Ada Louise Huxtable, "Frank Lloyd Wright" (Penguin)
Alain de Botton, "The Architecture of Happiness" (Vintage)
"What is a beautiful building?" asks Alain de Botton here, reflecting on how created space acts on our emotions and delving into the purpose of architecture itself. "Not only do beautiful houses falter as guarantors of happiness, they can also be accused of failing to improve the characters of those who live in them," he writes. De Botton, as always, has a handy way with an epigram, and this well-illustrated book shows him at his best, making an intellectual and moral plea for the quality of our environment.
Stephen Walsh, "Stravinsky, The Second Exile: France and America, 1934-1971" (University of California)
The second volume of Walsh's biography brings Stravinsky to Los Angeles, where he and his wife created a modest bourgeois environment for themselves on North Wetherly Drive in West Hollywood. From this unlikely operations center, Stravinsky produced a string of masterpieces, including "Orpheus" and, in collaboration with the poet W.H. Auden (who was too tall for the guest couch in the den), the opera "The Rake's Progress." Stravinsky really was, as Esa-Pekka Salonen has said, "a local boy," and Walsh underestimates the vibrancy of the classical music scene in L.A. Still, this is a necessary and inspiring book.
Karen Connelly, "The Lizard Cage" (Spiegel & Grau)
Connelly's tough novel is set in Myanmar, , in a prison, where Teza, a once-famous political singer-songwriter is held in oppressive and squalid conditions that are indelibly conveyed. Teza is terrorized by a couple of the jailers but helped by another one and by a boy who maintains himself by catching and selling rats. It's brutal stuff, and Connelly, perhaps not to the benefit of the novel's intense and claustrophobic central story line, weaves in plenty about the history and politics of Burma. But, as she points out in her afterword, this is a book about characters and a country that "have been flayed." A shocking, dark novel.
Kate Pullinger, "A Little Stranger" (Serpent's Tail)
The Canadian-born Pullinger has made a career in England, and her novel "A Little Stranger" asks a bold question: What happens if a mother feels she's made a terrible mistake in having a child? Fran, a middle-class Londoner, feels she's not capable, not up for motherhood, and the book begins with a chilling scene in which her small son has a tantrum in the local supermarket and she simply walks away. This moment of crisis takes her, in time, to Las Vegas -- of all places -- where she reassesses her life. Pullinger writes sympathetically about the bleak wasteland that early parenthood can sometimes resemble.
Etgar Keret, "The Girl on the Fridge" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Keret, one of Israel's most celebrated young writers, is a master of the short-short, a story that gets in quick and exits at lightning speed, hopefully packing a big bang along the way. In one of these tales a woman, arguing with her husband, attaches herself to the ceiling with super-glue. In another, a magician starts pulling dead babies from his hat. "Moral Something" begins: "The guy on TV said the military court gave the death sentence to the Arab who'd killed the girl soldier, and lots of people came on TV to talk about it, and because of that the news went on till ten-thirty and they didn't show 'Moonlighting.' It made Dad so angry he lit his pipe in the house and it stank." The prose zips, the effects unsettle -- Keret is himself something of a magician, and what he pulls from his hat feels lively indeed.
Elie Wiesel, "The Night Trilogy" (Hill and Wang)
Wiesel's classic and devastating Holocaust memoir "Night" is packaged together here with two short novels, "Dawn" and "Day" (which was previously titled "The Accident"), all in new translations. "And yet, I still wonder: Have I used the right words?" writes Wiesel in his introduction, knowing that probably there are no "right" words to describe what he endured, only the necessity of raising a voice. "The witness has forced himself to testify. For the youth of today, for the children who will be born tomorrow. He does not want his past to become their future."
Amy Dockser Marcus, "Jerusalem 1913" (Penguin)
Walter Laqueur and Barry Rubin (ed), "The Israel-Arab Reader" (Penguin)
Karl Sabbagh, "Palestine, History of a Lost Nation" (Grove)
The Arab-Israeli conflict is still not resolved, and these three books mark, in their different ways, the 60th anniversary of the creation of the modern state of Israel. Each, from a different perspective, asks what has happened and why. The Laqueur/Rubin book is an invaluable resource, a documentary history in effect, a comprehensive reference of speeches, letters, articles and reports, from Theodor Herzl in 1886 to Fathi Hamad of Hamas and George W. Bush in 2007. Pulitzer Prize winner and Wall Street Journal reporter Amy Dockser Marcus asserts that 1913 was the turning point, and her haunting micro-history analyzes a moment when choices were made that sent Arabs and Jews "down a particular path that slowly but inexorably led to where they stand today." She evokes with sadness a time when all the different parties in Jerusalem actually got along. Karl Sabbagh, on the other hand, tells the long history of Palestine through the story of his own family, highlighting the folly of parts of the world trying to ignore the rights of an entire people. Both he and Dockser Marcus call for dialogue and compassion, phenomena in short supply in a region that, as New Yorker editor David Remnick has noted, features too much history and too little geography.