7 New Books to Read This Spring

Our picks for the season's best page turners

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Living with a Wild God

by Barbara Ehrenreich; Twelve


Raised by atheists, trained as a scientist, Ehrenreich wants nothing to do with faith, religion or a compassionate, benevolent God. But in her 60th year, she comes across a journal in which her teenage self recorded a series of mystical experiences. Compelled to revisit those encounters with the ineffable, she realizes that her entire life—including decades of work for social justice—has been an attempt to integrate those moments when “something peeled off the visible world, taking with it all meaning, inference, association, labels, and words.” Intellectually meticulous, relentlessly self-examining, Ehrenreich pulls no punches as she tries to come to terms with the fact that “there are uncountable algorithms at work in the physical world, writhing and reaching, pulling matter and energy into their schemes, acting out of what almost seems to be an unquenchable playfulness. Sometimes, out of all this. . .the Other assembles itself and takes form before our very eyes.”-Pam Houston 


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Frog Music

By Emma Donoghue; Little, Brown


The sweltering, smallpox-infected streets of San Francisco in the summer of 1876 are no place for the faint of heart. It’s a frontier town that has attracted the “scum of the world,” including the exasperating yet brilliant Blanche Beunon, the alabaster-skinned burlesque dancer–prostitute heroine of the latest novel by the author of Room. This fast-paced murder mystery shuttles forward and back in time, revealing truths at one point, lies at another, but ultimately we do find out exactly what happened one drunken night in Eight Mile House when Blanche’s world was blown wide open. The ditties and other songs scattered among the pages of this pulsing story are telling, speaking of innocence as well as debauchery, fierce love and sugarcoated treachery—the very stuff of Blanche’s young life, in fact, and of the boomtown that Donoghue conjures so well.  –Elaina Richardson


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"Family Life"

by Akhil Sharma; W.W. Norton & Co.


Soon after his family immigrates from India, nine-year-old Ajay’s older brother suffers calamitous brain damage in a swimming pool accident. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, and as Akhil Sharma’s novel Family Life follows Ajay into young adulthood, it evokes the isolating, suffocating privacy of tragedy. And yet for all the particularities of Ajay’s despair—the alternating rage and remoteness of his parents, the shame of his own self-preservation—the story is amazingly resonant, capturing as it does the innocence, confusion and secret strangeness of every childhood. Flashes of confessional humor crackle at the book’s edges, and a ferocious tenderness burns in its center, all of it adding up to something very much, if not exactly, like hope. —Catherine Newman


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You Feel So Mortal

by Peggy Shinner; University of Chicago Press


Part anatomical memoir, part social history, this set of captivating essays is linked less by theme than by the author’s wildly ranging, radiant curiosity. Shinner pursues such fresh pairings as shoplifting and sexuality, flat feet and Jewishness, and posture and subjugation to give us a head-to-toe, birth-to-death inventory of embodied life: mortality, identity, family, love. At the book’s heart is a yearning interest in personhood—in something like the soul—even as its corporeal substance remains for Shinner, as for the millennia of philosophers, anatomists and theologians before her, entirely and perfectly elusive. –Catherine Newman


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New Life, No Instructions

by Gail Caldwell; Random House


Gail Caldwell magically transforms the prosaic misery of hip-replacement surgery into an absorbing meditation on grief and rebirth in midlife. At 57, raw from a devastating “string of losses”—her best friend, father, mother and, finally, beloved companion dog—she finds herself not just “pummeled by death but reshaped by it, poised now at some crucial junction between darkness and endurance.” The discovery that a decade of excruciating leg pain, misdiagnosed as the legacy of childhood polio, is actually arthritis, and fixable, opens her eyes to the miracle of second chances. The book, quiet but powerful, offers the reader the same promise of renewal. “The narrative,” Caldwell notes, “can always turn out to be a different story from what you expected.”  -Carol Mithers


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By Elizabeth McCracker; Dial Press


How to cobble together a life in the face of inevitable tragedy? For the characters in Elizabeth McCracken’s Thunderstruck & Other Stories (Dial Press), there is no easy wisdom. A couple whisk their troubled teenager off to Paris in order to restore the family equilibrium, but after the girl suffers a traumatic brain injury, the presence—or absence—of hope becomes a splinter between the parents. A pair of bankrupt spouses take in every misfit animal while their indulged, alcoholic son sells the house out from under them. McCracken writes gorgeously sharp and insistent prose; her stories dazzle, uniquely angled and original.  –Victoria Redel


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Love & Treasure

by Ayelet Waldman; Knopf


Prolific and sometimes controversial, Waldman (Bad Mother) has written a sweeping romantic novel of overlapping generations, crossed continents and wartime echoes—a drenched, tragic love story rooted in one of our darkest moments of history, the Holocaust. Transported by cinematic dialogue, readers will sink into Waldman’s rich descriptions as she zigzags among characters who are united by a mysterious stolen treasure: a beautiful pendant adorned with a bejeweled peacock. There is American soldier Jack, whose sense of honor and Jewish identity are tested in the chaos of World War II Hungary; fierce, grieving Ilona, the concentration camp survivor he loves “for her very brokenness”; the ambivalent psychoanalyst Dr. Zobel in 1913 Budapest and his free-spirited patient Nina; and Natalie, Jack’s modern-day granddaughter, the aimless spitfire who finds a purpose at last. Waldman muses on theft and restitution, both practical and spiritual, and on the love we treasure no matter the cost. –Susanna Sonnenberg


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Next: Can't-Miss Spring Books


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Avery Powell
First published in the April 2014 issue

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