Unfinished Work – Joseph Coleman

“Denial of employment opportunity to older persons is a personal tragedy…It is also a national extravagance, wasteful of human resources. No economy can reach its maximum productivity while failing to use the skills, talents, and experience of willing workers.” – JFK, 1963

You’ve probably heard of the demographic crisis: baby boomers are getting older, people are having fewer children, and pretty soon the pension pot will be all used up on the generation that also brought you global warming. If you’re a young person, you may find the whole thing somewhat depressing: it seems like most public policies are designed to transfer money from (low-income) young people to (high-income) old, whether it’s increasing house prices, fuel subsidies for the elderly, pensions, or healthcare. If you’re the Economist, you’ve also faced a huge flood of complaints when you suggested reducing pensions for wealthy seniors in the UK, and since seniors vote and young people don’t, no one was going to listen to the suggestion anyway.

Coleman presents an alternate, possibly more valuable, perspective. Older workers are often forced out of work before they would actually want to leave, whether because of pension plan design, insufficient training, or blatant discrimination. These older workers would often have preferred to stay, particularly part-time, deriving meaning and value from their employment as they have done for decades. Letting them stay makes them better off, and also helps reduce our demographic challenge.

Unfinished Work looks at this problem from the perspective of elderly workers around the world, from Japan to Sweden, France, and the U.S. Some countries are doing well (Sweden and Japan) and others are doing poorly (France), but all have room to improve. The book’s emphasis on stories makes it more readable, but also reduces the content: the book is better at raising issues than solving them. The book also sometimes seems to lack concrete data: Coleman criticizes discrimination on the part of employers against the elderly, particularly a reluctance to train them, but there is also evidence that elderly people make less good employees. He may well be right this isn’t a large concern, but I would have appreciated some data on how big an issue it might be. Nevertheless, the book advances an important perspective on an increasingly large challenge for many Western societies. This is a problem we don’t think about often enough, and certainly haven’t solved. Unfinished Work presents an alternate framing to the divisive, young vs. old narrative, one well worth reflecting on.

You can see other reviews of Unfinished Work here.

What If: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions – Randall Munroe

“High in the North in a land called Svithjod there is a mountain. It is a hundred miles long and a hundred miles high and once every thousand years a little bird comes to this mountain to sharpen its beak. When the mountain has thus been worn away a single day of eternity will have passed.” – Hendrik Willem van Loon

I read a lot, but it’s rare I read a book I can recommend unconditionally. This is one of them, with the extra bonus you can read a lot of it in advance online to see if you agree. It’s insightful, it’s hilarious, and best of all it can give you a glimpse into how scientists think, working through the world from first principles.

The book is exactly what the title says: it gives carefully worked out answers to absurd questions, like what would happen if you swam in a nuclear waste pond (nothing – water is great radioactive shielding. Of course, trying to swim in such a pond would get you shot by the guards), hit a baseball going at .9c (Boom!), endured a robot apocalypse (the robots would probably slip on the mountain of skulls and most can’t open doors or pass those tricky rubber thresholds on lab doors. Even most battle drones would be stuck, “helplessly bumping against hangar doors like Roombas stuck in a closet.”) or lived in a world with love at first sight (people would want to be police officers or receptionists, since they make eye contact with the most people).

Munroe was a robotics engineer at NASA, so has good science credentials. He left to run his webcomic, xkcd (which I also highly recommend). His book, however, takes columns from a series he did online, What If, and puts them in convenient book form with some additions – you should definitely read the online column first to see if it’s your thing, and I’m not sure how much new content there is, to be fair.

The book is hilarious, as you’d expect from the author of xkcd. For me, the best part is that Munroe can’t seem to avoid thinking like a physicist. Keeping in mind I started my degree in physics, I love it: it reminds me of the great way scientists have of looking at the world. Analysis like:

“First, let’s start with wild ballpark approximations… I can pick up a mole (animal) and throw it.[citation needed] Anything I can throw weighs one pound. One pound is one kilogram. The number 602,214,129,000,000,000,000,000 looks about twice as long as a trillion, which means it’s about a trillion trillion. I happen to remember that a trillion trillion kilograms is how much a planet weighs.”

