This article first appeared in The National Book Review
Five books people are talking about this week -- or should be
1. Pacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World's Superpowers by Simon Winchester (Harper)
From the author best known for his blockbuster The Professor and the Madman, an engaging new book about the world of the Pacific Ocean since 1950, from the Bering Strait to Cape Horn and many spots in between. Winchester is an eloquent tour guide with capacious interests, ranging from the rise of North Korea and concerns about the Great Barrier Reef to Steve Job and Gidget.
2. Gratitude by Oliver Sacks (Knopf)
Sacks, the beloved British-American neurologist with a gift for transforming case studies into affecting books like The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, died in August, but he has left his fans at least one more literary gem. This (extremely) short book collects essays written in his final years that appeared elsewhere, including one on turning 80, originally titled "The Joy of Old Age," which was on the New York Times's most-emailed list for over a month.
3. Stoned: Jewelry, Obsession, and How Desire Shapes the World Aja Raden (Ecco)
The author, a real-life jeweler, scientist, and historian, shows that diamonds are much more than a girl's best friend - they, and other jewels, have also been major drivers of civilization. In this richly entertaining social history, Raden travels from the French Revolution, to a Japanese noodle maker who pioneered the business of the pearl, and beyond, tracking how jewelry became an ultimate expression not only of love, but of power and success.
4. Drawing Blood by Molly Crabapple (Harper)
"Without art, you're dead!" Crabapple's great-grandfather once advised her, and she followed his wisdom. A restless, artistic Long Island girl drawn to "witness journalism," she has traveled the world drawing and writing and talking about detainees in Guantanamo Bay, Abu Dhabi's migrant labor camps, and life with rebels in Syria. Crabapple, whose work is in the Museum of Modern Art, the Barjeel Foundation, and The New York Historical Society, writes this exuberantly illustrated memoir with verve - and with a restrained rage that is powerful and affecting.
5. Relic Master by Chris Buckley (Simon & Schuster)
After a career as a political and social satirist of contemporary life - with funny, original books like Thank You for Smoking - Buckley may have imagined that the current political clown car of presidential candidates was beyond lampoon. Whatever the explanation, he has turned to the 16th century for his kicks and barbs, following the eponymous relic hunter through a world in which political and religious spheres intertwine, high offices can be bought, and inauthenticity rules - perhaps not so far from today's politics after all.