Summer is the time for flings and affairs, a season that evokes daydreams about what could have been. But if you don't fancy yourself straying, books are an ideal way to live vicariously. You can explore all the naughty things you can't quite bring yourself to do, fantasize about the love you long for, or, on the more serious side, plumb the pages for truths about our human capacity for ecstasy and pain.
It's a luxury to ride the crest of a character's emotional life, from the agony of betrayal, to passion's joys. Here are some recent titles that take a fresh look at illicit love.
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand
By Helen Simonson, hardcover, 368 pages, Random House, list price: $25
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is a lovely, old-fashioned story about the blossoming of an unlikely affair between the retired and chivalrous Major Pettigrew and Jasmina Ali, the local Pakistani store owner. Part of the story's delight is that both the Major and Jasmina are widowed, with no expectation of a second chance at love. Don't even try to resist this book's charm; just enjoy it. As the two protagonists' romance unfolds, you'll warm to the humor in the Major's dealings with his vapid, upwardly mobile son; and appreciate Simonson's handling of some very unsubtle racial prejudices in contemporary English village life. Even though the Major can't always manage to meet his own high standards, you'll be eager to support him as he figures out what love means to him. (In this passage, Jasmina Ali prepares tea for Major Pettigrew, as he absorbs the news of his brother's death. "It was strange, he thought, to listen again to a woman clattering teacups in the kitchen.")
The Hand That First Held Mine
By Maggie O'Farrell, hardcover, 352 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, list price: $25
In The Hand That First Held Mine, a love affair launches Lexie Sinclair's career. Innes Kent is an older, urban sophisticate who plucks young Lexie from sheltered 1950s suburbia and beds her in the big city. Confident, opinionated and sharp, Lexie takes to her new milieu — London's bustling art and literary scene. She can handle her men, even as she comes to loathe the one who fathered her son. But that isn't all there is to Lexie. Underneath her tough demeanor is a woman with a shrewd understanding of her complex emotional life. A seemingly separate story follows Elina, a Finnish emigre, and her boyfriend, Ted, through their son's first weeks. While the haze of birth obscures Elina's thinking, something much thornier interferes with Ted's psyche. The two story lines, each with its own compelling view of love, coalesce in a dramatic and surprising ending. (At the opening of the novel, O'Farrell writes that the trees are stirring in the wind: "It is almost as if the trees know, in their restlessness, in their head-tossing impatience, that something is about to happen.")
The Other Family
By Joanna Trollope, paperback, 336 pages, Touchstone, list price: $15
The Other Family spins an affair all the way out to examine the dilemma of the second family. The sudden death of celebrated crooner Richie Rossiter leaves his second family stunned. But more shocking is the fact that Richie never married the woman who mothered his three daughters and caused him to abandon his wife and son. He may have been a famous heartthrob, but Richie's aversion to committed love is exposed posthumously when his will is read. Trollope masterfully explores each family member's confused reactions to the difference between the man they thought they knew and the one who left them in the lurch. It's a measure of Trollope's skill that although you sympathize with all of the bereaved, you're never quite sure whose side to take in the ensuing entanglements. Thus, you'll be pleased that by the end of the book, each character has found a way to reclaim hope out of love's cinders. (In this excerpt, Richie Rossiter's family returns home from the hospital, mute and in shock, after his unexpected death.)
By Eleanor Catton, hardcover, 320 pages, Reagan Arthur Books, list price: $23.99
The Rehearsal,, an edgy debut from New Zealander Eleanor Catton, orbits around scandal in the high school. The music teacher, Mr. Saladin, is having an affair with Victoria, one of his students. Catton uses a quirky, middle-aged, female saxophone teacher to investigate the ramifications of this affair for Victoria's sister and her schoolmates. Wily and manipulative, the saxophone teacher plays her female pupils and their mothers like pawns. The sax teacher is a central character, but she's never named.
A second story line follows Stanley (think twisted reflection of A Streetcar Named Desire), who is oppressed by his usually absent and always inappropriate father. Stanley auditions for and matriculates at the "Institute," a local drama school. Embarking on their theatrical training, Stanley and his classmates are forced into brutal personal exposure, stripped of their identities by a small group of zealous instructors. Like the saxophone teacher, these instructors have no names; they are known only by their titles.
