What We're Reading, Nov. 17 - 23, 2009This week's staff picks: Biographies from bad-boy Andre Agassi and 'Rogue' politician Sarah Palin. Stephen King returns to form in a new novel, and Zadie Smith fascinates in collected essays,.
At NPR, we cover a lot of books every week. Among those, there are always a handful of standouts — the great reads as well as the books whose buzz level makes them impossible to ignore. "What We're Reading" brings you our book team's shortlist of new fiction and nonfiction releases, along with candid reactions from our reporters, critics and staff.
Agassi covers a lot of ground in Open — the much-discussed drug use, yes, but also his hairpiece, his starting of little trash can fires to relieve stress, and his doomed marriage to Brooke Shields. Transformed from interview transcripts into tight, present-tense prose by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer J.R. Moehringer, Open begins and ends at Agassi's final tournament. Between those points, it traces his childhood with a violent and demanding father, his adolescent years at a hated tennis academy, and his uneven professional career and unlikely comeback. Open is a memoir, ending on a hopeful note with his dual embraces of philanthropy and family, but it's also a brutal diary of life as an aging elite athlete who has privately said for years — though few believed him — that he hates tennis.
The writing is fantastic. Aside from the story he tells, every page has a nice witticism or turn of phrase. I'm not a huge tennis fan, but it got me to pay attention to the characters involved. (The slowest part for me is when he describes matches, but this is what the real tennis fans will love.) This is different from a typical sports biography; you could take away tennis and put in any pursuit that comes to define a person's life. He tells a compelling story of a kid with an amazing skill who is pushed and twisted to become famous — and evolves as a person doing something he hates. It's nice that the guy he's developed into, the 39-year-old Agassi, has enough presence of mind to assess his life without anger or bias. ... I read over a lot of sports biographies, but this is the only one recently I wanted to finish.-- Mike Pesca, sports reporter
While Zadie Smith is probably known best as a novelist, Changing My Mind collects what she calls "occasional essays" — reflections on everything from books to her own family to her travels in Liberia. Smith is an intellectual, but without the remoteness that intellectual writing can bring. She's funny, sometimes sentimental, and clearly a pretty good sport. Divided into sections called Reading, Being, Seeing, and Feeling, the collection doesn't pause to apologize for or explain the tonal shifts that invariably arise when an interesting person turns from a warm recollection of her father to a barbed takedown of the film Memoirs Of A Geisha. And in a final section, Remembering, Smith revisits the work of David Foster Wallace and embraces the opportunity to passionately defend challenging writing itself.
I really recommend it. Zadie Smith is always surprising; she puts herself out there in a way that is appealing and sort of intoxicating. She's a high-minded intellectual with the best of them, but at base she's a blue-collar gal. So she sees things through different prisms... . It's like a travelog through popular culture. She writes about other writers, about movies — sometimes with a tart pen. It's always interesting to observe other writers talking about the craft. When she picks apart Foster Wallace or Pynchon or Joseph O'Neill, it's as if you're a member of Miss Zadie's book club. ... You don't have to read it straight through; it's the sort of book you can keep in your travel bag or by your bed and just dip into. On almost any page, you'll find something fascinating. -- Michele Norris, co-host, All Things Considered
A memoir of this controversial political figure's life, from her earliest memories in Alaska's tiny towns and snowy countryside, to her spectacular rise on the national political scene. Two themes dominate the book: Palin's rugged and folksy upbringing, and the intense persecution she says she's faced from the Republican establishment, the American left and the media — especially the media. More than half of Going Rogue details the 2008 presidential race, Palin's anger with how she was treated by the McCain campaign, and the things she would like to have done in those historic months.
Going Rogue starts off flowery, with slow descriptions of Alaska's frozen, crystal beauty. The story of her family and childhood is a standard American romance — hardworking, salt-of-the-earth people who raise their children and help their neighbors. But the book very quickly bares its true soul and purpose: It's full of anger as Palin lashes out at everything from the Alaska GOP to John McCain's campaign staff. In the end, Going Rogue comes off as a long (400+ pages), pent-up and resentful tirade from a politician who's angry with the spotlight that (she seems to believe) was forced upon her. -- Andrea Seabrook, congressional correspondent
The rap on Palin is that she's too shallow and inexperienced for the presidency — a conclusion that early Palin supporters like me came to during the 2008 campaign. Alas for conservatives in search of a champion, there's nothing in Going Rogue to challenge that conclusion. It's like this: Palin spends seven pages dishing about her appearance on "Saturday Night Live," but just over one page discussing her national security views.-- Rod Dreher, NPR reviewer and columnist for the 'Dallas Morning News'
A 1,000-page brick of a novel, Under The Dome features one of King's simpler what-if scenarios: What if a small town in Maine was suddenly surrounded by an invisible, impenetrable wall? Inside, he traps his usual enormous cast of characters — law enforcement, corrupt politicians, hapless victims, unlikely heroes, the obligatory wandering madman — and turns them loose. Sprawling and unwieldy in the opening pages, it narrows its focus to fewer and fewer people with less and less room to maneuver. How the baffling dome came to be matters surprisingly little; as always, King is far more interested in the way characters respond to a situation than he is in explaining the situation itself.
Under The Dome will feel familiar to anyone who's read The Stand and King's other massive multicharacter epics. But this is the kind of book he's best at, and it avoids some of the pitfalls of moralizing and blunt metaphors that have sometimes derailed him. It's not precious or overworked, and people who have been uninterested in his forays into high-minded myth and ruminations about writing itself will probably be pretty happy to see him return to writing long, layered parables about human behavior, which is what these books really are. -- Linda Holmes, Monkey See entertainment blogger
Books written about religion from a perspective other than theology are a hot property; think of Karen Armstrong's The Case For God or Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, to name two. Now comes Nicholas Wade, New York Times science writer, who argues that religion has an evolutionary function. It's a universal phenomenon, he says, because it gives humans an edge. Wade stresses two benefits religion conveys: It restrains aggression and encourages self-sacrifice for the community. Wade's previous book, Before The Dawn, covered human evolution more generally, and he's explained The Faith Instinct as an outgrowth of that research — one that is sure to spark plenty of discussion.
Wade writes in a very accessible way and does a good job covering all the recent research about the evolution of our religious instincts. And he's not polemical; he doesn't treat religious believers as deluded or ignorant. But you have to buy into the idea that there is no God in order to fully appreciate the book or entirely agree with it. Believers, people who've had experience of the transcendent, will say, "This is fine as far as it goes, but it doesn't capture the divine." It's like explaining the universe by talking about the Big Bang — it doesn't explain what happened before that moment, or whether there might be a "Big Banger."-- Barbara Bradley Hagerty, religion correspondent and author, 'Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality'