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New and noteworthy paperbacks

By Nora Krug
Wednesday, July 28, 2010; C04

The problem with writing about children, Alison Gopnik admits in The Philosophical Baby (Picador, $16), is that "practically everything you say turns out to sound like a greeting card." But that hasn't stopped Gopnik, a philosopher and a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, from having a lot to say about them. "Many profound questions about human nature can be answered by thinking about children," she explains, including those "about imagination, truth, consciousness, and also identity, love, and morality."

That's a lot of profundity for some very small shoulders (and some might say it has the ring of a greeting-card platitude). But Gopnik mines science and philosophy to illustrate, effectively, how many of the central qualities of children -- imagination, lack of inhibition, curiosity -- help us understand human nature. She explains, for example, how imaginary play and early learning about cause-and-effect foster the "evolutionary advantages" of being able to "think about future, past, and present possible worlds." And those "noes" of the terrible twos? Maybe not so terrible: "Being able to say 'no' and 'uh-oh,' " she writes, "immediately puts you in the world of the counterfactual and the possible -- the road not taken, the possibility that isn't real." In other words, childish negativity primes us for the capacity to change and grow for the better. Such insights may offer little practical help to the parent struggling with a child's tantrum, but understanding the young mind may be the most valuable step toward figuring out how to manage it.

At age 27, Christopher R. Beha found himself in something of an existential crisis -- feeling not only detached but also detached from his "sense of detachment, alienated from [his] own alienation," he explains in The Whole Five Feet (Grove, $14). He'd survived Princeton and cancer, had recently gotten a promotion at a job he didn't love and broken up with a girl he still loved. His debt was mounting, his novel remained unpublished, and he'd moved back into his parents' Manhattan home. "This attack, such as it was," he writes, was "not wholly unexpected." But rather than seek solace in the kind of things that make for racy memoirs -- drugs, sex, alcohol -- Beha finds a far more wholesome remedy: the Harvard Classics, a 51-volume anthology also known as the five-foot shelf, that comprises works by the likes of Plato, Cervantes, Emerson and Martin Luther.

In "The Whole Five Feet," Beha chronicles the year he spent immersed in these volumes. Part memoir, part Western-literature survey, the book is less gimmicky than its premise suggests. Beha's initial romantic notions -- reading and ruminating while sipping wine at a Manhattan cafe -- are interrupted by real life: the death of an aunt and his own illnesses. "The one common feature of all these books," he concludes, "was precisely the fact that they kept sending me back into the world."

From our previous reviews

Ward Just revisits the inner circles of Washington, D.C., in Exiles in the Garden (Mariner, $14.95), a novel about a senator's son who chooses journalism over politics. Jonathan Yardley, who included the book on his 2009 favorites list, praised its subtle and sensitive portrayal of a father, a son and the city that shaped them.

As a family gathers to mourn its patriarch, its dysfunction is laid bare -- to darkly comedic effect -- in Jonathan Tropper's novel This Is Where I Leave You (Plume, $15). Carolyn See suggested the book as a worthy diversion "on a dreaded family holiday."

Kate Walbert weaves the personal and the political in A Short History of Women (Scribner, $15), a family saga told through the lives of five generations of its female members. Valerie Sayers called the book "a witty and assured testament to the women's movement and women writers, obscure and renowned."

Former Book World editor Marie Arana "draws on her knowledge of Peruvian culture and politics" in Lima Nights (Dial, $15), a compelling novel about an unlikely couple that "shows us how easy it is to deceive ourselves and others when following a forbidden path of sex and love," wrote Frances Itani.

Lit (Harper, $14.99), Mary Karr's third memoir, "is a story not just of alcoholism but of coming to terms with families past and present," according to Valerie Sayers.

Ron Charles described Colson Whitehead's "wise, affectionate novel" Sag Harbor (Anchor, $15.95) as "a kind of black 'Brighton Beach Memoirs' " that's "spiced with the anxieties of being African American in a culture determined to dictate what that means."

Wildflower (Random House, $15), by Mark Seal, tells the story of Joan Root, "an extraordinary adventurer," environmentalist and filmmaker who died mysteriously in Kenya in 2006, according to Rachel Saslow.

In K Blows Top (PublicAffairs, $14.95) former Post writer Peter Carlson "does a marvelous job of recounting" Nikita Khrushchev's 1959 visit to America, "one of the most outlandish episodes in the annals of Cold War history," according to Jacob Heilbrunn.

Woody Holton's biography Abigail Adams (Free Press, $18) stands out in its portrayal of the wife of President John Adams "not as a forerunner of modern feminism but as an 18th-century woman making the best of a difficult situation," wrote Rosemarie Zagarri.

Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and historian Barbara Taylor reveal "the complexity of a simple-seeming virtue" in On Kindness (Picador, $13), according to Michael Dirda.

Krug reviews paperbacks monthly for The Post.

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