There is basically nothing I don’t love in that paragraph. This is how reasoning about the world should work, for oh so many reasons!

Shopping for Votes: How politicians choose us and we choose them – Susan Delacourt

“Where politicians once made church basements the fixture of their campaign road trips, the refreshment-stop of choice is no the ubiquitous Tim Hortons…Canadian politics no longer bears much resemblance to the church (except maybe the occasional sermon) but our marketing politicians seem right at home among sales posters, advertising and cash registers.”

Reading the newspaper, it would be easy to believe that politicians make judgments based on polls: 42% support for X, 27% support for Y. The truth, argues Shopping for Votes, is significantly more complicated.

As technology has improved and politicians have gotten better at identifying individual voters, the ability of political parties to target messages more precisely has also increased. Parties now divide voters into archetypes: Zoe, the yoga-loving left wing younger condo owner, or Dougie, a single tradesman who liked to hunt (both archetypes are drawn from the 2006 Conservative strategy in Canada). Zoe would never vote for the Conservatives, so could be safely ignored – Dougie was a potential supporter, and so a key target. In the event, the Conservatives managed to identify 500,000 individual voters they needed to convince to vote Conservative: the millions of others were either already voting Conservative, unlikely to ever vote Conservative, or in non-marginal constituencies. National polls of average support become totally irrelevant, even if everyday voters follow them closely.

The danger, argues Delacourt, is that as a result politics is more polarized than ever. Politicians don’t look for broad, uniting policies: they look for ones that will target their key groups, ignoring the impact or effect on others. The result is that as consumers increasingly shop for the best party, choosing not to identify with any one group, parties also shop for the right voters, offering finely tuned products to different groups. The government is no longer the home of bold national projects or grand ideas, but rather small, carefully targeted ones. As a result, creating a national brand often falls to the private sector. In Canada, that has mean Tim Hortons and Molson ad campaigns are responsible for nationalism, not the government.

It’s a powerful – and interesting – message, and one that I suspect resonates with a lot of voters. The book is a great insight into how political hacks, as opposed to voters, think about elections, and how elections are being changed by trends like big data and better econometrics. An important and useful read, and if nominally targeted towards Canada, relevant to most electoral systems.

In Defense of Food – Michael Pollan

“Eat food, mostly plants, not too much”

There’s a myriad of diets out there, and for all that science suggests that basically all of them contribute to short term weight loss (apparently, paying attention to what you’re eating is a sufficient condition for weight loss) and most of them don’t show any persistence anyway, people still struggle to pick the best one. One thesis is that the Western diet itself is simply bad for us: a group of ten Australian aborigines who resumed traditional lifestyles for seven weeks as part of an experiment saw improvements in blood pressure and their risk of heart disease among other indicators, and also lost 18 pounds. The answer to the Western diet, says Pollan, is to stop eating it.

Pollan argues eating well is simple: we’ve been doing it since we came out of the trees. Unfortunately, it isn’t in the interests of the food industry, journalism, or even nutrition science to keep it that way: after all, if they just said eat more vegetables, we’d fire the lot of them. His goal is to make it simple again.

To do so, he suggests a series of simple rules: don’t eat things your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food; avoid foods with ingredients that are unpronounceable, unfamiliar, or more than five in number; only shop at the edges of the supermarket; have a glass of wine with dinner; only eat a table, and never alone; and a few others.

The book is not as good as some of his others, such as Omnivore’s Dilemma or Cooked. It’s well written though, and to my knowledge probably correct. Several points are enough to make you stop and think, too: I was interested to learn that isolated populations appear to have few dental problems, whether consuming all meat, such as the Masai in Tanzania, no dairy in the Hebrides, or agriculturalists who ate largely plants (though agriculturalists showed the most tooth decay of the three). Overall, In Defense of Food is not a must-read, but if you like Pollan or are interested in food generally, worth picking up.

The Rise of Rome – Anthony Everitt

“From Edward Gibbon onward, historians have pondered the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. But how was the empire won? What was it that enabled a small Italian market town by a ford on the river Tiber to conquer the known world?”

