This week: the new Lemony Snicket book, a police procedural with a mind-bending resolution, and a 1,000-page gargantuan masterwork that's worth every penny of its $75 price tag.
Paradox: The Nine Greatest Enigmas in Physics by Jim Al-Khalili (Broadway) - Tailor-made for puzzle fans and science aficionados. Al-Khalili’s (Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed) latest dives into “deep questions about the nature of time and space and the properties of the Universe”—and shows just how tantalizing these problems can be. Al-Khalili, a quantum physicist at the University of Surrey, sets the stage for well-known problems like the “Monty Hall paradox,” in which a contestant’s attempt to guess which of three boxes contains the keys to a Lincoln Continental provides an object lesson in conditional probabilities. With ancient Greek scholar Zeno’s paradox (if a tortoise gets a head start in racing the swift Achilles, can Achilles overtake his laggardly opponent?), the author explores converging infinite series in mathematics. A chapter on Maxwell’s Demon (can there be a perpetual motion machine) gives a lesson in thermodynamics, and the infamous puzzler starring Erwin Schrödinger’s hapless cat provides a quick lesson on quantum mechanical basics. Al-Khalili even tackles relativity and time travel with the “Twin Paradox.” This is a fun, lighthearted, and accessible book. Read Al-Khalili's essay on the nature of paradoxes.
The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg (Grand Central) - A panoply of neurotic characters fills Attenberg’s multigenerational novel about a Midwestern Jewish family. Shifting points of view tell the story of the breakup and aftermath of Edie and Richard Middlestein’s nearly 40-year marriage as Edie slowly eats herself to death. Richard and his brilliant but demanding and ever larger wife raised two children. Robin is intense and hostile; Benny lives an idyll with his wife, Rachelle, in the Chicago suburbs, sharing a joint after putting their twins to bed at night. Much of Rachelle’s time is spent assuring that the twins’ b’nai mitzvah extravaganza goes off without a hitch. When complications surrounding Edie’s diabetes precipitate Richard’s filing for divorce, the already tightly wound Rachelle becomes obsessed with the family’s physical and moral health. This is a wonderfully messy and layered family portrait. Check out Attenberg's favorite dysfunctional families in literature.
Hush Hush by Steven Barthelme (Melville House) - Barthelme’s new book is less a set of linked short stories than narratives that cohere with thematic chiming. Protagonists in similar predicaments advance an idea and play upon one another from tale to tale: a narrator faces the impending death of his father, and in the next story, a character deals with a father figure’s death. A man named Quinn recurs: in “Interview,” he leaves his comfortable job and wife in favor of fixing cars back in Texas. In “Coachwhip,” Quinn’s son, in the midst of a fistfight, considers his father’s failings. In “Acquaintance,” Quinn flies to Boston to attempt to find a signed copy of his deceased mentor’s failed novel. Quinn’s struggles reflect those of others, people on the outs, either clinging to or running from a lost idea or person. With great humor and insight, Barthelme explores the psyche of desperate people striving to connect, with others and with themselves.
The Stockholm Octavo by Karen Engelmann (Ecco) - Political and social intrigue are merged through the medium of the mystical card layout called the Octavo in this debut novel of maneuvering aristocrats and striving tradesmen in late 18th-century Stockholm. In the reign of the alternately enlightened and autocratic King Gustav III, his brother Karl and the society doyenne known as the Uzanne scheme to return control of Sweden to the nobility, opposed secretly by the mysterious gambling club owner Sofia Sparrow, whose prophetic visions link Gustav with the doomed king and queen of France. Engelmann has crafted a magnificent, suspenseful story set against the vibrant society of Sweden’s zenith, with a cast of colorful characters balanced at a crux of history.
The Hollow Man by Oliver Harris (Harper) - British author Harris’s searing first novel, a noir police procedural, features the anti-est of antiheroes, Det. Constable Nick Belsey, who wakes up one morning on Hampstead Heath, bruised, bloody, keyless, walletless, watchless, homeless, and bankrupt. From this low point, Belsey undertakes a personal investigation into the apparent suicide of Alexei Devereux, a high-flying international financier, whose ritzy Hampstead house becomes his secret pied-à-terre for his attempt to use Devereux’s resources as startup capital to escape the mess he’s made of his life. Readers should be prepared for a mind-bending resolution that hurtles down as remorselessly as an avalanche.
