By Gerald Murnane. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $22.)
In Gerald Murnane's ruminative novel, an elderly man is obsessed with stained glass. Although he's not particularly religious, he seeks out church windows because the refracted sunlight triggers memories that he's otherwise unable to retrieve: "I have learned to trust the promptings of my mind, which urges me sometimes to study in all seriousness matters that another person might dismiss as unworthy, trivial, childish." It's a beautiful, mournful book, by a 79-year-old Australian who's considered a Nobel Prize contender.
The Seabird's Cry: The Lives and Loves of the Planet's Ocean Voyagers
By Adam Nicolson. (Henry Holt, $32)
In this wondrous book, Adam Nicolson describes the way of life and strange powers of 10 groups of birds found off the coast of Scotland. He captures glimpses of their avian minds and shows their presence and often mischievous doings in folklore and art. Beautifully written, haunting in imagery and filled with marvels, the book is also a farewell salute to a once teeming dimension of the natural world, now increasingly devastated by human environmental malfeasance.
KATHERINE A. POWERS
By Diana Khoi Nguyen. (Omnidawn, $17.95.)
In her debut, Diana Khoi Nguyen enacts grief with visual interventions, thus reminding readers of the power of experimental poetry to take us just beyond the boundaries of what language can express. One page is a photo of her family, her brother — lost to suicide — removed. The next fills his silhouette with words, then a block of text forms around his shape with the obsessive and heartbreakingly ineffective repetition: "It keeps me alive."
Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous
By Christopher Bonanos. (Henry Holt, $32.)
In the 1930s and '40s, Arthur Fellig came to personify the hardworking, hard-as-nails, cop-chasing news photographer. With his Speed Graphic camera and his almost supernatural instincts that put him at the right place at the right time (and might have earned him the nickname Weegee, as in Ouija), Fellig photographed hundreds of murders, accidents, fires and other tragedies. Over time, his work evolved from straight journalism to a kind of moody art. Christopher Bonanos' lively biography places Fellig squarely in his time and his city, and the reader watches New York and the culture change along with the man.
The Shakespeare Requirement
By Julie Schumacher. (Doubleday, $25.95.)
This campus comedy, a follow-up to Julie Schumacher's hilarious "Dear Committee Members," is funny enough to qualify as escapism — much needed in these unfunny times — even as, in its squaring off of Economic vs. Humanities and cynical marketing savvy vs. humanism, it subtly and comically encapsulates so much of what makes these times so escapism-worthy. The plot may hinge on whether an English major needs a course in Shakespeare, but what matters in the end is what it means to care.
Your Duck Is My Duck: Stories
By Deborah Eisenberg. (Ecco, $26.99.)
A clique of retired film stars gossips over a tell-all book. A troubled painter seeks solace in a tropical retreat. A young man fixates on a human rights worker. In just six stories, a contemporary master guides us into a looking glass version of our lives, glimpsed through funhouse mirrors and fogged in gloom, an autopsy of the American dream but with a patina of transcendence, "light coursing between our clasped hands and the sun's warmth … with night idling where it was, half a world away."
The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives
Edited by Viet Thanh Nguyen. (Harry N. Abrams, $25.)
In 17 accessible essays that span the length of the globe, from Zimbabwe to Bosnia to Thailand, this collection, edited by Pulitzer Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen, offers more than a poignant glimpse into the lives of refugees. It begs of us a listening ear as well as an open heart and mind. Here, in distinct yet thematically connected narratives (including one by St. Paul writer Kao Kalia Yang), displacement — the heart-rending experience so often grappled with by refugees around the world — is made unimaginably real and personal.
By Lauren Groff. (Riverhead, $27.)
In Lauren Groff's dazzling second story collection, her prose is as rich, dense and glossy as ever. Her characters live under threats of wild weather and total abandonment; more than once, children discover they've been left alone in a sinister landscape, or with a parent too compromised to protect them. Bookishness, though often present in these characters, is flimsy salvation at best. "Florida" is an ode to the power and the endangerment of the natural world.
The Silence of the Girls
By Pat Barker. (Doubleday, $27.95.)
In "The Silence of the Girls," Booker Prize winner Pat Barker swaps the First and Second World Wars for the Trojan War — only her focus is not the warrior men on the battlefields, but their war brides held captive in the encampments. Barker's timely and masterful reinterpretation of Homer's "Iliad" takes Achilles' "prize" Briseis out of the shadows and places her center stage. This unsung heroine is finally given a voice to speak out, and the tale she tells has the power to affect and astound.
Barracoon: The Story of the Last 'Black Cargo'
By Zora Neale Hurston. (Amistad, $24.99.)
Nearly 70 years after her death comes Zora Neale Hurston's exceptional biography of Oluale Kossula, kidnapped in 1860 at age 19 from his West African town and imprisoned in a "barracoon" (barracks) with other slaves awaiting passage on the last slave ship to the United States. In 1927, Hurston began her meticulous interview of 86-year-old Cudjo Lewis (his slave name) at his home in Alabama, where he vividly recalled his 5½ years of enslavement and the founding of Africatown, a settlement in Alabama.