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“The Book of Salt” by Monique Truong (Chatto & Windus, London)

A lyrical, deeply compelling novel about Trin Bình, the Vietnamese cook Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas hired in 1929. Inevitably, in that otherworldly rue de Fleurus household, the identity of “Thin Bin” as he was called by the famous couple, was gradually swept into its high-octane intellectual atmosphere. However, the mere fact that this man in exile should fit at all — let alone easily — into that extraordinary, hair-trigger world, points to the presence of a complicated, even worrisome nature. His personality infuses this story with the salient tension of a sparking fuse in a dry tinderbox. In real life, Stein and Toklas were well-nigh perfect fictional characters, and this first novel pays tribute to them. MH

“True Tales of American Life” edited by Paul Auster (Faber & Faber, London)

This is a collection of real-life tales, that started in 1999 as a National Public Radio project emceed by Paul Auster. The idea was to ask listeners to send in stories about themselves. No one, and certainly not Auster, ever expected the ensuing public response, incredible both in terms of number and quality. More than 4 000 anecdotes came flooding into the studio. Here, Auster has selected 180 of these, each among best. Ordinary people relate everyday occurences, ranging from slapstick incidents to profoundly disturbing instants. It would be impossible to detail the scope and emotional depth of these pieces, yet an overwhelming image emerges, that of human nature, in all its guises... beautiful, ugly, lyrical, blasphemous, hilariously trivial, or earth-shakingly heartbreaking. And, knowing how much material is out there, we can only hope for a sequel. MH

Paris

Robert Doisneau, by Jean-Claude Gautrand (Taschen)

This is the photographer whose pictures — not least, his world-famous “Hôtel de Ville” kiss — epitomize France for many Anglos. Doisneau (1912-1994) is best known for his magical, timeless 35mm street portraits taken in Paris and its suburbs. Full of poetry and humor, his photographs depict everyday people with humanity and grace. The book traces Doisneau’s life and career, providing a wonderful introduction to the work of this seminal figure. BR

Paris Disparu by Leonard Pitt (Parigramme)

Photographs dating back to the previous millennium are juxtaposed with further examples taken today, in this fascinating look at yesterday's Paris. Pitt — who first came here in 1963 to study mime — shares with the reader what amounts to a lifelong love affair with a capital’s streets. Featuring invaluable mapped walking itineraries, this guide (in French) is an invitation to reflect upon what remains of this city’s phenomenal architectural heritage. BR

Politics

Power and Terror, Post-9/11 Talks and Interviews, by Noam Chomsky (Seven Stories Press).

A timely book placing 9/11 in the context of American foreign policy throughout the postwar decades — Vietnam, Central America and the Middle East. Starting from the standpoint that the exercise of violence against civilian populations is terror — regardless of whether the perpetrator is a well organized band of Muslim extremists or the most powerful state in the world — Chomsky challenges the US to apply to its own actions the moral standards it demands of others. “Everyone’s worried about stopping terrorism. Well, there’s a really easy way... Stop participating in it!” — Chomsky observes. BR

Jihad Vs. McWorld, by Benjamin R. Barber (Ballantine Books)

With its catchy title — this book argues that the world is presently torn between marketplace globalization and various regional interests. Barber suggests that these forces threaten the nation state, which he sees as the only guarantor of the conditions that have allowed democracy to flourish. He focuses on global capitalism as well as religious, tribal and ethnic intolerance as potential threats to democracy. BR

Travel

The Hotel Book by Shelley-Maree Cassidy (Taschen)

From a Château in Bourgogne to Sweden’s “Icehotel” this luscious picture book is a guide to some of Europe’s most spectacular getaways. Highlitghting a selection of unique hotels and guest houses it mixes gorgeous color photographs with directions, prices and contact info. Be it a lighthouse in Wales or a former monastery in Spain, each of these havens is the stuff that dreams are built on. A nice touch is that every account of the various places listed here includes a “recommended book” to read when you get there. BR

The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton (Penguin)

Few activities seem to promise us as much happiness as traveling to someplace new and different. According to the WTO, travel is the world’s biggest industry, beating weapons and pharmaceuticals in terms of the number of people it employs. However, such trips are often tinged with disappointment, as they do not always come up to expectations. This poetic book might just as well be called “Why go?”... Although we’re inundated with tips on where to go, we seldom attempt to define why we’re opting for a particular spot, or assess to what extent our choice might help us become more fulfilled. With the help of a multiplicity of writers, artists and thinkers — including Flaubert, Edward Hopper, Wordsworth and Van Gogh, the author provides all kinds of insights designed to encourage us to experience the places we visit more artfully. BR