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“A Tale for the Time Being”
By Ruth Ozeki (Viking, $28.95)
Ozeki’s ingenious debut novel opens with a Japanese teenager’s chirpy diary, which a woman discovers on a beach in the Pacific Northwest. From that unlikely scenario, Ozeki weaves a contemplative novel about memory, the 2011 tsunami, the nature of uncertainty and Zen philosophy. The book rambles — Ozeki muses on quantum mechanics, tide patterns and Japanese school-bullying culture — yet it’s anchored in a deep appreciation for human connection, and Ozeki addresses it in ways that transcend the contrived worlds-in-collision plots of lesser novels.
By J.M. Ledgard (Coffee House Press, $15.95)
Ledgard’s magnificent second novel runs on two parallel tracks, following a British spy captured by Muslim extremists in Somalia and his girlfriend, a marine biologist preparing for a deep dive into the Greenland Sea. As the title suggests, “Submergence” deals with depths — of political extremes, of emotional need — and as Ledgard whipsaws the reader from luxurious hotels to soul-crushing prisons, he reveals the ways that faith and science support and upend our sense of utopia and order.
By Jonathan Lethem (Doubleday, $27.95)
Lethem needs nostalgia and music for his books the way steam engines need coal, and “Dissident Gardens” is no different: Set mostly in mid-20th-century Queens, the novel is rich with riffs on baseball, leftists and Dylan wannabes. Though the opening chapters take a comic view of a pink-tinged era, its closing chapters are a somber portrait of the price of radicalism and the steeper price of not pushing back against authority.
By Donna Tartt (Little, Brown, $30)
Tartt’s third novel has received plenty of comparisons to Dickens: It’s big, it turns on an “Oliver Twist”-like orphan, and its cast is thick with reprobates and gentle souls from every rung of the class ladder. But its true pole star may be Dostoevski. Tracing the life of a young man who absconded with a precious Dutch painting after a terrorist attack, Tartt addresses questions of good and evil with both psychological acuity and a page-turning sensibility.
Mark Athitakis is a book critic and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.