Noteworthy paperbacks

March 8, 2014 

Why Priests? A Failed Tradition, by Garry Wills. (Penguin) Wills – who as a young man spent more than five years in a Jesuit seminary – finds only a dubious foundation for the Roman Catholic priesthood, and its religious powers, in the books of the New Testament. Using his linguistic skills and his impressive command of both secondary literature and patristic sources, the author doesn’t advocate its elimination, but asks, “Why did the priesthood come into a religion that began without it and, indeed, opposed it?”

The River Swimmer: Novellas, by Jim Harrison. (Grove Press) The men in these two charming novellas – set in the woods and farmlands of northern Michigan that are Harrison’s literary stamping grounds – experience the triumph and torment of being alive, at the watershed ages of 17 and 60. Times reviewer Ron Carlson called these stories “trenchant and visionary.”

Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy, by Emily Bazelon. (Random House) Focusing primarily on the experiences of a few bullied children, this intelligent, rigorous book synthesizes the scholarship on how to contain or prevent such harm in an age when the problem isn’t confined to schools but is also, as Bazelon notes, “on our computer screens and phones for all to see.”

The Pretty One: A Novel About Sisters, by Lucinda Rosenfeld. (Back Bay/Little, Brown) Three siblings wriggle out from under the categories (pretty, perfect, political) they’ve been saddled with since childhood in Rosenfeld’s appealingly dark novel: Olympia, the “pretty one” of the title, is 38 and has never felt so alone; Perri, who runs her own company and keeps an immaculate home, has stopped sleeping with her husband; and Gus, an activist spitfire newly separated from her girlfriend, is involved with a ditsy (male) skier.

Weird Life: The Search for Life That Is Very, Very Different From Our Own, by David Toomey. (Norton) Toomey leads a breakneck tour through the edges of organic chemistry, planetary science, nuclear physics and cosmology as he investigates the earthly organisms that thrive in the most extreme conditions, and speculates about what might exist in the far reaches of the universe.

The Miniature Wife: And Other Stories, by Manuel Gonzales. (Riverhead) Zombies, unicorns, shrink rays – an ordinary world is beset by unusual phenomena in this excellent debut. In “Pilot, Copilot, Writer,” a hijacked plane circles a city for 20 years.

Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-42, by William Dalrymple. (Vintage) Dalrymple, the author of “White Mughals” and “The Last Mughal,” seeks contemporary lessons in Britain’s disastrous 19th-century invasion (later called the First Afghan War), when British troops, after installing the exiled Shah Shuja on the throne as their puppet, were forced from Kabul and cut down in the mountains around the capital.

New York Times

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