Rome, you might have heard, did pretty well for itself. The Western Roman Empire lasted just over a millennia (including the earlier Republic), while the Eastern managed closer to two. To put that in perspective, the Americans have so far managed about 250 years, and as a nation they’re not exactly bursting with youthful vigour. So how, you might ask, did the Romans manage it?

Everitt doesn’t answer this question directly, but he does tell the story of the early years of Rome, from its beginnings as an early hill town, overshadowed by nearby Greek and Etruscan settlements, to its climactic struggles with Carthage that would catapult it to world-power status. Rome saw its strength as government: they could not compete with the Greeks for poetry or culture, they argued, but they argued their ability to govern and organize a state was second to none. What makes it interesting, though, is the malleability of that government. In early Rome, there were no tribunes, no aediles – laws were kept secret, as holy books. It would be centuries before the Roman government became recognizable in its better-known form, the product of an ongoing struggle between different factions. Cicero would claim that was its strength: Greek cities could be ruled by one great man, but Rome was ruled by generations of wise ones. I’m not sure any country today could say the same, but then the Roman Republic did turn into a dictatorial empire, so it isn’t all role model.

Everitt’s strength is in the small details that help bring the ancient world to life. The Romans were helped in building a fleet, for example, because a Carthaginian ship was shipwrecked on Italy: building a replica was made easier because the Carthaginians used to mark all their warship pieces with different letters, so they could ship the pieces as a flatpack and then easily assemble them in port. For all that, I have to admit Everitt’s not to my taste. He tends to hold strong opinions, and cast judgment quickly on his subjects: I’m sure that suits some readers, but for me when there is no evidence, I prefer humility over unprovable claims and ambiguous judgments. Still, it’s a fascinating question, and if its one you’re interested in, the book provides a wealth of detail and information.

Zero to One – Peter Thiel

“Zero to One is about how to build companies that create new things…The single most powerful pattern I have noticed is that successful people find value in unexpected places, and that they do this by thinking about business from first principles instead of formulas.”

Thiel divides the world into four: an axis of pessimism and optimism, and an axis of future-definite and future-indefinite. Entrepreneurs, he argues, rely on future-definite thinking: they believe the future can be predicted and so work to shape it. Much of the US, however, has fallen to optimistic/future-indefinite thinking. They believe the future will be better, but have no idea how or why, and so don’t bother to prepare other than to get general skills and knowledge, a process that culminates in becoming a lawyer, consultant, or banker. Thiel recommends the opposite: pick one valuable skill or area, specialize carefully, and double down to achieve enormous success.

Zero to One is Thiel’s hymn to entrepreneurs and innovators, those individuals who don’t just achieve incremental improvements (one to two), but manage a real step change in technology, going from zero to one.

In truth, for me there are a couple of points I don’t think he’s entirely thought through. He waxes eloquent about monopolies, for example, arguing that they are the best way to run a business: “the more we compete, the less we gain.” I completely agree, I’m just a little worried his ‘we’ only includes businesses, not the consumers, who take it in the shorts. That said, monopolies may also provide more resources for innovation, so the question is not as simple as economics 101 might argue. His advice to specialize the same: he’s wholly correct that if you want to be a billionaire that’s the way to go, but he doesn’t seem to have considered that it’s a high-risk strategy. The returns are so high precisely because of the enormous number of people who will fail utterly as a result.

In some ways, the book is interesting because of these weak points: it tells us what Peter Thiel, the billionaire co-founder of Paypal, believes. Paypal’s team has also achieved great things: 7 of the early employees have founded billion dollar businesses, from Youtube to Tesla to LinkedIn. It’s a success so noted that they’re sometimes referred to as the Paypal Mafia in the tech world. The team was clearly doing something right!

Carrot and Sticks – Ian Ayres

“This book is centrally about how to craft commitments that will work best for you”

StickK.com is a website designed to help you achieve your goals. You pick a goal or activity you want to do, pick a referee to check to make sure you did it, and then put up a stake you’ll sacrifice if you don’t follow through: the money can go to a charity or, for the truly motivated, an anti-charity, such as the Bush Presidential Library if you’re left wing, or the Obamacare support fund (not a real thing) if you’re right wing.

