8 Books to Read in November

Our take on new releases from Malcolm Gladwell, Donna Tartt, Elizabeth Gilbert and more

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The Goldfinch

by Donna Tartt; Little, Brown

 

A summary of Donna Tartt’s marvelous third novel must be brief and oblique in order to avoid spoilage: 13-year-old New Yorker Theo Decker blames himself for the death of his mother in a startling tragedy, one that connects him not only to the people who will foster and form him but also to the art world—particularly a lovely 17th-century Dutch painting of a captive goldfinch. Whisked away to Las Vegas by his weasel of a dad, Theo harbors a secret and makes a lifelong best friend, a Ukrainian classmate with secrets of his own; their lives will entwine in unexpected ways. Tartt (The Secret History) deftly surfs the zeitgeist (teenage druggies, the foreclosure crisis, international crime). But The Goldfinch is also deliciously Dickensian in scope and themes (loss, class, redemption, the power of art) and in its lovable, hateable, memorable characters. Though judicious pruning might have given the most brilliant passages more room to shine, the book is never less than a pleasure. As the artist Mae West is said to have purred, too much of a good thing is wonderful.  —Judith Stone

 

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The Signature of All Things

by Elizabeth Gilbert; Viking

 

Alma Whittaker, daughter of the greatest botanical mind and fortune of the 19th century, is a brilliant bryologist—that’s a student of moss—who craves knowledge and to be known herself. She’s a sensualist trapped in a spinster’s body. And while she pores over plants in Philadelphia and, later, Tahiti, the Civil War arrives, railroad tracks stitch up the country, and Darwin blows creation apart. This epic, intellectual novel is full of the era’s heavy historical reality, and yet it’s delightfully suspenseful and surprising, cinematic even and loads of fun. Gilbert is having a ball with the wonder and language of the time—words like quim and bedlamite grin from the pages—and you come away with the sense that she is, like her heroine, simply in love with the world.  —Catherine Newman

 

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Longbourn

by Jo Baker; Knopf

 

“Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery,” wrote Jane Austen. “I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can.” On the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice—and about time, some might say—Jo Baker has taken up that other pen with a vengeance. In this servant’s-eye view of life in the woefully understaffed Bennet household, she turns Austen upside down and gives her a good shake. Here, in vivid detail, are the endless hours, the filthy chamber pots, the family’s nonstop production of dirty linen. Here, too, are glimpses of war, torture, slavery (what trade did you say your family was in, Mr. Bingley?). Against all this odiousness, Baker pulls off a fabulous, galloping, gorgeously written Regency romance, starring a seriously overworked housemaid and a dashing footman who vanishes as mysteriously as he appeared. In the end, secrets are exposed (Mr. Bennet’s is particularly guilty), identities revealed, lovers reunited—and one can only imagine the fireworks to come. —Amanda Lovell

 

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Dirty Love

by Andre Dubus III, Norton

 

These four exquisite novellas are linked loosely by the coastal New England town in which they take place and more strongly by the particular ways their central characters fail, and fail again, and still manage to find hope so authentic—so earned—that it takes the reader’s breath away. Dubus is a master of description, always choosing metaphors that cut straight to the heart of his character’s predicament without compromising any of its emotional complexity. A bartender “worked the service bar but kept feeling the dark woman’s presence behind him like good news in a letter he wasn’t opening.” A teenage girl whose “new radiance shines not from the boy who has found her but from the chance to direct all the love that’s been pooling inside her.” This is the best kind of fiction: rendering humanness in all its vulnerability, each sentence crafted as though all our lives depend on it.  —Pam Houston

 

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David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants

by Malcolm Gladwell; Little, Brown

 

If the brain had a reset button, readers of Gladwell’s books (The Tipping Point et al.) would have worn it out by now. Here, abetted by anecdotes, plus a nifty inverted-U-shaped curve, he shows how, contrary to our preconceived notions, the distressed, the disabled, the downtrodden—and, crucially, the disagreeable, who couldn’t care less what you think—often succeed in life. David trounced Goliath because the big oaf didn’t expect a wiry kid with a slingshot. Lawyer David Boies clobbers opponents in court because being dyslexic (a “desirable difficulty”) taught him to pay scrupulous attention. On the flip side, so-called advantages (wealth, elite education) can morph into disadvantages. Tip: Read the endnotes—they may be more important than you think. —Cathleen Medwick

 

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Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life

by Dani Shapiro; Atlantic Monthly Press

 

In a collection of concise essays, Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life (Atlantic Monthly Press), Dani Shapiro explains that when she’s not practicing her art, her “senses are dulled.” Writing is, for those who cannot help it, a way of being that “requires courage, patience, persistence, empathy, openness, and the ability to deal with rejection.” Shapiro outlines the damnable distractions and the doubts but marvels, too, that “[the page] will keep you open and undefended . . . [It] will force you to expand your capacity . . . for astonishment.” Part passionate primer, part benediction, this is Shapiro’s love letter to a discipline and to the colleagues, students and readers who share its rigors and rewards. —Susanna Sonnenberg

 

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Thank You For Your Service

by David Finkel; Sarah Crichton Books/FSG

 

There’s war, and after-war. This quietly heartbreaking book by the best-selling author of The Good Soldiers focuses on the members and families of a Fort Riley, Kansas, battalion who are struggling with the physical and psychic legacy of service in Iraq. Adam Schumann, with “PTSD, depression, nightmares, headaches, tinnitus and mild traumatic brain injury,” is guilt-ridden and suicidal “about being a bad husband, a bad father, a disappointment”; Tausolo Aieti, 26, has memory impairment and recurring dreams of a dead friend who demands, “Why didn’t you save me?” Their wives vow “bottomless” patience, only to crash against the reality of life with men who veer from grief to violence. Finkel’s remarkable reporting and spare, poetic prose make this book as compellingly readable as a novel, but there’s no happy ending. Feeling terrible tenderness for these broken people isn’t the same as feeling hope. As a wife concludes—and she could be speaking for everyone—“Nothing will be as it was before.” —Carol Mithers

 

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Looking for Palestine

by Najla Said; Riverhead

 

As a girl, Najla Said straddled two worlds: the idyllic one presided over by her father, influential Palestinian scholar Edward Said—who hosted at his home such luminaries as Cornel West, Susan Sontag and Noam Chomsky—and the Upper East Side private school where she felt like a “dark-haired rat in a sea of blond perfection.” Expressed with warmth, humor and charm in Looking for Palestine (Riverhead), Najla’s ambivalence about growing up “Palestinian-Lebanese-American [and] Christian” while trying to pass for a Jew (to fit in somewhere) leads her to finally carve out a separate peace, one that aims to “connect with other people—not avoid them.” —Kristy Davis

 

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Next: 6 Fall Books to Devour
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First Published Fri, 2013-11-01 14:15

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