Set in Philip Roth's hometown, Newark, N.J., during the steamy summer of 1944, Nemesis concerns a polio epidemic that flares up in the city's Jewish Weequahic section. Bucky Cantor, an idealistic, much-admired 23-year-old gym teacher who has been rejected by the military because of his poor vision, takes the epidemic personally, and rails at God for "the murderous persecution of Weequahic's innocent children." There's a retro, stage-set feel to scenes played out on urban stoops and back porches, but Roth is still capable of pulling off the gorgeous finale.
David Sedaris, humorist and personal essayist extraordinaire, takes on selfishness, bigotry, righteousness, loneliness and other all-too-human foibles in 16 animal fables, a la Jean de La Fontaine and Aesop. They are as hilarious and slyly trenchant as his beloved stories about his sisters, Santaland and smoking. Most of Sedaris' critters are struggling to make sense of a tough, unfair world. You've got to love a writer whose empathy extends even to a sensitive potbellied pig, causing him to wonder who came up with names like "largemouth bass, humpback whale, lesser wart-nosed horseshoe bat — not caring whose life was ruined."
According to Isabel Wilkerson, America's greatest domestic movement began around 1917 and ended in 1975, an epoch during which millions of black American citizens fled Southern towns and cities, with their elaborate and complicated tapestries of Jim Crow laws, for the relative freedoms of the North. Wilkerson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for the New York Times, has taken what many would consider an indigestible chunk of information and given us an extraordinarily palatable narrative, much of it told through the eyes of three emblematic migrants.
After years of taking readers around the globe with his witty travel writing, author Bill Bryson has pointed his compass to his own house in the English countryside. In At Home: A Short History of Private Life, Bryson explores the history of the world through the rooms of his home and the objects that fill them. The book traces the history of hallways and attics and the origins of dining rooms and chimneys. Bryson also finds historical surprises in everyday objects of domesticity — from the four-tined fork in the drawer to the mousetrap in the study.
While lovingly celebrating the wisdom of her working-class Italian-American grandmothers — on pursuing careers while raising children, and keeping a good figure and a thriving marriage — novelist Adriana Trigiani offers a fascinating look at U.S. history from their perspective. Her grandmother Viola was a machine operator and later owned a mill with her husband, while Lucia worked in a factory, became a seamstress, opened a storefront as a couturiere and ran a shoe store. The nostalgia can be thick, but the lessons are comforting.
Charlotte Abbott edits "New in Paperback." A contributing editor for Publishers Weekly, she also leads a weekly chat on books and reading in the digital age every Friday from 4-5 p.m. ET on Twitter. Follow her at @charabbott or check out the #followreader hashtag.