It's tough to find fiction ambitious enough to tackle the story of a run-of-the-mill job, a humdrum family; but, if the mundane matters to you, then Stewart O'Nan is your man. O'Nan wrote a quietly best-selling novel called Wish You Were Here about a squabbling family that is gathering for its yearly vacation in the first summer after the death of its patriarch. Now, O'Nan has written a moody, lightly comic and absolutely captivating sequel, called Emily, Alone, about that most unsensational of subjects: widowhood and old age. With economy, wit and grace, O'Nan ushers the reader into the shrinking world of a pleasantly flawed, rather ordinary old woman and keeps us transfixed.
Heroine Diana Bishop is a Yale professor spending a year at Oxford. Her amazing intellect is aided by "a prodigious, photographic memory" — and that's not all she has going for her: She's described as an "extraordinary" actress and a disciplined athlete who is constantly rowing or jogging. You sort of want to kick her. But A Discovery of Witches turns out to be a fine story that's increasingly charming, centered on Bishop's discovery of a manuscript that promises to unleash all sorts of magical mayhem. Bright plot twists and details based on her studies of the history of science and of really good wine makes this a shrewdly written romp and a satisfying snow-day read.
From Confucius to Oprah, people have preached compassion for centuries. But how often is it put into practice? Karen Armstrong believes religion, which should advocate for compassionate living, is often part of the problem. In Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, she describes ways to add kindness to daily routines. The golden rule, a commonality throughout religion and guiding force for compassion, "asks you to look into your own heart, discover what gives you pain, and then refuse under any circumstance whatsoever to inflict that pain on anyone else." It's tricky because each situation and individual must be evaluated differently, but making space for the other "in our minds and our hearts and our policies" is essential to Armstrong.
Strict, uncompromising values and discipline are what makes children raised by Chinese parents successful. That's the message of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, the controversial parenting book by Yale Law professor Amy Chua, which espouses punishingly hard work that yields excellence, which in turn yields satisfaction. The success of this strategy is hard to dispute. Older daughter Sophia is a piano prodigy who played Carnegie Hall when she was 14 or so. The second, more rebellious daughter, Lulu, is a gifted violinist. As Chua admits, though, the Chinese model doesn't dwell on happiness, nor does it deal well with failure. Some of the most hilarious parts of her memoir deal with her attempts to apply Chinese parenting methods to the family's two dopey Samoyed puppies.
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.