Noteworthy paperbacks

October 20, 2012 

Illuminations by Arthur Rimbaud. Translated by John Ashbery. (Norton) Rimbaud, the bohemian artist who died of cancer in Marseilles in 1891, at age 37, produced an influential body of poetry while still in his teens. The intensely visual prose poems in this collection – a “crystalline jumble,” as Ashbery calls them in his adept translation – develop a wealth of images (industrial, theatrical, royal, natural, nostalgic) by leaps of personal association.

Jerusalem: The Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore. (Vintage) From King David’s establishment of Jerusalem as his capital to the 1967 war and more recent events, Montefiore packs this 3,000-year history with details of the kings, killers, prophets, pretenders, caliphs and crusaders who have ruled and ravaged the city.

Stay Awake: Stories by Dan Chaon. (Ballantine) Chaon’s 12 tales of fractured families and anxious souls demonstrate the uneasy power of horror fiction. Someone glimpses through a window a figure not of this world. A widower’s crippling grief begins to look a lot like schizophrenia.

Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock by David Margolick. (Yale University) It’s an iconic photograph of the 1957 integration of Little Rock Central High School: in it, Elizabeth Eckford, one of the “Little Rock Nine,” walks past the school while Hazel Bryan, a student there, screams racial epithets. Margolick, who interviewed both women, provides a patient and evenhanded account of their fraught relationship over the decades.

The Maid by Kimberly Cutter. (Mariner/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) Cutter vividly evokes medieval France in this novel of Joan of Arc, who led an army at 17, facilitated the coronation of the rightful king and is often credited with turning the tide of the Hundred Years’ War. The narrative, framed by scenes of Joan in prison shortly before her death, begins with the moment she first hears God’s voice in the fields at age 12.

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker. (Penguin) Are humans essentially good or bad? Has the past century seen moral progress or moral collapse? In seeking to prove that rates of violence have fallen and to explain why, Pinker, a Harvard psychologist, draws on recent research in history, psychology, cognitive science, economics and sociology. (His theory features “six trends, five inner demons, four better angels and five historical forces.”)

We the Animals by Justin Torres. (Mariner/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) Three brothers navigate their parents’ tumultuous marriage in Torres’ first novel, a series of elliptical vignettes set in upstate New York.

Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents by Ian Buruma. (Princeton University) Buruma writes intimately about the relationship between politics and faith in Britain, the Netherlands, France, China, Japan and the U.S. – uncovering ironies that wreak havoc with popular stereotypes.

New York Times

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