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WYPR Arts

The tar baby story in which Bre'r Rabbit outwits Bre'r Fox is a classic trickster folk tale. But like all fables, it is a double-barreled affair, with entertainment firing in tandem with a serious message. The question the story addresses is a fundamental one: Who controls access to food and water? Or, more crucially, who controls access to food and water when the rules have been turned upside down by giant forces like colonialism, slavery, global trade and the loss of the commons to enclosures?

Two things, first: One, Delphine de Vigan's Based on a True Story is a powerful novel of suspense. Two, Based on a True Story may or may not be based on truth.

Writer Vaddey Ratner is used to processing pain through fiction. Her best-selling debut novel, In the Shadow of the Banyan, was based on her experiences as little girl in Cambodia, where she and her family endured the brutalities of the Khmer Rouge and their killing fields. Ratner and her mother escaped Cambodia, eventually settling in the U.S., but her father disappeared not long after the Khmer Rouge came to power and his fate is still unknown.

Go into any semi-hip coffee shop and you'll find the regulars: people who spend hours there, day after day. Some of them are college students studying for exams, some are workers telecommuting to their jobs. (The nervous-looking ones with their noses in books, checking Twitter every three minutes? Those would be critics.) And some of them just really have nothing better to do.

Plastic surgery, private jets, toddlers in designer clothes, magnums of champagne — Lauren Greenfield's 500-page photo collection, Generation Wealth, shows all of that. But this book isn't just about people who are wealthy, it's about people who want to be wealthy.

A grain of rice, like a grain of sand, sifts through your hands with a mysterious and lovely sameness. Mostly white or tan, hundreds or thousands of grains pour smoothly out of buckets, out of burlap, into bowls, with a sound like small waterfalls. Rice seems so simple, really. And yet, because it plays a central role in world cuisines, these modest grains can carry the weight of history. Sometimes that history is deeply surprising.

Growing up, Jill Soloway had a hard time relating to women as they were portrayed on TV. Soloway would watch The Love Boat or Fantasy Island and feel uncomfortable with the version of femininity the shows put forth.

"In fact, all the way up through watching Sex and the City, I would feel incredibly upset by what I thought was an expectation of me," Soloway says. "[It] was, 'You should really love cute shoes,' and, 'Because you're a woman, you're going to go crazy for a particular dress.' "

Rakesh Satyal's new novel checks off a lot of boxes, but its charm lies in the fact that it wears all of it various identities so lightly. This is an immigration story, a coming-out story and something of an old-school feminist story about a timid woman learning to roar.

Colm Tóibín has ventured to ancient Argos — far from the decorous, restrained worlds of Henry James, coastal Ireland, and mid-20th century Brooklyn we've seen in his earlier books — in this heart-stopping novel based on Clytemnestra's family tragedy.

"I like to think I sprang from a head; I like to think the head was mine," writes Patricia Lockwood in Priestdaddy, her memoir of growing up with a Catholic priest for a father.

But no. She sprang from the (oft-exposed) loins of Father Gregory Lockwood, who converted on board a submarine while watching the Exorcist: "That eerie, pea-soup light was pouring down, and all around him men in sailor suits were getting the bejesus scared out of them, and the bejesus flew into my father like a dart into a bull's eye."

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