What We're Reading: Week of Nov. 1, 2009A new weekly feature spotlights staff picks of standout books. This week, new novels from Barbara Kingsolver, Philip Roth and Paul Auster. Jonathan Safran Foer makes the case against Eating Animals, and Ken Auletta's Googled profiles one of the world's most significant companies.
Welcome to the first issue of "What We're Reading." 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 non-fiction releases, along with candid reactions from our reporters, hosts and critics.
The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver's first novel in nine years, mixes fiction and history to tell the story of Harrison Shepherd. Born of a Mexican mother and American father, Shepherd spends his life straddling the two cultures. After chance meetings with artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, he gets a job working for them and lives in their colorful and dramatic household. There, he gets to know Leon Trotsky, then exiled in Mexico. Shepherd's friendships with these larger-than-life characters set him on his own course toward a confrontation with history.
The Lacuna opens with a bang, quickly drawing the reader into Shepherd's complicated but compelling early years in Mexico. Later, the historical figures who enter his life — Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and Leon Trotsky — dominate the narrative, and Shepherd's story gets a bit lost. For me, the book bogged down at this point. But Shepherd's brush with history sets the stage for a sobering and surprising ending that left this reader well-satisfied.-- Lynn Neary, books and publishing correspondent
The writer of the novels Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close might not seem like an obvious choice to write a book about the ethics and economics of eating meat, but Jonathan Safran Foer found himself examining the issue closely once he became a dog owner. In Eating Animals, he considers the philosophical underpinnings of meat-eating, goes out on visits to factory farms to check out the issues for himself, and ultimately asks readers to consider their own choices against the backdrop of the way modern food production actually works.
I liked it. It's part memoir, part investigative journalism — a departure from what Foer's done in the past. But he still uses a novelist's pen. It's very well-researched; for every four pages I think there's one page of footnotes. Foer studied philosophy, so there's a philosophical tone — a kind of conversation with himself in which the reader is a fly on the wall. But it's not preachy. It didn't turn me into a vegetarian, but it certainly made me think about it.-- Guy Raz, host, Weekend All Things Considered
Hardcover, 351 pages, Little, Brown and Co., list price: $25.99, pub. date: Nov. 2
The subtitle of Ken Auletta's book is The End Of The World As We Know It, which gives you some idea of just how important he believes Google to be. Googled is not the first book about the rise of the titans of search (and other businesses), but Auletta, a media columnist for The New Yorker, prides himself on his 2 1/2 years of research and broad access to the company. Combining anecdotes about the founders and others who make the company work with efforts to use Google as a metaphor for the broader digital revolution, Auletta attempts to explain the company's functioning and mind-set while drawing lessons that apply beyond its very famous doors.
I've met some of these people, and Auletta really does nail something about them — a peculiar mix of goofiness, arrogance and brilliance. My only critique is that sometimes he falls victim to the Silicon Valley spin army. But I was not bored. For someone who wants to understand what is without a doubt one of the most important companies in history, this is a very readable way to get a grasp of the players, the technology and its implications.-- Laura Sydell, digital culture correspondent
Given the absence of a shapely narrative or a strong point of view, Googled reads as a timeline skimming across the key moments in the company's history and providing rote miniature profiles of the key players-- Troy Patterson, NPR reviewer
Philip Roth's new work, The Humbling, is about an aging actor who loses his touch and retreats from his work, only to enter into an intense (and explicitly described) affair with a significantly younger lesbian. The book is already controversial: a review in The Guardian condemned it as "scandalous frippery" (as perhaps only The Guardian would do), but other evaluations have been more positive, crediting the book for being provocative and thoughtful. Roth's latest may be brief at 160 pages — more a novella than a novel — but he hasn't lost the ability to drive discussion.
[The Humbling] blooms brightly in the extraordinarily fecund garden of [Roth's] late work ... A swift but piercing, uncluttered but nuanced morality tale about a once powerful stage actor.-- Heller McAlpin, NPR reviewer
In the 25 years since the publication of his memoir The Invention Of Solitude, Paul Auster has developed a reputation as a writer of challenging fiction that combines elements from crime stories to ghost stories to — as sometimes seems inevitable for serious writers — visions of dystopia. Invisible, his fourth novel in the past five years, begins during the Vietnam era, a time of political turmoil and sometimes violent intergenerational conflict, when a young poet becomes entangled in the lives of a French professor and his girlfriend. A random act of street violence triggers a search for justice that covers four decades and settings from Morningside Heights to Paris to the West Indies.
An absorbing literary thriller, my favorite Paul Auster novel to date. I read it aloud to my husband in installments on a road trip, and we were caught up in the mystery's unfolding all the way to the final scenes. -- Jane Ciabattari, NPR reviewer
Hardcover, 320 pages, Henry Holt and Co., list price: $25, pub. date: Oct. 27