It was set up by Ian Ayres, a contract lawyer and behavioural economist, and he’s now written a book to explain the ideas behind it. The idea is pretty simple, and so the book focuses largely on a multitude of great examples, from drugs that make you throw up when you drink alcohol or ingest too much fat, to signs in US National Parks that said that so many guests were stealing petrified wood they were running out, which actually increased total theft. In Israel, so-called ‘kosher phones’ were even set up by the Rabbinic council in Israel to block numbers for escort services and charge more than $2/minute for calls on the Sabbath!

The book got a little wearing for me in the middle: it felt a bit like a long list of examples. The end picked up again, though, first with a chapter on diets (if you want to keep weight off, weigh yourself regularly: it correlates highly with persistence in weight loss. Equally, if you’re on a strict diet, careful you don’t substitute to other activities: 20-30% of bariatric surgery patients pick up another vice, such as gambling, smoking, or drinking), and then a chapter on public policy helping people commit to desirable activities, such as reduce energy use. Overall, very worth the read! Interesting, entertaining, and if a little slow in the middle, still informative.

The Almost Nearly Perfect People: The Truth About the Nordic Miracle by Michael Booth – Michael Booth

“Denmark was the happiest place in the world. The happiest? This dark, wet, dull, flat little country made up of one peninsula, Jutland, and a handful of islands to its east with its handful of stoic, sensible people and the highest taxes in the world? The United States was twenty-third on the list. But a man at a university had said it, so it must be true.”

Scandinavia is often referred to as some sort of paradise, where all is well and everyone is happy. Michael Booth, a Brit living in Denmark, tries to understand whether that reputation is deserved, and if so why. To spoil the ending, he believes we have much to learn from those countries, including their priorities, how they handle their wealth, and how they balance work and play while educating themselves and supporting each other. He also has serious concerns, about increasing fissures around race and social equality, alcoholism, a vast public service that is funded with an ever increasing share of total income, and – particularly in Denmark – a debt to income ratio that is double that of Spain and quadruple that of Italy.

The strength of the book, though, is in his witty, clever, and curmudgeonly perspective on it all. Booth is a funny and entertaining writer, and it makes the whole book work, part travel guide and part documentary. If you want a serious analysis of why Finland’s education system is one of the best in the world, why the suicides rates in Scandinavia are so high, or why Sweden is the 8th largest arms exporter in the world, this isn’t the book for you. If you are planning on visiting the countries, though, or better yet moving there, The Almost Nearly Perfect People can teach you to avoid sitting next to the host at a party in Sweden unless you want to make a speech; give you advice on how to socialize with the remarkably taciturn Finns; and above all, make you laugh.

Disclosure: I read this as a Advance Reader Copy. You can get it on Amazon: Almost Nearly Perfect People.

Love in the Time of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

“His examination revealed that he had no fever, no pain anywhere, and that his only concrete feeling was an urgent desire to die. All that was needed was shrewd questioning, first of the patient and then of his mother, to conclude once again that the symptoms of love were the same as those of cholera.”

I’ve been in something of a Marquez mood recently – perhaps it’s the season. In any case, this one follows on a review of Strange Pilgrims last week.

Choler, one of the Greco-Roman humours, was believed to cause irritation or temper: hence the English word choleric, or the French colerique. The principle of the humours underlay much of medieval medicine, and argued that imbalances between basic bodily fluids led to illness and odd behaviour. Choler was linked to fire, and the temperament of ruling. It also represented passion. Today, of course, the phrase is more commonly linked to the disease cholera, one of the leading causes of infant mortality until the introduction of Oral Rehydration Therapy, a simple mix of water, sugar, and salt that helps prevent dehydration.

Love in the Time of Cholera raises both the idea of passion and of disease in its study of love in an unnamed port city near the Caribbean. Many interpretations of the book are possible: Marquez, apparently, is known to have warned readers to be careful not to fall into his trap. For me, though, it is a reflection on love, particularly flawed love. Many types of love are suggested in the story, but all of them suffer from flaws, no matter how well written or sympathetic the character. One couple matches the societal ideal of love, while struggling to be happy themselves: another man is a philanderer and to some extent sociopath, but believes eternally in the idea of true love.