There are few ways to anchor yourself in this book. In addition to the anonymity of key adults, there is virtually no description of place. One assumes the story is set in New Zealand, given that the school year ends in November. Time is marked through a stark recitation of the days of the week for the saxophone teacher's story, and the months of the year for Stanley's adventures at the Institute. The detail is in the oozing sexual tension — between Victoria and her high school teacher, between uninitiated and obsessional adolescents, and between would-be lesbians, to name a few. The two stories collide at the end, leaving you with more questions than answers. Satisfaction derives from the extraordinarily inventive writing and a plot that works on multiple levels. (In this passage, the saxophone teacher explains that when you breathe into the instrument, "you're not just giving it life — you're giving it your life.")
By Paul Auster, paperback, 320 pages, Picador, list price: $15
For another truly unsettling book, try Invisible. The most startling love affair takes place between the protagonist, Adam Walker, and his sister. Before you say "ugh," read the book. In wry reportorial style, Auster tantalizes the reader by describing what appears to be the same set of events from three separate perspectives. Even though each narrative is credible, they all conflict with one another. There's an unsolved murder, or maybe not; an enigmatic Columbia professor with a girlfriend who's crazy, or maybe not; and Adam himself, who is or is not a reliable storyteller.
Invisible is vintage Auster — beautifully crafted with characters who elicit empathy and pity, and a plot that challenges even the most flexible of nonlinear readers; by the end, you have no idea who has actually had affairs with whom, let alone whom to believe in general. No matter how savvy you are, when you're done, you'll need to return to the beginning to see if there is a way to untangle this Mobius strip of a narrative. What's engaging here is not only the compassion you'll feel for Adam and some of the other characters, but also the tug of justice unfinished. (Read as Adam, a sophomore at Columbia, encounters Rudolf Born, a French visiting professor, at a noisy New York party. Adam is drawn into Born's charismatic orbit — against his better judgment.)
Hold Me Tight & Tango Me Home
By Maria Finn, paperback, 223 pages, Algonquin Books, list price: $13.95
What to do when your spouse leaves you for someone else? Tango! In her memoir, Hold Me Tight and Tango Me Home, Maria Finn confronts her sorrow and anger over her husband's affair by tangoing her way across the globe. Part of Finn's story of recovery concerns the friends she makes along the way. She also gives us a course in tango technique. Tango embraces sexy and sad; Finn shares the lyrics of melancholy and longing set to some of tango's most celebrated tunes.
Although Finn supplies us with fascinating bits of tango's history and cultural adaptations (did you know Finland has a rich tango tradition, or that the Russians are tango crazy?), the real reason to recommend this book is for inspiration. Thumb your nose at your partner's betrayal: dance your way through it! ("Tango understood my broken heart," Finn writes in this excerpt. "It beckons on a night when you're feeling lonely; it promises escape from the grind of daily life.")
I shook his hand for the first time in the spring of 1967. I was a second-year student at Columbia then, a know-nothing boy with an appetite for books and a belief (or delusion) that one day I would become good enough to call myself a poet, and because I read poetry, I had already met his namesake in Dante's hell, a dead man shuffling through the final verses of the twenty-eighth canto of the Inferno. Bertran de Born, the twelfth-century Provencal poet, carrying his severed head by the hair as it sways back and forth like a lantern — surely one of the most grotesque images in that book-length catalogue of hallucinations and torments. Dante was a staunch defender of de Born's writing, but he condemned him to eternal damnation for having counseled Prince Henry to rebel against his father, King Henry II, and because de Born caused division between father and son and turned them into enemies, Dante's ingenious punishment was to divide de Born from himself. Hence the decapitated body wailing in the underworld, asking the Florentine traveler if any pain could be more terrible than his.
When he introduced himself as Rudolf Born, my thoughts immediately turned to the poet. Any relation to Bertran? I asked.
