William McGowan is the author of Coloring the News and Only Man Is Vile: The Tragedy of
Sri Lanka.
His book about The New York Times, Gray Lady Down, will be published this fall.

Captain Sir by Edgar Rice (DaCapo Press, $21). This compulsively readable biography describes the life and times of scholar-adventurer and tantric adept Sir Richard Burton. Rice credits Burton’s anthropological and literary investigations of Hindu and Muslim cultures—including a translation of the Kama Sutra—with having laid the base for much 19th- and 20th-century scholarship and exploration.

The Lover by Marguerite Duras (Pantheon, $10). This slim novel is like its teenage anti-heroine: It’s thin, beautiful, and breathes with the rhythms of budding female sexuality. Both narrator and reader watch helplessly as, against a backdrop of colonial decadence and Indochinese allure, passion merges with rank prejudice to doom an affair still able to haunt decades later.

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates (Vintage, $14). Think early-’80s yuppies and their godhead, David Letterman, represent the roots of today’s seemingly ubiquitous Irony Culture? You’ll think again when you read Richard Yates’ 1961 novel, one of the earliest explorations in American letters of the “ironic pretender” and the corrosive power of the smirky “so bad it’s good” mentality.

An Historical Relation of Ceylon by John Knox (out of print). Knox was a 17th-century sailor who was shipwrecked on the Ceylonese coast and held for nearly 20 years in the upcountry stronghold of the Buddhist king of Kandy. Knox’s account, one of Britain’s first best-sellers, describes a kingdom that considered itself the “protector” of Buddhism but regularly executed enemies by letting royal elephants stomp them to death.

Damascus Gate by Robert Stone (Touchstone, $14). Cool hipsters, bug-eyed religious fanatics, and other edge freaks mingle with amazing narrative precision in millennial Jerusalem. The novel makes the Arab-Israeli conflict understandable in a profoundly psychological and political fashion, even as it shows how the struggle’s complexities undermine easy, binary thinking.

Holy Land by D.J. Waldie (St. Martin’s Press, $12). A tour de force of personal memoir, Holy Land explores the emotional and social history of postwar suburbia through a single grain of sand: the author’s life in Lakewood, Calif., where he lives in the same tract-development house that his parents bought new in the 1950s.