As usual, meditations on death and stunning visual imagery are par for the course: Marquez is always phenomenal in that respect. A particular strength of LitToC (I couldn’t resist!) is the scope for interpretation by the reader: to my eye, it gives more room for ambiguity of sentiment than some of Marquez’s other work, though not as much as some of the extremes in that area, such as Don Quixote. An excellent read.

The Economist Best Books 2014

Something like a quarter of all book sales are made in the month before Christmas each year – it’s a popular gift! I thought, therefore, it might useful to take a look at some 2014 book lists.

The Economist released their list in the most recent edition – I’ve included the summaries of some but not all. One in particular stands out to me: Pinker’s The Sense of Style - highly recommended, and you can read my review at the link!

For a focus on non-fiction in particular, you could also look at Tyler Cowen’s recommendations.

Politics and current affairs

The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited. By Louisa Lim. Oxford University Press; 248 pages; $24.95 and £16.99. Buy from Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk
Twenty-five years after the bloodshed in Beijing, new details keep emerging. This reconstruction, by a correspondent for America’s National Public Radio, is as important for Western readers as it is for the new Chinese generation that has grown up since 1989 and knows little of what happened.

The Tyranny of Silence: How One Cartoon Ignited a Global Debate on the Future of Free Speech. By Flemming Rose. Cato Institute; 240 pages; $24.95. Buy from Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk
The culture editor of the Danish newspaper that published cartoons about the Prophet Muhammad in 2005 offers a personal account of the ensuing controversy and what it means for democracy.

Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalisation of Democracy. By Francis Fukuyama. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 658 pages; $35. Profile; £25. Buy from Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk
A superstar academic, who in 1992 tried to persuade people that they had got to the end of history, returns admitting that things are more complicated than he imagined. China has adopted a mixture of state capitalism and authoritarianism, and democratisation has failed in Russia and most of the Middle East. What is needed are high-quality political institutions; not an easy thing to build.

The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall.

Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China.

Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland, 1890-1923.

The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia.

Indonesia Etc: Exploring the Improbable Nation.

China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa.

Biography and memoir

Kaiser Wilhelm II: A Concise Life. By John Röhl. Cambridge University Press; 240 pages; $24.99 and £16.99. Buy from Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk
Scholarship and authority shine through this short version of John Röhl’s 4,000-page, multi-volume life of Kaiser Wilhelm, an emotionally needy, bombastic, choleric and hypersensitive man quite ill-suited to run the most powerful country in Europe.

 Napoleon: A Life. By Andrew Roberts. Viking; 976 pages; $45. Allen Lane; £30. Buy from Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk
A British historian makes full use of the treasure trove of Napoleon’s 33,000-odd letters and concludes that the French emperor was a tactical military genius who made some serious strategic mistakes and was far from being a brilliant statesman.

H is for Hawk. By Helen Macdonald. Jonathan Cape; 300 pages; £14.99. To be published in America by Grove Atlantic in March 2015. Buy from Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk
A bird’s-eye view of love and loss, this meditation on nature, raptors, grief and the strange life of T.H. White—English author of “The Goshawk”—was the discovery of the season. Winner of the 2014 Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction.

E.E. Cummings: A Life. By Susan Cheever. Pantheon; 213 pages; $26.95. Buy from Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk
Inward-looking and now unfashionable, E.E. Cummings is a tricky poet to understand. With boundless new detail gathered through meticulous research, Susan Cheever succeeds where most other biographers have failed.

Faisal I of Iraq.

Little Failure: A Memoir.

Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery.

History

The English and Their History. By Robert Tombs. Allen Lane; 1,012 pages; £35. Buy from Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk
A British academic shows how being a historian of France helped him recognise that his fellow Englishmen and women have embraced pluralism and immigration for at least 1,300 years, he concludes, and they should not give it up as it is a characteristic strength.

Christendom Destroyed: Europe 1517-1648. By Mark Greengrass. Viking; 752 pages; $45. Allen Lane; £30. Buy from Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk
A magisterial account of the birth of modern Europe, from the Reformation, which broke the dominance of the Roman Catholic church, to the Peace of Westphalia, which entrenched the idea of the nation-state.