Ah, he replied, that wretched creature who lost his head. Perhaps, but it doesn't seem likely, I'm afraid. No de. You need to be nobility for that, and the sad truth is I'm anything but noble.
I have no memory of why I was there. Someone must have asked me to go along, but who that person was has long since evaporated from my mind. I can't even recall where the party was held — uptown or downtown, in an apartment or a loft — nor my reason for accepting the invitation in the first place, since I tended to shun large gatherings at the time, put off by the din of chattering crowds, embarrassed by the shyness that would overcome me in the presence of people I didn't know. But that night, inexplicably, I said yes, and off I went with my forgotten friend to wherever it was he took me.
What I remember is this: at one point in the evening, I wound up standing alone in a corner of the room. I was smoking a cigarette and looking out at the people, dozens upon dozens of young bodies crammed into the confines of that space, listening to the mingled roar of words and laughter, wondering what on earth I was doing there, and thinking that perhaps it was time to leave. An ashtray was sitting on a radiator to my left, and as I turned to snuff out my cigarette, I saw that the butt-filled receptacle was rising toward me, cradled in the palm of a man's hand. Without my noticing them, two people had just sat down on the radiator, a man and a woman, both of them older than I was, no doubt older than anyone else in the room — he around thirty-five, she in her late twenties or early thirties.
They made an incongruous pair, I felt, Born in a rumpled, somewhat soiled white linen suit with an equally rumpled white shirt under the jacket and the woman (whose name turned out to be Margot) dressed all in black. When I thanked him for the ashtray, he gave me a brief, courteous nod and said My pleasure with the slightest hint of a foreign accent. French or German, I couldn't tell which, since his English was almost flawless. What else did I see in those first moments? Pale skin, unkempt reddish hair (cut shorter than the hair of most men at the time), a broad, handsome face with nothing particularly distinctive about it (a generic face, somehow, a face that would become invisible in any crowd), and steady brown eyes, the probing eyes of a man who seemed to be afraid of nothing. Neither thin nor heavy, neither tall nor short, but for all that an impression of physical strength, perhaps because of the thickness of his hands. As for Margot, she sat without stirring a muscle, staring into space as if her central mission in life was to look bored. But attractive, deeply attractive to my twenty-year-old self, with her black hair, black turtleneck sweater, black mini skirt, black leather boots, and heavy black makeup around her large green eyes. Not a beauty, perhaps, but a simulacrum of beauty, as if the style and sophistication of her appearance embodied some feminine ideal of the age.
Born said that he and Margot had been on the verge of leaving, but then they spotted me standing alone in the corner, and because I looked so unhappy, they decided to come over and cheer me up — just to make sure I didn't slit my throat before the night was out. I had no idea how to interpret his remark. Was this man insulting me, I wondered, or was he actually trying to show some kindness to a lost young stranger? The words themselves had a certain playful, disarming quality, but the look in Born's eyes when he delivered them was cold and detached, and I couldn't help feeling that he was testing me, taunting me, for reasons I utterly failed to understand.
I shrugged, gave him a little smile, and said: Believe it or not, I'm having the time of my life.
That was when he stood up, shook my hand, and told me his name. After my question about Bertran de Born, he introduced me to Margot, who smiled at me in silence and then returned to her job of staring blankly into space.
Judging by your age, Born said, and judging by your knowledge of obscure poets, I would guess you're a student. A student of literature, no doubt. NYU or Columbia?
Columbia, he sighed. Such a dreary place.
Do you know it?
I've been teaching at the School of International Affairs since September. A visiting professor with a one-year appointment. Thankfully, it's April now, and I'll be going back to Paris in two months.
So you're French.
By circumstance, inclination, and passport. But Swiss by birth.
French Swiss or German Swiss? I'm hearing a little of both in your voice.
Born made a little clucking noise with his tongue and then looked me closely in the eye. You have a sensitive ear, he said. As a matter of fact, I am both — the hybrid product of a German-speaking mother and a French-speaking father. I grew up switching back and forth between the two languages.
Unsure of what to say next, I paused for a moment and then asked an innocuous question: And what are you teaching at our dismal university?
