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Books: 6 Books to Catch Up With

4 minute read
Richard Lacayo and Lev Grossman

THE DA VINCI CODE DAN BROWN Centuries ago, Christianity’s darkest secrets were hidden–for their safety and ours–in a maze of riddles and paintings and secret societies and murders. Or at least that’s what happened in Brown’s best-selling novel. Either way the secrets are out now, and if they weren’t worth $24.95 to you in hardcover, you can get them and the absorbing tale of Harvard “symbologist” (sorry, but there’s no such thing) Robert Langdon and minxy sleuthette Sophie Neveu for cheap.


The possibility that our personal well-being might rest upon very thin ice is a favorite topic of McEwan’s. Rarely has he explored it with such serene wit or nasty intensity as in this magnificently unsettling novel, the follow up to his 2002 masterpiece Atonement. His central character, Henry Perowne, is a happy man, a successful London neurosurgeon with a loving family and a very comfortable town house. He also shares the generalized anxieties of people everywhere after 9/11. Then one Saturday he crosses paths with an excitable stranger, a man who will turn up soon again in Perowne’s life and give a specific face to all his fears.

NEVER LET ME GO KAZUO ISHIGURO Something is wrong at Hailsham, the very exclusive English boarding school that Kathy H. attends. The students there seem to have no parents, their teachers are wary of them, and they cannot leave the grounds. (You can catch echoes of a dark, inverted Harry Potter.) Part science fiction–horror, part existential waltz, Never Let Me Go is a gripping story about ordinary people trying to wring some joy out of life before it’s too late–and for Kathy and her friends, it has always been too late.


Brilliant, brooding, fatally naive–J. Robert Oppenheimer was one of the tragic figures of mid-20th century America. It was he who led the team at Los Alamos, N.M., that developed the first atom bomb. But after World War II he became an outspoken opponent of developing the even more powerful hydrogen bomb. That stance brought him the powerful enemies who would conspire to have him stripped of his security clearance and publicly humiliated. This biography is masterful, lucid and balanced, always mindful of Oppenheimer’s role in his downfall–even at Los Alamos he was frequently surrounded by former communists–without ever losing sight of the injustices done to him.

THE ORIENTALIST TOM REISS Madonna didn’t invent self-reinvention. Born in 1905, Lev Nussimbaum fled the political violence of his native Azerbaijan for the swanky salons of proto-fascist Europe. There he became a swinging socialite and best-selling author using a totally made-up identity, that of a romantic Muslim prince named Essad Bey, a creature of curvy daggers and Moorish sighs. Commingling East and West, art and politics, and featuring countless cameos by the great and powerful, Nussimbaum’s unlikely life (lives?) reads like a secret history of the 20th century.

GARLIC AND SAPPHIRES RUTH REICHL When Reichl became the New York Times’ food critic in 1993, she swiftly set about dismantling the work of her predecessors. To pages previously devoted to fussy French cuisine she introduced Japanese soba and Korean bulgoki, and she handed out stars to places earlier critics wouldn’t have gone to wearing surgical gloves. She wore disguises so she could experience the service that ordinary people (i.e. non-food critics) get. Reichl writes dazzlingly about food, of course, but she also explores how liberating it can be to dress up as somebody else. She liberates her readers as well.

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