NEW IN PAPERBACK

Just one (delightful) thing after another

By Nora Krug
Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A guide to new collections from some of fiction's top authors.

"If you are ever bored or blue, stand on the street corner for half an hour," Maira Kalman advises in The Principles of Uncertainty (Penguin, $20). It helps if you're in New York or Paris, two of the cities where Kalman stands on street corners, sits in cafes, people-watches and scribbles in her sketch pad. But if you're elsewhere, you can read her delightful book, a whimsical mix of the words and illustrations inspired by her gawking.

Kalman, an artist best known for her children's books and New Yorker illustrations, serves as the reader's sharp-eyed companion on a journey whose ultimate goal seems to be digression. One minute she's pondering death; in the next she's explaining her obsession with painting fruit platters and her love of tea and honey cake, or telling a bittersweet story about her glamorous Aunt Frances, who, plagued by Alzheimer's, "tried to pay a patient cashier at the Bagel Buffet with Sweet 'n Low packets." A painterly image records a visit with Kitty Carlisle Hart during which the elderly actress sang Kalman a George Gershwin tune. On the next page we see an illustration of Gershwin, who, Kalman notes, is buried in the same cemetery as Kalman's husband. "One thing leads to another," she explains -- though she doesn't need to.

The novelist Anne Roiphe also lost her husband in recent years, and, like Kalman, she wanders through New York -- and, in her case, its senior-set dating scene -- with only a vague sense of purpose. In her memoir Epilogue (Harper Perennial, $14.99), Roiphe shares her experience of drifting toward a new kind of contentment after the death of her partner of 39 years. This may sound melancholic -- and similar to Joan Didion's "The Year of Magical Thinking," among other books -- but Roiphe's account is surprisingly uplifting and original.

For one thing, dating offers Roiphe a concrete promise of a new life -- and it offers the reader comic relief. (It turns out that it's just as easy to meet a creep by placing a personal ad in the New York Review of Books as it is via Match.com.) But even as she suffers through loneliness, yearning and the heartbreak of memories -- a handwritten recipe falling out of a book, a stash of ties hanging on the back of a closet door -- Roiphe tries not to wallow. "Self-pity is the graffiti of the heart," she writes. Instead, she figures out, if fitfully, how to trudge forward, to shed pieces of the past without letting go of it entirely. "I am good enough as is," she concludes. "If I am without love ever after I can console myself with the thought that ever after is not so long now and that my memory is good and can comfort me if I need comforting."

From our previous reviews

-- Historians Jane Kamensky and Jill Lepore both ape and mock 18th-century melodrama in their romp Blindspot (Spiegel & Grau, $15), a novel Carolyn See called "frisky and learned" as well as "an engaging way to relearn American history."

-- A Dawn Like Thunder (Back Bay, $15.99), by novelist and former congressman Robert J. Mrazek, is "a fast-paced and yet personal" account of the pivotal role played by the Torpedo Squadron Eight in the battles of Midway and Guadalcanal, according to Robert Bateman.

-- A National Book Critics Circle finalist, Brenda Wineapple's White Heat (Anchor, $16.95) explores the revealing relationship between Emily Dickinson and the writer and reformer Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Joel Brouwer called the book "a tour de force that should delight specialists and casual readers alike."

-- "Obama's election may have served as a key in the lock that guards our nation's racial psyche," Gwen Ifill writes in the new afterword to The Breakthrough (Anchor, $15), a group portrait of pioneering African American politicians that Alan Cooperman described as "gently persuasive."

-- Set amid some of Russia's most dramatic historical moments, Sashenka (Simon & Schuster, $15), by Simon Montefiore, is a character-driven "whodunit with the epic sweep of a Hollywood movie," according to Malena Watrous.

-- Michael Dirda praised the "easygoing prose and startling honesty" of Somewhere Towards the End (Norton, $13.95), a memoir and rumination on aging by 92-year-old writer Diana Athill.

Krug is The Post's monthly paperback columnist.


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