That's a rather broad subject, wouldn't you say?
More specifically, the disasters of French colonialism. I teach one course on the loss of Algeria and another on the loss of Indochina.
That lovely war we've inherited from you.
Never underestimate the importance of war. War is the purest, most vivid expression of the human soul.
You're beginning to sound like our headless poet.
I take it you haven't read him.
Not a word. I only know about him from that passage in Dante.
De Born was a good poet, maybe even an excellent poet — but deeply disturbing. He wrote some charming love poems and a moving lament after the death of Prince Henry, but his real subject, the one thing he seemed to care about with any genuine passion, was war. He absolutely reveled in it.
I see, Born said, giving me an ironic smile. A man after my own heart.
I'm talking about the pleasure of seeing men break each other's skulls open, of watching castles crumble and burn, of seeing the dead with lances protruding from their sides. It's gory stuff, believe me, and de Born doesn't flinch. The mere thought of a battlefield fills him with happiness.
I take it you have no interest in becoming a soldier.
None. I'd rather go to jail than fight in Vietnam.
And assuming you avoid both prison and the army, what plans?
No plans. Just to push on with what I'm doing and hope it works out.
Penmanship. The fine art of scribbling.
I thought as much. When Margot saw you across the room, she said to me: Look at that boy with the sad eyes and the brooding face — I'll bet you he's a poet. Is that what you are, a poet?
I write poems, yes. And also some book reviews for the Spectator.
The undergraduate rag.
Everyone has to start somewhere.
Not terribly. Half the people I know want to be writers.
Why do you say want? If you're already doing it, then it's not about the future. It already exists in the present.
Because it's still too early to know if I'm good enough.
Do you get paid for your articles?
Of course not. It's a college paper.
Once they start paying you for your work, then you'll know you're good enough.
Before I could answer, Born suddenly turned to Margot and announced: You were right, my angel. Your young man is a poet.
Margot lifted her eyes toward me, and with a neutral, appraising look, she spoke for the first time, pronouncing her words with a foreign accent that proved to be much thicker than her companion's — an unmistakable French accent. I'm always right, she said. You should know that by now, Rudolf.
A poet, Born continued, still addressing Margot, a sometime reviewer of books, and a student at the dreary fortress on the heights, which means he's probably our neighbor. But he has no name. At least not one that I'm aware of.
It's Walker, I said, realizing that I had neglected to introduce myself when we shook hands. Adam Walker.
Adam Walker, Born repeated, turning from Margot and looking at me as he flashed another one of his enigmatic smiles. A good, solid American name. So strong, so bland, so dependable. Adam Walker. The lonely bounty hunter in a CinemaScope Western, prowling the desert with a shotgun and six-shooter on his chestnut-brown gelding. Or else the kind hearted, straight-arrow surgeon in a daytime soap opera, tragically in love with two women at the same time.
It sounds solid, I replied, but nothing in America is solid. The name was given to my grandfather when he landed at Ellis Island in nineteen hundred. Apparently, the immigration authorities found Walshinksky too difficult to handle, so they dubbed him Walker.
What a country, Born said. Illiterate officials robbing a man of his identity with a simple stroke of the pen.
Not his identity, I said. Just his name. He worked as a kosher butcher on the Lower East Side for thirty years.
There was more, much more after that, a good hour's worth of talk that bounced around aimlessly from one subject to the next. Vietnam and the growing opposition to the war. The differences between New York and Paris. The Kennedy assassination. The American embargo on trade with Cuba. Impersonal topics, yes, but Born had strong opinions about everything, often wild, unorthodox opinions, and because he couched his words in a half-mocking, slyly condescending tone, I couldn't tell if he was serious or not. At certain moments, he sounded like a hawkish right-winger; at other moments, he advanced ideas that made him sound like a bomb-throwing anarchist. Was he trying to provoke me, I asked myself, or was this normal procedure for him, the way he went about entertaining himself on a Saturday night? Meanwhile, the inscrutable Margot had risen from her perch on the radiator to bum a cigarette from me, and after that she remained standing, contributing little to the conversation, next to nothing in fact, but studying me carefully every time I spoke, her eyes fixed on me with the unblinking curiosity of a child. I confess that I enjoyed being looked at by her, even if it made me squirm a little. There was something vaguely erotic about it, I found, but I wasn't experienced enough back then to know if she was trying to send me a signal or simply looking for the sake of looking. The truth was that I had never run across people like this before, and because the two of them were so alien to me, so unfamiliar in their affect, the longer I talked to them, the more unreal they seemed to become — as if they were imaginary characters in a story that was taking place in my head.
