by Rachel Arons and Andrea DenHoed)
“A Farm Dies Once a Year” (Henry Holt), by Arlo Crawford, out April 1st. Arlo Crawford grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania, where his parents moved, in the seventies, after his father dropped out of law school. Crawford spent his younger years trying to get away from rural living, which made him feel isolated and anxious. But, at thirty-one, living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and finding himself “bored and dissatisfied,” he decided to move back to his parents’ farm for a summer. He writes, “I guess I figured that at the farm I’d be busy enough that I wouldn’t need to worry all the time that I wasn’t doing anything important with my life.” In this memoir, he writes about that season, which unexpectedly became a time of reconnecting with the rhythms of farming, investigating the twenty-year-old murder of a local farmer, and coming to understand the hard, unpredictable life his parents chose. He provides an unembellished but evocative account of the romantic myths, harsh realities, and genuine allure of American rural life.—A.D.
“Frog Music” (Little, Brown and Company), by Emma Donoghue, out April 1st. Donoghue’s eighth novel, her follow-up to the best-selling “Room,” from 2010, takes place in 1876, amid a heat wave and smallpox outbreak in the underbelly of post-gold-rush San Francisco. Loosely based on an actual unsolved crime from that period, the story follows the French burlesque dancer Blanche Beunon as she investigates the murder of her friend Jenny Bonnet, who was killed when a bullet sailed through the window of the saloon where they boarded, on the seamy, stifling outskirts of town. The women’s friendship unfolds in flashback: Blanche is drawn to Jenny—a trouser-wearing iconoclast who makes a living hunting frogs for the French and Chinese restaurants in town—despite her feeling that the “City by the Bay is demanding enough without the company of someone who runs toward risk like a child to bonbons.” Blanche’s investigation leads her on a search for the men who have absconded with her infant son.—R.A.
“The Empathy Exams” (Graywolf), by Leslie Jamison, out April 1st. Jamison’s searching, self-reflexive essays address seemingly unrelated topics—her experience as a medical actor, a literary conference in Mexico, Morgellons disease, sentimentality—but they are closely linked by her overarching inquiry into how people experience pain, what it means to understand others’ suffering, and the limits of our capacity to do so. A doctoral candidate in English at Yale and the author of the novel “The Gin Closet,” Jamison writes with sober precision and unusual vulnerability, with a tendency to circle back and reëxamine, to deconstruct and anticipate the limits of her own perspective, and a willingness to make her own medical and psychological history the objects of her examinations. Her insights are often piercing and poetic: “Empathy might be, at root, a barter, a bid for others’ affection: I care about your pain is another way to say I care if you like me.”—R.A.
“Infinitesimal: How a Dangerous Mathematical Theory Shaped the Modern World” (Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux), by Amir Alexander, out April 8th. The paradoxical idea of infinitesimal quantities preoccupied ancient Greek mathematicians, especially Archimedes, who used the concept to calculate volumes of circles, cylinders, and spheres. But the mathematical mysteries the idea presented were largely ignored until the fifteen-hundreds, when the problem of the infinitesimal became a source of philosophical dispute. In his new book, Alexander, a professor of history at U.C.L.A., explains how the mathematical debate was a battle over differing visions for modern Europe, between those who sought to protect the status quo and those who embraced progress and reform. The divide was most pronounced in Italy, where the Jesuits opposed Galileo’s ideas about infinity, and in Interregnum England, where a “drawn-out gladiatorial fight” took place between Thomas Hobbes and the mathematician John Wallis. Alexander writes that “the infinitely small was a simple idea that punctured a great and beautiful dream: that … all things, natural and human, have their given and unchanging place in the grand universal order.”—R.A.
“A Poet’s Glossary” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), by Edward Hirsch, out April 8th. This seven-hundred-page collection of poetry-related vocabulary includes entries about many familiar rhyme schemes, traditions, and literary devices (iambic pentameter, spoken word, synecdoche) and many obscure ones, spanning a multiplicity of poetic traditions across time periods and regions: from the Urdu elegy (marsiya) and Arabic picaresque story (maqāma) to gaucho poetry contests (payada, payador) and medieval French nonsense poems (fatras). The absorbing, often lengthy definitions are full of Hirsch’s passion. In his entry on meter, he writes that its pleasure is “physical and intimately connected to bodily experience—to the heartbeat and the pulse, to breathing, walking, running, dancing, working, lovemaking.”—R.A.