The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s “Ulysses”. By Kevin Birmingham. Penguin Press; 417 pages; $29.95. Head of Zeus; £20. Buy from Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk
A gripping account of how a banned masterpiece, James Joyc’s “Ulysses”, was published in instalments in small literary magazines and then in private, limited print runs by dedicated patrons (most of them women) who had to smuggle copies into America and Britain.

Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin and Sadat at Camp David.

Why Homer Matters.

The Reckoning: Death and Intrigue in the Promised Land.

Economics and business

Capital in the Twenty-First Century. 

The Forgotten Depression, 1921: The Crash that Cured Itself.

Science and technology

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. By Elizabeth Kolbert. Henry Holt; 302 pages; $28. Bloomsbury; £20. Buy from Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk
Five previous extinctions wiped out plant and animal life on a huge scale; now a sixth is upon us. Is life resilient enough to withstand mankind?

The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet. By Nina Teicholz. Simon & Schuster; 479 pages; $27.99. Scribe; £14.99. Buy from Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk
A historical study of how fat came to be demonised, especially in America, by a mix of academics, government officials and food companies, and how the few sceptics who dared take on the fat orthodoxy have been much disparaged for their pains. Detailed in its research and eloquent in its argument, this is the year’s most surprising diet book.

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. By Atul Gawande. Metropolitan Books; 282 pages; $26. Profile; £15.99. Buy from Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk
A thoughtful American doctor, who gave the 2014 Reith lectures, recounts how many of his patients spend their final hours hooked up to machines, under fluorescent lights, surrounded by strangers. Far better to think through the implications and plan for the end you really want.

Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology.

Culture, society and travel

Marriage Markets: How Inequality is Remaking the American Family. By June Carbone and Naomi Cahn. Oxford University Press; 272 pages; $29.95 and £18.99. Buy from Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk
Asking why fewer people marry, two American legal academics show how, over the decades, economic inequality has undermined the rationality of marriage for many and weakened the family.

The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. By Steven Pinker. Viking; 359 pages; $27.95. Allen Lane; £20. Buy from Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk
With gentle good humour, the Harvard psycholinguist explains that a good piece of writing is like the perfect soufflé appearing in a spotless kitchen at the end of a cooking show: “The messy work has been done beforehand and behind the scenes.” A good read for all ages.

Lessons of Hope: How to Fix Our Schools. By Joel Klein. Harper; 320 pages; $27.99. Buy from Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk
The former chancellor of New York’s department of education knows at first hand how much a child’s education is linked to his or her success in life. He has much to say about his nine-year campaign to improve the city’s school system and how it could become a blueprint for reform of America’s education system.

Joyriding in Riyadh: Oil, Urbanism and Road Revolt in Saudi Arabia.

The Reef, A Passionate History: The Great Barrier Reef from Captain Cook to Climate Change.

Germany: Memories of a Nation.

Fiction

The Narrow Road to the Deep North. By Richard Flanagan. Knopf; 352 pages; $26.95. Chatto & Windus; £16.99. Buy from Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk
A journey of loss and discovery set among the prisoners of war who were sent to build the “Death Railway” between Thailand and Burma during the second world war. Winner of the 2014 Man Booker prize for fiction and replete with scenes that stay with the reader long after the final page, this is the book that Richard Flanagan was born to write.

Lila. By Marilynne Robinson. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 272 pages; $26. Virago; £16.99. Buy from Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk
The third of Marilynne Robinson’s novels to be set in Gilead, Iowa, and featuring John Ames, a Congregationalist preacher, turns to the story of Ames’s late-in-life wife. A former prostitute and cleaner, Lila, in her new incarnation, learns about grace, joy and love, lessons that are imparted with no trace of soppiness. By one of the finest writers in America.

Decoded. By Mai Jia. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 315 pages; $26. Allen Lane; £18.99. Buy from Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk
At last, a fine Chinese novel that holds its own as a work that book-lovers with no special knowledge of China will relish. By a former member of the intelligence services, “Decoded” stands out for its pace and for the sheer novelty of the tale it tells.

Arctic Summer.

Orfeo.

No Man’s Land: Fiction from a World at War.

Thirty Girls: A Novel.

Family Life: A Novel.

Fourth of July Creek.

Uncertain Glory.