I can't recall whether we were drinking, but if the party was anything like the others I had gone to since landing in New York, there must have been jugs of cheap red wine and an abundant stock of paper cups, which means that we were probably growing drunker and drunker as we continued to talk. I wish I could dredge up more of what we said, but 1967 was a long time ago, and no matter how hard I struggle to find the words and gestures and fugitive overtones of that initial encounter with Born, I mostly draw blanks. Nevertheless, a few vivid moments stand out in the blur. Born reaching into the inside pocket of his linen jacket, for example, and withdrawing the butt of a half-smoked cigar, which he proceeded to light with a match while informing me that it was a Montecristo, the best of all Cuban cigars — banned in America then, as they still are now — which he had managed to obtain through a personal connection with someone who worked at the French embassy in Washington. He then went on to say a few kind words about Castro — this from the same man who just minutes earlier had defended Johnson, McNamara, and Westmoreland for their heroic work in battling the menace of communism in Vietnam. I remember feeling amused at the sight of the disheveled political scientist pulling out that half-smoked cigar and said he reminded me of the owner of a South American coffee plantation who had gone mad after spending too many years in the jungle. Born laughed at the remark, quickly adding that I wasn't far from the truth, since he had spent the bulk of his childhood in Guatemala. When I asked him to tell me more, however, he waved me off with the words another time.
I'll give you the whole story, he said, but in quieter surroundings. The whole story of my incredible life so far. You'll see, Mr. Walker. One day, you'll wind up writing my biography. I guarantee it.
Born's cigar, then, and my role as his future Boswell, but also an image of Margot touching my face with her right hand and whispering: Be good to yourself. That must have come toward the end, when we were about to leave or had already gone downstairs, but I have no memory of leaving and no memory of saying good-bye to them. All those things have been blotted out, erased by the work of forty years. They were two strangers I met at a noisy party one spring night in the New York of my youth, a New York that no longer exists, and that was that. I could be wrong, but I'm fairly certain that we didn't even bother to exchange phone numbers.
I assumed I would never see them again. Born had been teaching at Columbia for seven months, and since I hadn't crossed paths with him in all that time, it seemed unlikely that I would run into him now. But odds don't count when it comes to actual events, and just because a thing is unlikely to happen, that doesn't mean it won't. Two days after the party, I walked into the West End Bar following my final class of the afternoon, wondering if I might not find one of my friends there. The West End was a dingy, cavernous hole with more than a dozen booths and tables, a vast oval bar in the center of the front room, and an area near the entrance where you could buy bad cafeteria-style lunches and dinners — my hangout of choice, frequented by students, drunks, and neighborhood regulars. It happened to be a warm, sun-filled afternoon, and consequently few people were present at that hour. As I made my tour around the bar in search of a familiar face, I saw Born sitting alone in a booth at the back. He was reading a German newsmagazine (Der Spiegel, I think), smoking another one of his Cuban cigars, and ignoring the half-empty glass of beer that stood on the table to his left. Once again, he was wearing his white suit — or perhaps a different one, since the jacket looked cleaner and less rumpled than the one he'd been wearing Saturday night — but the white shirt was gone, replaced by something red — a deep, solid red, midway between brick and crimson.
