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What We're Reading, Nov. 17 - 23, 2009

At NPR, we cover a lot of books every week. Among those, there are always a handful of standouts — the great reads as well as the books whose buzz level makes them impossible to ignore. "What We're Reading" brings you our book team's shortlist of new fiction and nonfiction releases, along with candid reactions from our reporters, critics and staff.

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Open

An Autobiography

By Andre Agassi

Agassi covers a lot of ground in Open — the much-discussed drug use, yes, but also his hairpiece, his starting of little trash can fires to relieve stress, and his doomed marriage to Brooke Shields. Transformed from interview transcripts into tight, present-tense prose by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer J.R. Moehringer, Open begins and ends at Agassi's final tournament. Between those points, it traces his childhood with a violent and demanding father, his adolescent years at a hated tennis academy, and his uneven professional career and unlikely comeback. Open is a memoir, ending on a hopeful note with his dual embraces of philanthropy and family, but it's also a brutal diary of life as an aging elite athlete who has privately said for years — though few believed him — that he hates tennis.

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Hardcover, 400 pages, Knopf, list price: $28.95, pub. date: Nov. 9


Changing My Mind

Occasional Essays

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By Zadie Smith

While Zadie Smith is probably known best as a novelist, Changing My Mind collects what she calls "occasional essays" — reflections on everything from books to her own family to her travels in Liberia. Smith is an intellectual, but without the remoteness that intellectual writing can bring. She's funny, sometimes sentimental, and clearly a pretty good sport. Divided into sections called Reading, Being, Seeing, and Feeling, the collection doesn't pause to apologize for or explain the tonal shifts that invariably arise when an interesting person turns from a warm recollection of her father to a barbed takedown of the film Memoirs Of A Geisha. And in a final section, Remembering, Smith revisits the work of David Foster Wallace and embraces the opportunity to passionately defend challenging writing itself.

Hardcover, 320 pages, Penguin Press, list price: $26.95, pub. date: Nov. 12


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Going Rogue

An American Life

By Sarah Palin

A memoir of this controversial political figure's life, from her earliest memories in Alaska's tiny towns and snowy countryside, to her spectacular rise on the national political scene. Two themes dominate the book: Palin's rugged and folksy upbringing, and the intense persecution she says she's faced from the Republican establishment, the American left and the media — especially the media. More than half of Going Rogue details the 2008 presidential race, Palin's anger with how she was treated by the McCain campaign, and the things she would like to have done in those historic months.

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Hardcover, 432 pages, HarperCollins, list price: $28, pub. date: Nov. 17


Under the Dome

A Novel

By Stephen King

A 1,000-page brick of a novel, Under The Dome features one of King's simpler what-if scenarios: What if a small town in Maine was suddenly surrounded by an invisible, impenetrable wall? Inside, he traps his usual enormous cast of characters — law enforcement, corrupt politicians, hapless victims, unlikely heroes, the obligatory wandering madman — and turns them loose. Sprawling and unwieldy in the opening pages, it narrows its focus to fewer and fewer people with less and less room to maneuver. How the baffling dome came to be matters surprisingly little; as always, King is far more interested in the way characters respond to a situation than he is in explaining the situation itself.

Hardcover, 1,088 pages, Scribner, list price: $35, pub. date: Nov. 10


The Faith Instinct

How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures

By Nicholas Wade

Books written about religion from a perspective other than theology are a hot property; think of Karen Armstrong's The Case For God or Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, to name two. Now comes Nicholas Wade, New York Times science writer, who argues that religion has an evolutionary function. It's a universal phenomenon, he says, because it gives humans an edge. Wade stresses two benefits religion conveys: It restrains aggression and encourages self-sacrifice for the community. Wade's previous book, Before The Dawn, covered human evolution more generally, and he's explained The Faith Instinct as an outgrowth of that research — one that is sure to spark plenty of discussion.

Hardcover, 320 pages, Penguin Press, list price: $25.95, pub. date: Nov. 12


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