Noteworthy paperbacks

April 27, 2013 

A Disposition to Be Rich: Ferdinand Ward, the Greatest Swindler of the Gilded Age by Geoffrey C. Ward. (Vintage) In 1880, Ferdinand Ward persuaded Ulysses S. Grant to become a partner in a brokerage house that reported astonishing profits but was really a vast Ponzi scheme. (It blew up in 1884, causing panic on Wall Street and bankrupting Grant.) Geoffrey C. Ward scrupulously documents his great-grandfather’s rise to riches and fame, and his even more dizzying fall from grace.

The O’Briens by Peter Behrens. (Anchor) In Behrens’s previous novel, “The Law of Dreams,” a young man flees the Irish potato famine. This impressive sequel follows several generations of his family, from the wilds of Quebec at the turn of the 20th century through California, New York, Europe and finally to Maine in the 1960s. The dominant figure is Joe O’Brien, the backwoods boy turned family patriarch and railroad magnate.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson. (Grove) Winterson’s autobiographical first novel, “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit” (1985), marked her as a daring new voice. Now her vivid memoir wrings humor from adversity as she recounts her eccentric Pentecostal upbringing in England by a deranged mother. (The book’s title is the question Winterson’s mother asked after discovering her daughter was a lesbian.)

Blue Monday by Nicci French. (Penguin) Frieda Klein, a London psychotherapist and this novel’s cerebral protagonist, treats a patient haunted by dreams of a child exactly like a little redheaded boy who has been kidnapped and is presumed dead – and just like another child who went missing under similar circumstances many years ago.

Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution by Rebecca Stott. (Spiegel & Grau) Chastised after the publication of “On the Origin of Species,” Charles Darwin later tried to credit the natural philosophers who laid the groundwork for his theory of evolution. Stott provides a lively account of these “pathfinders, iconoclasts and innovators,” from Aristotle and the ninth-century Arab writer al-Jahiz to Leonardo da Vinci and Alfred Russel Wallace.

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson. (Grove) In an unnamed Middle Eastern state, the Arab-Indian hacker of Wilson’s exhilarating first novel shields clients from surveillance: pornographers in Saudi Arabia, Islamic revolutionaries in Turkey, bloggers in Egypt. Driven underground by the state security force, he comes in possession of a legendary book that could unleash a new level of information technology.

Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power by Rachel Maddow. (Broadway) The MSNBC host argues that the path to war has become too easy, with an expansion of presidential power, a corresponding collapse of congressional backbone and the outsourcing of war-making capabilities to private companies.

The Red House by Mark Haddon. (Vintage Contemporaries) Two estranged families spend a week together in the English countryside in this chaotic, absorbing novel. Haddon weaves the stories of eight very different people, tracing the line between quirky relationships and dysfunctional ones.

New York Times

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