Curiously, my first impulse was to turn around and walk out without saying hello to him. There is much to be explored in this hesitation, I believe, for it seems to suggest that I already understood that I would do well to keep my distance from Born, that allowing myself to get involved with him could possibly lead to trouble. How did I know this? I had spent little more than an hour in his company, but even in that short time I had sensed there was something off about him, something vaguely repellent. That wasn't to deny his other qualities — his charm, his intelligence, his humor — but underneath it all he had emanated a darkness and a cynicism that had thrown me off balance, had left me feeling that he wasn't a man who could be trusted. Would I have formed a different impression of him if I hadn't despised his politics? Impossible to say. My father and I disagreed on nearly every political issue of the moment, but that didn't prevent me from thinking he was fundamentally a good person — or at least not a bad person. But Born wasn't good. He was witty and eccentric and unpredictable, but to contend that war is the purest expression of the human soul automatically excludes you from the realm of goodness. And if he had spoken those words in jest, as a way of challenging yet another anti- militaristic student to fight back and denounce his position, then he was simply perverse.
From Invisible by Paul Auster. Copyright 2009 by Paul Auster. Published by Henry Holt and Co. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.
Paul Auster's fans know that beginning with his earliest work — his 1985-86 New York Trilogy, which revolves around a detective named Max Work — he has drawn upon the fast pacing, structure and noirish sleights of hand common to detective stories. He starts off with a mystery, sprinkles his pages with clues and constructs numerous elaborate scenarios in which Auster-like narrators find themselves randomly drawn into moments of violence or sexual pleasure.
His latest novel, Invisible, continues this tradition. It begins during the Vietnam era, a time of political turmoil and sometimes violent intergenerational conflict, when espionage and skulduggery infiltrated intellectual circles and university campuses.
Like most Auster novels, Invisible nests stories within stories. The first of four sections is set in 1967 and narrated by Adam Walker, a young poet studying at Columbia (Auster's alma mater). After a chance meeting, Adam is lured into a sexual triangle by an older man, a charismatic French visiting professor, Rudolf Born, and his girlfriend Margot.
Adam is aglow with youthful ambition, lust and self righteousness. His instinctive reaction to the enigmatic Born is to find him repellent. Yet he agrees to edit a literary magazine Born has offered to fund. Their enmeshment is in place when a random act of street violence triggers Adam's outrage at Born. His search for truth bedevils Adam for decades.
This first section of Invisible, it turns out, is the beginning of a memoir Adam is writing about his disturbing relationship with Born. In 2007, dying from leukemia, he has contacted Jim, a college classmate who became a successful author, and has asked for advice. Jim agrees to read the forthcoming sections of the memoir and is drawn into Adam's struggle to decipher the riddle of Rudolph Born.
Throughout the novel, Auster makes sure we are complicit in that search. We're with him, sifting through conflicting information, wondering who is telling the truth. Adam? Or Rudolph? After 40 years, can anyone's memory be trusted?
Some of Auster's novels are so solipsistic as to be virtually unreadable. And, indeed, there are scrappable moments in Invisible, as when Jim offers writing advice to Adam: "By writing about myself in the first person, I had smothered myself and made myself invisible. ... I needed to separate myself from myself, to step back and carve out some space between myself and my subject (which was myself) ..."
But Invisible won me over. Underlying Auster's game-playing is a powerful moral imagination. And he is superb at illuminating the ongoing reinvention of the self, and the subtle ways in which we collaborate with those who would seduce, deceive and betray us.
Welcome to the first issue of "What We're Reading." At NPR, we cover a lot of books every week. Among those, there are always a handful of standouts — the great reads as well as the books whose buzz-level makes them impossible to ignore. "What We're Reading" brings you our book team's shortlist of new fiction and non-fiction releases, along with candid reactions from our reporters, hosts and critics.
By Barbara Kingsolver
The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver's first novel in nine years, mixes fiction and history to tell the story of Harrison Shepherd. Born of a Mexican mother and American father, Shepherd spends his life straddling the two cultures. After chance meetings with artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, he gets a job working for them and lives in their colorful and dramatic household. There, he gets to know Leon Trotsky, then exiled in Mexico. Shepherd's friendships with these larger-than-life characters set him on his own course toward a confrontation with history.
