Mat Johnson's biting satire Pym is driven by an African-American literature professor's obsession with Edgar Allan Poe's only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. When professor Chris Jaynes is denied tenure for teaching Poe instead of Ralph Ellison, he journeys to Antarctica to investigate a claim that Poe's outlandish novel was based on fact. NPR Senior Editor Luis Clemens says "Pym is an amusing, dazzling and, at times, excruciating meditation on race. Among [its] many targets: diversity committees, Morehouse Men and the "Painter of Light" Thomas Kinkade. Johnson upends the centuries-long literary discussion of what it means to be black in America and asks what it means to be white in America."
Hector Tobar, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for the Los Angeles Times, is a California native — but the immigrant's story is never far from his consciousness, since his parents came to the U.S. from Guatemala. As the debate about undocumented immigrants erupted, Tobar decided he wanted to explore those immigrants' tenuous status and the interdependence between those who are served and those who are doing the serving, using fiction as his vehicle. Thus, The Barbarian Nurseries was born. Its smart, grumpy heroine, 26-year-old Araceli Ramirez, is an astute observer of the privileged SoCal lifestyle, particularly as the family she works for hits hard times. Yuppies, immigrants, politicians and vigilantes — Tobar has them all come together for a perfect California ending.
Playwright Ayad Akhtar's debut novel, American Dervish, tells the story of Hayat Shah, a Pakistani-American boy in Milwaukee coming to terms with his religion and identity. Akhtar says he drew from the sensibilities of Jewish writers and filmmakers like Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and Woody Allen when thinking about how to give form to his experiences growing up as a young Muslim in the Midwest. His novel presents many different sides of what it means to be Muslim in America. There's Hayat's father, a secular humanist who doesn't want to be bound by the limits of scripture. Then there's his mother's best friend, Mina, who practices a progressive version. Hayat initially follows Mina's lead, then turns to a more conservative, literal version of Islam after Mina starts dating a Jewish man.
When comedian Mike Birbiglia opened his one-man show Sleepwalk With Me in 2008 at the Bleecker Street Theatre in New York, he didn't anticipate that it would become material for a popular piece on This American Life, or a best-selling collection of humorous essays, or a feature film, co-written and produced by This American Life host and creator Ira Glass. Like the film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, the book Sleepwalk With Me and Other Painfully True Stories explores Birbiglia's inability to commit to his girlfriend, his adventures as an aspiring comedian and a sleep disorder that led him to jump out of a second-floor hotel window. In the book, Birbiglia also details several painfully embarrassing moments from his childhood, and his recovery from bladder cancer in college, with a charm and poignancy that shines through his attempts at ironic distance.
Journalist and media entrepreneur Steven Brill helicoptered into the education debate with articles in The New Yorker and The New York TimesMagazine about educational failures in New York City's public schools. His ambitious follow up is Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America's Schools, a comprehensive history and analysis of the standards-and-accountability school reform movement. "[B]y the closing chapters of his breezy, 478-page tome, Brill sounds far less like an uncritical fan of charter school expansion, Teach for America (TFA) and unionbusting," says Dana Goldstein, "and far more like, well, a guy who has spent several years immersed in one of the thorniest policy conversations in America, thinking about a problem — educational inequality — that defies finger-pointing and simple solutions."
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.