A gifted young public defender plays the hero in A Naked Singularity (Univ. of Chicago, $18), Sergio De La Pava’s dazzlingly smart and momentous new novel. Casi’s day is packed with one case after another, and through him we come face-to-face with the detritus of New York’s criminal-justice system. The interactions with defendants are presented with an insider’s knowledge of the system, and De La Pava’s uncanny writing reaches into the heart of matters large and small, from jail time for drug convictions to the importance of television. This book is acutely aware of all the big political issues today, and tackles them with a verve and stylistic flair reminiscent of David Foster Wallace—with a dash of Pynchonesque absurdity. While this is a challenging read, the whipsmart dialogue, boundless humor, and unassailable energy of the writing make it an effortless page-turner.
Can you name the capital of imperial Vietnam? This was a question in a recent National Geographic Bee, an annual event that challenges the downward trend in U.S. geographical literacy. These are just a few of the facts collected by Ken Jennings, a life-long Maphead (Scribner, $15), in his exuberant look at all things cartographic. As you would expect from a record-holding Jeapordy! champion, Jennings is well-supplied with trivia. He’s a perfect guide to a subject as diverse as geography; the “ultimate interdisciplinary study,” geography encompasses language, history, biology, public health, urban planning, and, of course, maps. Jennings offers paeans to the early cartographers, working without GPS, and he revels in GPS-enabled games, becoming an avid geocacher. He visits people who travel by checklist, collecting countries, elevations, and even Starbucks shops, then goes on his own road-atlas rally, an exercise that involves staying home. Throughout, he demonstrates how vital a tool a map is, while also savoring it as “a beautiful system in and of itself.”
Hiram Bigham III was an adventurer and explorer (some say he was the model for Indiana Jones) credited with “discovering” Machu Picchu in 1911. In Turn Right at Machu Picchu (Plume, $16), Mark Adams retraces Bingham’s journey on Peru’s Inca Trail, offering insights and historical and biographical stories along the way. Equally compelling is the author’s own story, as he leaves his New York office and laces up his hiking boots. Accompanied by a seasoned guide and local porters, Adams proves his mettle as he makes two separate trips to the sacred Inca site. Machu Picchu is an astonishing place, and Adams’s mixture of historical reporting and contemporary travel writing provides a fascinating vantage point.
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Published: Dutton - April 24th, 2012