The Lacuna opens with a bang, quickly drawing the reader into Shepherd's complicated but compelling early years in Mexico. Later, the historical figures who enter his life — Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and Leon Trotsky — dominate the narrative, and Shepherd's story gets a bit lost. For me, the book bogged down at this point. But Shepherd's brush with history sets the stage for a sobering and surprising ending that left this reader well-satisfied.— Lynn Neary, books and publishing correspondent
Hardcover, 528 pages, Harper, list price: $26.99, pub. date: Nov. 3
By Jonathan Safran Foer
The writer of the novels Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close might not seem like an obvious choice to write a book about the ethics and economics of eating meat, but Jonathan Safran Foer found himself examining the issue closely once he became a dog owner. In Eating Animals, he considers the philosophical underpinnings of meat-eating, goes out on visits to factory farms to check out the issues for himself, and ultimately asks readers to consider their own choices against the backdrop of the way modern food production actually works.
I liked it. It's part memoir, part investigative journalism — a departure from what Foer's done in the past. But he still uses a novelist's pen. It's very well-researched; for every four pages I think there's one page of footnotes. Foer studied philosophy, so there's a philosophical tone — a kind of conversation with himself in which the reader is a fly on the wall. But it's not preachy. It didn't turn me into a vegetarian, but it certainly made me think about it.— Guy Raz, host, Weekend All Things Considered
Hardcover, 351 pages, Little, Brown and Co., list price: $25.99, pub. date: Nov. 2
The End of the World As We Know It
By Ken Auletta
The subtitle of Ken Auletta's book is The End Of The World As We Know It, which gives you some idea of just how important he believes Google to be. Googled is not the first book about the rise of the titans of search (and other businesses), but Auletta, a media columnist for The New Yorker, prides himself on his 2 1/2 years of research and broad access to the company. Combining anecdotes about the founders and others who make the company work with efforts to use Google as a metaphor for the broader digital revolution, Auletta attempts to explain the company's functioning and mind-set while drawing lessons that apply beyond its very famous doors.
I've met some of these people, and Auletta really does nail something about them — a peculiar mix of goofiness, arrogance and brilliance. My only critique is that sometimes he falls victim to the Silicon Valley spin army. But I was not bored. For someone who wants to understand what is without a doubt one of the most important companies in history, this is a very readable way to get a grasp of the players, the technology and its implications.— Laura Sydell, digital culture correspondent
Given the absence of a shapely narrative or a strong point of view, Googled reads as a timeline skimming across the key moments in the company's history and providing rote miniature profiles of the key players— Troy Patterson, NPR reviewer
Hardcover, 400 pages, Penguin Press, list price: $27.95, pub. date: Nov. 3
By Philip Roth
Philip Roth's new work, The Humbling, is about an aging actor who loses his touch and retreats from his work, only to enter into an intense (and explicitly described) affair with a significantly younger lesbian. The book is already controversial: a review in The Guardian condemned it as "scandalous frippery" (as perhaps only The Guardian would do), but other evaluations have been more positive, crediting the book for being provocative and thoughtful. Roth's latest may be brief at 160 pages — more a novella than a novel — but he hasn't lost the ability to drive discussion.
[The Humbling] blooms brightly in the extraordinarily fecund garden of [Roth's] late work ... A swift but piercing, uncluttered but nuanced morality tale about a once powerful stage actor.— Heller McAlpin, NPR reviewer
Hardcover, 160 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, list price: $22, pub. date: Oct. 21
By Paul Auster
In the 25 years since the publication of his memoir The Invention Of Solitude, Paul Auster has developed a reputation as a writer of challenging fiction that combines elements from crime stories to ghost stories to — as sometimes seems inevitable for serious writers — visions of dystopia. Invisible, his fourth novel in the past five years, begins during the Vietnam era, a time of political turmoil and sometimes violent intergenerational conflict, when a young poet becomes entangled in the lives of a French professor and his girlfriend. A random act of street violence triggers a search for justice that covers four decades and settings from Morningside Heights to Paris to the West Indies.
An absorbing literary thriller, my favorite Paul Auster novel to date. I read it aloud to my husband in installments on a road trip, and we were caught up in the mystery's unfolding all the way to the final scenes. — Jane Ciabattari, NPR reviewer