Ask the Passengers by A.S. King (Little, Brown) - One of the best coming-out novels in years. High school senior Astrid Jones moved from New York City to Unity Valley, Pa., with her family years ago, but it still doesn’t feel like home. Astrid isn’t comfortable labeling herself gay (“I’m not in this to be a member of some club. I’m not going through this so I can lock myself in the one of them box”), and the community’s homophobia and aggressive rumor mill weigh heavily on her. When several secrets become public, Astrid’s relationships are further strained, and she copes by silently sending love to the passengers of airplanes flying overhead (whose brief stories indicate they can sense Astrid’s questions and feel the love she unleashes) and carrying on imaginary conversations with Socrates. Funny, provocative, and intelligent, King’s story celebrates love in all of its messy, modern complexity.
The Poems of Octavio Paz by Octavio Paz, edited and trans. from the Spanish by Eliot Weinberger (New Directions) - Paz (1914–1998), who won the Nobel Prize in 1990, dominated Mexican letters during the last decades of his life; his influence was global, and his powers of invention beyond dispute. This ambitious bilingual selection (far from complete, despite the title) is the first to span his career. Readers new to Paz will notice consistencies—self-consciousness about words and meanings, as “Syllables/ ripen in the mind,/ flower in the mouth”; erotic passion; reliance on common nouns (sun, flame, leaves); and a sense of poetic authority—“listen to me as one listens to the rain.” And yet the same readers may marvel at Paz’s variety: haiku-like miniatures; the tempestuous book-length poem “Sunstone”; fast-moving prose poems; abstract odes; extended descriptions of places in Mexico, India, Afghanistan, and Japan. An authoritative translation that should get sustained U.S. attention, and one that often sounds right read aloud.
On Politics: A History of Political Thought: From Herodotus to the Present by Alan Ryan (Norton/Liveright) – A gargantuan history divided into two books. Book 1: From Herodotus to Machiavelli is remarkably detailed yet highly readable, giving much attention to the great founding texts like Plato’s Republic, but also including Ryan’s strong, almost polemical positions. Book 2: From Hobbes to the Present , picks up with the turn of the 17th century, and details modern movements like republicanism and imperialism, as well as approaching the problem of modern democracy with real concern. These two volumes constitute a remarkable achievement, one that will be immensely valuable to both students and readers for years to come.
Who Could That Be at This Hour? by Lemony Snicket (Little, Brown) – Snicket returns with the first in the projected four-volume All the Wrong Questions series, supplying "autobiographical" accounts of his unusual childhood. Nearly 13 when the book opens, Snicket is beginning his apprenticeship for a mysterious organization under the tutelage of dimwitted S. Theodora Markson, who is ranked dead last in effectiveness by the agency but who may be the source of Snicket's tic of defining vocabulary pedantically. Straight answers are hard to find as Snicket and Markson investigate a theft in a seaside town that's been drained of its sea, encountering deception and double crosses at every turn. Full of Snicket's trademark droll humor and maddeningly open-ended, this will have readers clamoring for volume two.
The Tale of the Heike trans. from the Japanese by Royall Tyler (Viking) - This modern translation of the Japanese medieval classic tracing the rise and fall of the Taira (Heike) clan reads like the Iliad filtered through Akira Kurosawa, with battlefield panoramas and personal tragedies captured in an exquisitely cinematic narrative. Eight centuries of oral tradition have transformed historical figures into legends, none more so than Taira no Kiyomori, the 12th-century warlord who, by suppressing rebellions and putting relatives into key positions, rises so quickly through the imperial hierarchy that he forgets fundamental principles of Japanese epics: earthly possessions are transient; fear the angry dead. Following his noteworthy translation of The Tale of Genji, Tyler offers accessible language while observing literary tradition in names and format. To help both old hands and newcomers navigate the vibrant yet sometimes arduous masterpiece, he provides an introduction, character list, maps, genealogies, chronologies, footnotes, and glorious 19th-century illustrations.