Why Fish Don't Exist

By Lulu Miller. (Simon & Schuster, 240 pages, $26.)

National Public Radio contributor Lulu Miller charts her rebound from a breakup in a book that is part biography, part murder mystery, part an attempt to figure out what's happening in her own heart. The biography is of taxonomist David Starr Jordan, a hero of hers who inspires the book's title (the argument is that salmon and koi do, indeed, exist but there is so much variety in the classification of "fish" that it isn't scientifically useful). But she discovers he had an extremely disappointing dark side. Long story short: He was a bigot and could have been a murderer but his chaotic career provides an unexpected example for Miller — and us — because it underscores the beauty of curiosity, of doubt. Searching for happiness, Miller learns to question everything she thought was true about herself since, as she puts it, "If fish don't exist, what else don't we know about our world?"


Before the Coffee Gets Cold

By Toshikazu Kawaguchi, translated from the Japanese by Geoffrey Trousselot. (Hanover Square Press, 272 pages, $19.99.)

What a strange little book this is! Quirky and charming. A bestseller in Japan, "Before the Coffee Gets Cold" is set in a coffee shop in an out-of-the-way alley in Tokyo, a tiny ancient place with just three tables and nine chairs. But one of those chairs has special powers. If you sit in the appropriate chair, you can go back in time — but only for the length of time that it takes for your cup of coffee to grow cold.

The writing in this book takes some getting used to — way too many adverbs, too much description of what people are wearing, not enough use of the simple word "said." But the stories of the time travelers — why they go back, what they are hoping for — are poignant. You can't change the present by going to the past, but you can, perhaps, gain context. And that is what they crave — a little closure, a little understanding, the chance to say something left unsaid. The book's charm lies in the author's deep understanding of life's regrets.