Using Philosophy (and Jokes!) to Explore Life, Death, the Afterlife, and Everything in Between
by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein
Former philosophy students Thomas Cathcart (who has dropped out of various divinity schools) and Daniel Klein (who has written jokes for Flip Wilson and Lily Tomlin) specialize in telling jokes to illustrate philosophy. Their new book, Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates, is a hilarious look at the afterlife. So why contemplate the end of life? "Philosophy about death is sort of an intro to philosophy of life," Cathcart tells Liane Hansen. "All of these philosophers that we explore in the book actually took the point of view that you can't really look at life and the meaning of life without looking at the fact that it ends."
256 pages, $13, Penguin
A Search for America's Christmas Present
by Hank Stuever
Christmas in the United States, it's more than a holiday. It's a state of mind, an industry and a whole world way beyond the North Pole. Christmas here comes with animatronic reindeer and pre-lit artificial trees and big boxes from big-box stores, a whole lot of flashing lights and, of course, relentless optimism. Where is this form of American Christmas the most spectacular? Why, in Texas, of course, where everything is bigger. Washington Post staff writer Hank Stuever crashed the Christmas party by immersing himself in the lives of three families in Frisco, Texas. The resulting book, Tinsel, explains why Christmas is so bright there, even when times are tough.
352 pages, $14.95, Mariner Books
Whiter Shades Of Pale
The Stuff White People Like, Coast to Coast, from Seattle's Sweaters to Maine's Microbrews
by Christian Lander
When Christian Lander started the website Stuff White People Like, the list ballooned to include organic food, fair-trade coffee, indie music, Apple products and vintage T-shirts, presumably worn with irony. (Public radio showed up at No. 44.) But Lander, who dropped out of a Ph.D. program at Indiana University, says the idea is intended to make fun of racial stereotypes and start conversations about them. In Whiter Shades of Pale, his follow-up to his best-selling book Stuff White People Like, he continues the dialogue with region-by-region breakdowns and illustrations.
240 pages, $15, Random House Trade Paperbacks
Charlotte Abbott edits "New in Paperback." A contributing editor for Publishers Weekly, she also writes the Follow the Reader blog about digital publishing issues.
Herta Mueller, the winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature, was born in a tiny German community in Romania. Her village was suffocating and insular, but Mueller recently told Swedish television that she felt like an outsider in the rest of Romania, too. Even speaking made her aware of her differences:
"Of all these languages that I have borrowed, not even one belongs to me — not the one from home, not even the Romanian. None belongs to me, and that's why there is such an impulse in me to write," she said.
Mueller began writing as a young intellectual under the regime of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. She was shadowed on the street, fired for refusing to inform on co-workers, and arrested. A friend committed suicide under similar pressure.
Bridget Haines, who edited a book about the author, says the effects of living in Romania remained with Mueller, even after she fled to Germany at the age of 22.
Haines says that when Mueller's first review was published, Mueller bought 20 copies of the newspaper because she didn't realize how easy it was to make photocopies: "In Ceausescu's Romania, photocopiers were only owned by the secret service. You weren't allowed to copy anything."
Mueller writes poetically about very grim things — exile, oppression and the horrors of Nazi Germany, Soviet gulags and Eastern European dictatorships.
Her most recent book, Atemschaukel, draws from her mother's memories of a Soviet labor camp. The hero is a teenager who darkly observes that getting deported to such a camp will at least get him out of his "thimble of a town where all the stones have eyes." Five years later, he's released into a busy town where he could be stopped and interrogated at any moment:
I have packed myself into silence so deeply I can never unpack myself in words. I just pack myself differently each time I speak.
Mueller's own experiences have led her to stand up for newer refugees fleeing to Europe from all over the world: "Why has it always been in this world that people should leave their countries and others are the ones committing the crimes?" she asks.
As for her own status as a refugee, she has returned to Romania, but only as a visitor: "One never comes back the same way," she says. "Once you leave under such circumstances, you become a different person."