If you start reading Patricia Marx's new novel in public, you might just find yourself snorting out loud — with some explaining to do. The book, Starting from Happy, is a sharp-edged love story told in 618 minichapters. It's sprinkled with quirky line drawings of origami instructions, pie charts and pasta shapes also penned by Marx, who writes a shopping column for The New Yorker and is a former writer for Saturday Night Live. "I kind of wanted to reverse the conventional roles of man and woman in a romantic comedy," Marx tells NPR's Melissa Block, "with the man being much more ardent; the woman being much more committed to her work and committed to not making any commitments."
When feisty drama teacher Fran Heller joins the staff of Eleanor Roosevelt High School, the faculty, students and parents welcome her and eagerly anticipate the controversial play she directs: Lysistrata, Aristophanes' centuries-old comedy in which the women of Greece go on a sex strike to stop the Peloponnesian War. Soon though, it's the women of Stellar Plains, N.J., who are withholding sex from their husbands and boyfriends — as the victims of a mysterious and not-talked-about bewitchment. In The Uncoupling, best-selling author Meg Wolitzer delivers a fast, fun read that asks us to re-examine the experiences we accept unthinkingly. In this 21st century parable, desire is enchanting, but its sudden absence can feel like a curse.
Immigrant stories have an important place in American fiction, and this Korean one has a fresh twist. Soo Ja Choi wants to be a diplomat, but her family of prominent factory owners won't help her, since it involves moving to Seoul and going to school, which would ruin her reputation. Instead, they push her to pick one of two suitors, but she chooses the wrong one — a dishonorable man with a family who is not only mean, but bad at business. And though she does not want to emigrate to solve her problems, that's what she does. She's not your average "American" heroine — passionate, yes, but also practical and calculating. Perhaps that's the kimchee in this culturally rich story: It's not what you're used to, but you might learn to love it.
Information sharing through the ages prompts James Gleick to consider African drum languages, Morse code, telegraphs, telephones, the Internet, quantum mechanics, thermodynamics, genetics and more. But one person stays throughout the story for almost 400 pages: Claude Shannon, an engineer and mathematician who worked at Bell Labs in the mid-20th century — and who created what is now called information theory. He was the first to point out the deep connection between entropy and information science, Gleick says. Though it may seem paradoxical to link information to disorder, Gleick explains that each new bit of information is a surprise — if you knew what a particular message contained, there would not be information in it.
Why do we have the ability to think about the past or to plan for the future? Where do we get the ability to create works of art, to be moved by a piece of beautiful music or to feel bad when someone says something hurtful? All of these things are possible because of consciousness. But knowing that doesn't explain why we have consciousness or how it evolved or what purpose it serves. Antonio Damaisio has been tackling these questions for 30 years, and in his new book he says he has grown dissatisfied even with his own account of the problem. The book explains his thinking on consciousness and why it has changed.
Journalist Joshua Foer took a stab at mental athleticism, and not only did he compete at the USA Memory Championship but he set a U.S. memory record. In his new book, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, Foer investigates the nature of memory and his own unexpected journey. He first attended the contest as a science journalist and was surprised to discover that most competitors did not even have photographic memories; rather, they had simply trained their brains — which they claimed were "average" — to think in more memorable ways. So Foer spent the better part of a year cultivating his memory and trying to understand how it works, and why it sometimes fails.
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.