When British thriller writer Robert Harris set out to write his new novel, The Fear Index, he had 1984 and Frankenstein in mind. Drawing on his background as a political journalist, he also wanted to explore how humans fall victim to the domineering forces of their time, so he set his sights on global finance. Then, on May 6, 2010, something known as a "flash crash" happened on Wall Street: The Dow plummeted due, in part, to lightning-fast, computer-generated trades. That flash crash became a catalyst for The Fear Index, about a hedge fund, a scientist and his computer run amok. In the novel, Harris explores the idea that there has been a societal shift in power, not just from politicians to financiers and economists, but, increasingly, from humans to a network of millions of computers linked together.
Two lives unexpectedly intersect in Jennifer DuBois' debut novel, A Partial History of Lost Causes. One is a former chess prodigy who decides to challenge Vladimir Putin for the Russian presidency, and the other is an American woman in her 20s with Huntington's disease. NPR book critic Nancy Pearl elaborates: "We are first introduced to Aleksandr Bezetov in 1979, when he arrives in what was then Leningrad to attend a chess academy. We meet Irina Ellison in 2006, shortly after her father's difficult death from the genetic disease that will likely kill her, too." The two meet after Irina decides to confront Bezetov about a question her father first posed to him, about how he copes with games he knows he's going to lose. Pearl adds, "I really cared about Irina and Bezetov: Their attempts to outrun (or at least accept) their individual fates was both moving and tragically real."
In That Used To Be Us, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and author Michael Mandelbaum describe a country that used to be industrially advanced, exceptionally inventive, unusually educated, politically pragmatic and relatively egalitarian. "There's no question we've lost our way," Friedman tells NPR's Robert Siegel. "This problem started at the end of the Cold War. We made the biggest mistake a country and species can make: We misread our environment. We thought the Cold War was a victory and we could put our feet up. In fact, we had just unleashed ... 2 billion people just like us; people with our same aspirations, same capabilities. And just when we needed to be lacing up our shoes and running faster, we put our feet up." Friedman has ideas for solutions, but they all start by addressing one thing — the current political gridlock in Washington.
On an October night in 1859, 21 men staged a takeover of the Harpers Ferry national armory in what is today West Virginia. Though unsuccessful, the raid drew the nation's attention to its electrifying leader, a man named John Brown, and helped set the nation on the path to war. Brown went on to become perhaps one of the most polarizing figures in American history. In this biography, historian Tony Horwitz explores how the devout Calvinist and abolitionist is remembered — as a traitor and terrorist by some, and a hero by others. "Brown does not target innocents. He does not kill indiscriminately," Horwitz tells NPR's Neal Conan. "In fact, he treats his hostages at Harper's Ferry very well. And he has a clear target: the institution of slavery. So absolutely he uses fear. He sheds blood in the cause, in his cause. But I don't think we should sort of lump him with terrorists as that word has come to be understood today."
Food often serves as a lens to understanding our identity and values, but, according to The New Yorker's Adam Gopnik, what goes on the table has never mattered as much as what goes on around the table. In The Table Comes First, Gopnik traces 200 years of culinary and gastronomic history — with an emphasis on French traditions — to reveal where restaurants began, how our relationship with food and cooking evolved, and what that says about who we are and how we live. Ultimately, the author of Paris to the Moon concludes that, in a modern world dominated by pop-culture and moralistic influences, people have lost touch with the original purpose of gathering at the table.
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.