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New & Noteworthy, From Walt Whitman to Harry Houdini

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ON BEING ME: A Personal Invitation to Philosophy, by J. David Velleman. (Princeton University, $12.95.) A pithy guide to eternal questions, by a specialist in ethics and moral psychology: “For me, philosophy begins with puzzlement about what it’s like to be a person,” he writes.

AMERICAN HARVEST: God, Country, and Farming in the Heartland, by Marie Mutsuki Mockett. (Graywolf, $28.) Mockett, a California girl, knew little about farming when she inherited 7,000 acres in the Great Plains that had been in her father’s family for a century. Here, she joins a crew of evangelical harvesters for a season.

WHAT IS THE GRASS: Walt Whitman in My Life, by Mark Doty. (Norton, $25.95.) “Whitman wants to be both a sexual radical and a sage,” Doty (himself a renowned poet) writes in this incisive, personal meditation on “Leaves of Grass” and its author. “I’m not at all sure these two positions are compatible, or reconcilable.”

HOUDINI: The Elusive American, by Adam Begley. (Yale University, $26.)i Begley’s contribution to the Jewish Lives biography series follows Ehrich Weiss’s determined self-transformation from impoverished Hungarian immigrant to great American escape artist.

1774: The Long Year of Revolution, by Mary Beth Norton. (Knopf, $32.50.) Why 1774 — which began two weeks after the Boston Tea Party and ended some 16 weeks before Lexington and Concord — was crucial to independence.

I’ve been rereading Anthony Marra’s stunning collection THE TSAR OF LOVE AND TECHNO, made up of intricately interlocking stories that begin in 1930s Leningrad, where a portrait painter is forced to airbrush history for Stalin. (He even has to remove the brother he betrayed from a family photo ; the shock of it jolts him into a courageous, subversive redemption.) The book jumps through time and space, to a Siberian mining village, to the ruined city of Grozny, to Chechnya during the war, and back to Leningrad in the near-present, each new section full of vivid characters whose stories reverberate backward and forward. It is wildly funny and wildly sad. It is about how ordinary people can retain their humanity and discover their resilience in the face of hardship; how they can resist their governments’ efforts to lie. It is about the transformative power of art and imagination, and how these things connect us all. And it is about the transcendent power of love in difficult times.

—Sarah Lyall, writer at large


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