“In Paradise” (Riverhead), by Peter Matthiessen, out April 8th. In Matthiessen’s new novel, Clements Olin—an American scholar of Polish descent and an expert in Slavic literature—attends a retreat at Auschwitz in 1996, as part of his research on the Polish Holocaust survivor Tadeusz Borowski. Olin arrives at the death camp with a scholarly aloofness toward the other attendees, and a general skepticism about the project of bearing witness—“the term strikes his ear as anachronistic and over-earnest.” But in the course of the weeklong retreat, tensions arise within the diverse group of attendees, and Olin makes discoveries about his own family history that transform his relationship to the Holocaust. The eighty-six-year-old Matthiessen, a three-time National Book Award winner and a co-founder of the Paris Review, has attended several Zen retreats at Auschwitz; he told the Times, last September, that he has wanted to write about the Holocaust for a long time, but felt unqualified because he’s not Jewish: “Only fiction would allow me to probe from a variety of viewpoints the great strangeness of what I had felt.”—R.A.
“Lost and Found in Johannesburg,” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), by Mark Gevisser, out April 15th. Gevisser, an award-winning South African author and journalist, has written extensively about race, sexuality, and politics in his home country. (His previous books include a widely praised biography of the former President Thabo Mbeki and an anthology of stories about the lives of gay and lesbian South Africans.) This memoir deals with the same issues, but in an intensely personal mode: the author recalls the development of his own awareness of politics and identity. His story is built around maps and geographies. As a young boy, Gevisser, whose family is white and Jewish, loved poring over the street map of Johannesburg, tracing routes between various destinations. Gradually, he realized that the map didn’t show the roads to certain parts of town, and others—like the Soweto township—didn’t appear at all. This discrepancy between the physical reality and the official account of life in South Africa becomes a theme, as Gevisser recounts his early realization of apartheid, his first explorations into the forbidden world of the gay community, and a recent armed intrusion at the home of a privileged white friend. He is unflinching in his account of the complex contradictions that still haunt his country.—A.D.
“Casebook” (Knopf), by Mona Simpson, out April 15th. In the opening scene of Simpson’s new novel, Miles Adler-Hart is hiding under his parents’ bed. He’s trying to eavesdrop on his mother (“the Mims,” he calls her), convinced that she is having vital conversations with the moms of the other kids in his fourth-grade class to decide how much TV he will be allowed to watch. Instead, he stumbles into the breakup of his parents’ marriage. Their divorce and relationships with new partners are shown through the eyes of Miles, who snoops deep into his parents’ adult lives, but has limited understanding of what he discovers there. There’s warm humor and deep feeling in its portrayal of the vulnerability and messiness of family life.—A.D.
“The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch” (Penguin), by Lewis Dartnell, out April 17th. This book poses a thought experiment: Civilization as we know it has fallen apart, perhaps because of a plague, war, or natural disaster. Social institutions and technological infrastructure have crumbled. Would it be possible to reboot modern life by following a few basic principles of survival and technological development? Darnell, a researcher in astrobiology at the U.K. Space Agency, attempts to create a post-apocalyptic “quick-start guide” that tests whether “the key to preserving civilization is to provide a condensed seed that will readily unpack to yield the entire expansive tree of knowledge, rather than attempting to document the colossal tree itself.”—A.D.
“Thunderstruck and Other Stories” (The Dial Press), by Elizabeth McCracken, out April 22nd. “The soul is liquid, and slow to evaporate,” McCracken writes in “Something Amazing,” the opening story in this collection. “The body’s a bucket, and liable to slosh.” Trauma and grief run through these stories. It starts with “Something Amazing,” an eerie, obliquely narrated tale of a mother who, years after the death of her young daughter, finds solace by taking in a lost child whose own parents are about to experience a devastating loss. The book closes with the title story, in which the parents of a twelve-year-old girl make a desperate, misguided attempt to keep her from slipping away. The stories between these bookends deal with various configurations of loss—librarians at a public library after a regular patron is murdered, a man who clears out a house he planned to move into with his wife before she died unexpectedly. McCracken’s writing is dark and weirdly funny, exploring the fragility of people and communities.—A.D.