by Carrie Fisher

The unexamined life may not be worth living, but the examined life is no picnic either—not if you're a Carrie Fisher heroine. The good news is that the actress turned author of Postcards from the Edge and Surrender the Pink is back with another smart, edgy novel in which the angst is spiced with pungent wit.

In Delusions of Grandma, the quirky, unpredictable Cora Sharpe, a screenwriter and veteran of numerous star-crossed love affairs, is drawn to a man who is so different from the narcissists and control freaks she usually falls for that she's utterly perplexed. Ray is dependable, available and good-natured—an all-around Boy Scout in a grown man's body—and Cora hopes she'll "catch commitment from him like a cold." Theirs is an odd, poignant match bound by life (Cora's unexpected pregnancy), death (the passing of her old pal William, whom Cora and Ray usher through the final stages of AIDS) and glitzy Hollywood dinner parties.

Against the backdrop of Ray's steadiness and capacity for settling down—which, alas, turns out not to be contagious—Cora must find her true self so that she can create a real home for her unborn child. Her feistiness and intelligence are endearing, but sometimes she's too smart for her own good: The verbal riffs and clever comebacks have a way of sabotaging some of the more tender moments. Still, Cora's vulnerability bursts through in spite of herself, and we can't help rooting for her. By the time the baby comes, she's shifted into a new gear and the examined life starts being lived more fully. (Simon & Schuster, $22)

by Martin Amis

Like his de facto father Kingsley, like his more spiritual fathers Vladimir Nabokov and Saul Bellow, Martin Amis is an unsparing wit with a well-concealed but unmistakably soft heart. This first-rate collection of 33 essays, travelogues and interviews has the peculiar effect of revealing him in a warmer, more humane light than his novels do. The subjects range from Véra Nabokov (Vladimir's late widow) to Salman Rushdie (an old friend of the author's who grants him a poignant interview) and the looking-glass maze of corridors at the Pentagon, where Amis stalks the wizards of nuclear science.

The brainy, sarcastic, tender intelligence at the center of these pieces can make you laugh out loud; they can also move you to tears. But first and last, Amis has a gift for coming up with startling phrases. Of an ugly building boom in the Caribbean, he writes, "Capitalism looks on and cracks its knuckles." Ronald Reagan at the close of his presidential career is described as "a gorgeous old opera-phantom shot full of Novocain."

Véra Nabokov, V.S. Pritchett, Isaac Asimov, Madonna and Roman Polanski are among those who come alive under Amis's ironic, empathetic scrutiny. One common—but unstated—thread of unity is that most of the major figures in this book are prodigies, often youthful ones—much like Amis himself. His literary boyhood, his adult life as both a son and a father, his helpless and deeply personal sense of outrage at the buildup of the world's weaponry all haunt the peripheries of these visitations, as if this were not a bundle of essays but a stealth autobiography. (Harmony, $20)

by Caryl Phillips

Sometimes history can be as simple as a voice and a voyage. At least that's the conceit guiding this sensitive novel about the African diaspora, which describes the lives of three siblings—Nash, Martha and Travis—who are brought to the New World as slaves.

Theirs are bittersweet stories, and they defy the logic of time to explore how black life evolved beyond slavery. Nash's odyssey, set in the 1820s, unfolds through his letters to his former master, a Christian who freed Nash to do missionary work among African blacks. Martha's fate leaves her destitute in America's Colorado Territory, an old runaway cut off from her only daughter. Travis becomes an American GI in World War II England, where he falls for a country girl.

Phillips brilliantly evokes the different historical settings, here through the detail of a slaver's logbook, there with Travis's English love griping about blacks as "toffee-nosed buggers." The author explores themes of remorse, abandonment and self-reliance with complexity and understatement. These timeless children are symbolic, but thanks to Phillips, history has seldom looked more human. (Knopf, $22)

by Steven Pinker

By reminding us what a miracle language is—that by simply making noises with our mouths, we bring ideas to each other's minds—Steven Pinker begins this remarkable odyssey that takes us from the physiology of speech to the mystery of consciousness itself.

