Pat Nixon, the wife of one of the most well-known politicians in recent American history, somehow managed to remain a private public figure throughout crisis and scandal. So who was Mrs. Nixon? That's the question award-winning author Ann Beattie aims to answer in an unconventional novel. Mrs. Nixon isn't quite fact, and it isn't quite fiction. With both humor and gravity, Beattie pieces together letters, conversations, imagined sketches and even literary criticisms to craft an insightful portrait of the former first lady. Though the novel does include fictionalized moments of Nixon's life, Beattie tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer she was careful to distinguish those moments from the factual ones.
In an election year, nasty rhetoric is par for the course. But what if toxic language was actually toxic? That's the premise of Ben Marcus' The Flame Alphabet, in which a husband and wife begin feeling sick, though they're not sure why. When their teenage daughter leaves the house, the couple recovers, leading them to wonder if their daughter's speech is poisoning them. Soon it becomes clear that the sickness is spreading beyond their small Jewish community. NPR critic Jason Diamond calls Marcus "undoubtedly a strong stylist," and praises the way the book "builds like a dirge as Sam's marriage rots, his child becomes his torment and obsession, and the world marches inexorably toward chaos and decay." But, he says, "this is bare-bones science fiction ... not because it's so alien but because it is so sketchily rendered."
Bookstore owner Rona Brinlee says of Jonathan Odell's novel The Healing, "Just as The Help took on segregation in the 1960s, The Healing takes on slavery in the 1860s. The healing in this novel comes from Polly Shine, a midwife and healer bought by the master of a Mississippi plantation to cure slaves dying from disease. But Polly ... also brings hope, and hope's a dangerous thing on a plantation. She singles out one slave in particular, Granada, as a gifted healer and introduces her to the idea of Freedomland. Freedomland is not a place; it's the ability to say 'yes' or 'no,' and to choose. But to Granada it's a concept that's hard to understand. ... It's in retelling the story of Polly Shine some 75 years later that Granada finally understands what Polly was trying to tell her."
Portlandia, the Independent Film Channel's comedy juggernaut about Portland, Ore., now gets its own travel guide that leads readers through the landmarks, restaurants and bookstores so cleverly satirized on the show. Written by the team that created the show -- Saturday Night Live cast member Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, a former Sleater-Kinney band member and former NPR Music blogger — the book employs symbols that help readers quickly zero in on offerings for vegans, freegans and seagans, in venues ranging from wheelchair-accessible to skateboard-accessible to Segway-accessible.
In this inventive and insightful memoir, Seattle artist Ellen Forney chronicles her bipolar disorder diagnosis and struggles with mental stability through cartoons, realistic illustrations and photographs of the sketchpads that have played a central role in her recovery. For inspiration, she looks to other artists and creative people throughout history who have been labeled "crazy," including Vincent van Gogh, Georgia O'Keeffe and Sylvia Plath.
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.