In The Family Album (Viking, $25.95) Penelope Lively paints a wonderful portrait of an ostensibly perfect family. Parents Alison and Charles, six children, and one au pair, live at Allersmead, a shabby-genteel, sprawling Edwardian edifice where the huge kitchen is the heart of the home. Alison prides herself on her mothering, cooking, and homemaking and frets when family life is beyond her control. Her husband Charles remains aloof, constantly locked in his study while he researches and writes books. Most of the family scenes are presented in flashback as each of the adult children returns to the childhood home; thus memory is of keen interest here, along with a dark secret from the past.
Elaine Showalter, a prominent literary scholar who recently served as the chair of the Man Booker International Prize, throws all stuffiness to the winds with A Jury Of Her Peers (Knopf, $30), her exceptionally readable literary history of American women writers from the mid-1600s through the 20th century. Showalter is always opinionated (Gertrude Stein she describes as “unreadable, self-indulgent, and excrutiatingly boring”), and she encapsulates her assessments with such wit, passion, and erudition that reading her personal choices of the 250 female writers she wants in her literary hall of fame is a consistently fresh and lively experience. Some of these authors were overlooked in their time, and others are rediscoveries; this compendium offers readers a whole new library to explore.
Malcolm Gladwell, the master of the quirky mashup and incomparable author of The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers, serves up a feast of his favorite New Yorker pieces in What The Dog Saw (Little Brown, $27.99). The eponymous essay is a profile of the charismatic dog trainer, Cesar Millan; in his signature counterintuitive approach, Gladwell is less interested in Millan than he is in what’s going on inside Millan’s dog’s head, and by the end of the piece, even cat people will be eager to know. Gladwell’s insatiable curiosity about other people’s motivations and desires leads to such diverse ruminations as who’s most likely to be hired, who’s most likely to make a killing in investments, and why there are so many kinds of mustard but only one ketchup.