Amazed by the prodigious ability of children to learn language, Pinker, 39, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences at MIT, argues that the process is a biological function determined by the genetic makeup of our brains. Like the renowned linguist Noam Chomsky, Pinker believes we are born knowing the general principles of language, and as we grow up, we add such elements as vocabulary and syntax.

Writing colloquially, Pinker moves from teenage slang and musical lyrics to complicated linguistic theory. He quotes Dan Quayle and Yogi Berra to explain the role genetics may play in varying language capabilities; he debunks rigid grammatical rules, citing Star Trek's "to boldly go where no man has gone before" as a case for split infinitives. While linguistics and grammarians might disagree with some of his conclusions, he marshals his evidence in captivating ways. The Language Instinct covers an enormous amount of material, and if at times the going is slow, the journey is worth it. (Morrow, $23)

by Douglas Coupland

This collection of eight short stories is the third book by Coupland, whose 1991 novel, Generation X, christened the age group born between 1961 and 1981 and helped spawn a marketing revolution. In his previous two works, Coupland, 32, wickedly satirized the fast ecological ruin, shrinking white-collar job market and fear of intimacy confronting his generation. These bare-bones tales—many in the first person—set mainly in British Columbia catch Xers in varying states of misery.

A couple of the book's lost-at-the-strip-mall characters are compelling. Laurie, an affluent suburban druggie who becomes so obsessed with the story of Patty Hearst that she runs away, is lovingly remembered by a sibling as "the one for whom I would skip high school." But most are cardboard creations whose sole distinguishing quality is self-pity: Witness one narrator who notes, "I think the price we paid for our golden life was an inability to fully believe in love; instead we gained an irony that scorched everything it touched."

Like Generation X, which included pictures and slogans in its margins, Life After God has a gimmick. Illustrated with pen-and-ink drawings, the book is the size of a pocket Bible. But Coupland's ultimate commercial maneuver is his 30-second readings on MTV. Sly marketing savvy may always be part of Coupland's art, but fans will hope he ditches the self-indulgent wailings and regains his hip, funny point of view. Growing up, even in the '90s, doesn't have to be this humorless. (Pocket, $17)

by Janet Malcolm

The freedom to be cruel is one of journalism's uncontested privileges," says Janet Malcolm in this thoughtful, biting study of the problem of biography. The silent woman at the center of Malcolm's latest meditation is Sylvia Plath, the poet who, at 30, committed suicide in 1963.

As Malcolm sees it, one of biography's obstacles is that "memory is notoriously unreliable; when it is intertwined with ill will, it may become monstrously unreliable." Who is the Sylvia Plath that emerges from the voluminous biographies, essays and articles written about her? Saint or sinner, angel or madwoman? A housewife who wrote poetry on the side, or a poet miserably shackled by family life? Malcolm implies that no one has got it right. And what's worse, the means by which Plath clearly wished to be remembered—her poetry—has been obscured by the publication of her letters and journals and the musings of those who knew her.

You wouldn't want to be on Malcolm's bad side. The controversial journalist (In the Freud Archives, The Journalist and Murderer) performs character assassination with surgical precision, and often her victims seem to get exactly what they deserve. Only poet Ted Hughes, Plath's husband, escapes. Hughes undoubtedly could have written more intimately about his late wife than any of her biographers; instead, he has chosen to remain silent. In Malcolm's view, Hughes is the only member of a rarefied, intellectual cast of characters who did not sell Plath down the river. This is a brilliant exploration of talent, early death and the carnivorous world of journalism. (Knopf, $23)

  • Contributors:
  • Barbara Graham,
  • F.X. Feeney,
  • V.R. Peterson,
  • Thomas Curwen,
  • Maria Speidel,
  • Dani Shapiro.