Tuesday, February 18, 2014

New Nonfiction from Michael Sims, Umberto Eco, Penelope Lively, Humaira Awais Shahid, and Alain de Botton.

It's Tuesday, so my natural inclination is to walk to the front of the store and see what Jason has put in the Boswell's Best and New and Noteworthy cases. This is different from me running a report on what comes out on February 18, or if we're talking Penguin hardcovers, February 13 or 20, though I suspect that will change when they consolidate warehouses. So sometimes these books will be several weeks old, but they are new to me, which is why sometimes a customer will ask you about a "new" book that turns out to be a decade old.

Firstly there's The Adventures of Henry Thoreau: A Young Man's Unlikely Path to Walden Pond (Bloomsbury), from Michael Sims. The author who wrote The Story of Charlotte Web reveals (in the publisher's words) how the booking and quirky young man evolved into the patron saint of environmentalism. Rebeca Solnit, sort of a walking academic, or perhaps better termed an academic on walking, calls the work "a splendid piece of research and a superb introduction to the young writer, thinker, and insurrectionary."  Maureen Corrigan reviews on NPR.

Keeping to a natural history vibe, there is also From the Tree to the Labyrinth: Historical Studies on the Sign and Interpretation (Harvard), from Umberto Eco. True confession: I thought the only thing natural about this book is the pretty trees on the jacket and even they are tinged blue. The truth is however that Eco's book is about classification, including that of the natural world, into genus and species, and it is his premise that this is derived from the Neo-Platonist (I wanted to say Platonic, but that is apparently something else entirely) ideal of the Tree of Knowledge. Wlad Godzich of UC Santa Cruz offers praise that "this is a book that will enjoy a wide readership." Yes, I hear that From the Tree to the Labyrinth is next month's Penny's Pick at Costco. Very pretty book it is, though the white type on a pale green background makes me think that the designer is 22, at the oldest.

While I can't say too much about the book guts (I'm going with a fishing theme for this one), I really like the jacket for the Penelope Lively memoir, Dancing Fish and Other Ammonites (Viking). Ammonites, for those who want to know, are an extinct group of molluscs. Penelope Lively is very much not extinct; in fact she is, per some unnamed reviewer at The New York Times Book Review, "one of our most talented writers," since it is very rare that the editorial board of the NYTBR get together to make such a proclamation. Fitzgerald chronicles her own life, from when she was a fingerling in Cairo to her pre-spawning days at an English boarding school. You also may know (I remember this from my ex-coworker Catherine) that she's very hot on archaeology. Helen McAlpin in The Washington Post calls the work a"fascinating, clear-eyed but chilly meditation on the elements that add up to a life."

Another life is explored in Devotion and Defiance: My Journey in Love, Faith, and Politics (Norton). Humaira Awais Shahid, with the help of Kelly Horan tells of being one of the most prominent Muslim women activists and a legislator for women's rights in Pakistan. Having grown up a bookish young woman who identified with the independent-minded heroines of Jane Austen Virginia Woolf, and the Brontë Sisters, she never dreamed where love, with the Ednan Shahid of a prominent newspaper family, would take her (per the publisher).  Kirkus Reviews calls this, "a poignant story of a happy partnership that encouraged one Pakistani woman to face her oppressors."

If I was a better citizen, I would have been able to tell you all about Shahid without referring to publisher copy, but I am still, despite my attempts to keep up with the news, riddled with knowledge holes. Perhaps I should next tackle Alain de Botton's The News: A User's Manual (Pantheon). De Botton offers help on how to make sense of the news, offering 25 archetypal news stories, including an airplane crash, a murder, and a celebrity inerview, submitting each to unusually intense analysis. Unsual? It's clear the person who wrote the copy on the flap didn't know Alain de Botton very well. Kevin Canfield reviews the book for the San Francisco Chronicle. He seemed to like it, though he thought the suggestions were a bit "Ivory Tower." I'm waiting for the De Botton interview on On the Media.

That's our new release news of the week.

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