What do Jimmy Carter and John le Carré have in common? Two of the new year’s newest books.

AN HOUR BEFORE DAYLIGHT
BY JIMMY CARTER
SIMON & SCHUSTER, $26


It’s been 20 years since he left office, but James Earl Carter Jr. still commands our attention. Though he’s gone from brokering peace deals to building houses for the poor, his moral authority seems, if anything, to have grown. Just a couple of months ago, he publicly reprimanded his own church for doctrinal rigidity and gender bias.

This book is not only a reminder — if any were needed — of just how decent a human being our 39th president is, but also an explanation of how he got that way. Give credit to Dad, an entrepreneurial and honest Georgia grocer and peanut farmer, and especially to Mom, a dedicated and independent-minded nurse. Earl observed the niceties of segregation, though with a certain evenhandedness. Miss Lillian never agreed with the system and made her opinion known. Jimmy, as he grew up, followed Mom.

A natural raconteur, Carter has that Southern knack for enveloping readers in both the flavor and the substance of a story. Details of farm and town are lovingly evoked, vividly told. Read it, and you’ll learn how to slaughter hogs, make cane syrup, plow a field with a mule. Most important, you’ll learn how to grow up and be president.

THE CONSTANT GARDENER
BY JOHN LE CARRÉ
SCRIBNER, $28


It was probably inevitable that John le Carré, the absolute master of the modern spy thriller and a writer of real literary gifts would, since the Cold War has become a memory, write a novel set in Africa. The continent is almost unbearably seductive to a certain kind of English sen-sibilty One thinks of Graham Greene, William Boyd, even Joseph Conrad. Africa is where you go to explore the con-flict between the primitive and the civilized, to find the barbarian lurking behind the face of cultivation. So, of course, le Carré has gone there.

Tessa Quayle — young, beautiful, and a thorn in the side of the remaining British establishment — is murdered in Kenya. But her murder must be investigated, even as half of Africa is dying unmourned. It is her husband — a man much older than she, whom she was, evidently, cuckolding — who seeks to solve the murder. His efforts uncover crime and corruption beyond the power of Africa to create or a short review to describe.

But what sustains the novel is not so much its suspense, as its author’s gift for nuance and for the epic ironies implicit in this clash of cultures. As with the old, divided Cold War Berlin, le Carré’s gifts are matched perfectly to his setting and his material. — G.N.

KILLER WOMAN BLUES
BY BENJAMIN DEMOTT
HOUGHTON MIFFLIN, $26


Are we ready for round three in the gender wars?

In round one, women battled for equality with men in the workplace, in schools, at home. In round two, Benjamin DeMott argues, women began to act like men. They became killer executives, kicking butt and cutting throats like the guys; sexual predators, lewdly staring at male sex ob-jects and The Boss, lording it over newly sensitive spouses.

An oversimplification, no doubt. But the author piles up the evidence — sitcoms, movies, popular novels, ads — to suggest that women now aspire to the worst “masculine” traits. In the process, something precious has been lost: compassion, a largely feminine vision of the richness of human variety and an impulse to nourish and protect. DeMott argues that women and men must learn that neither side is The Enemy, that whatever cultural straitjacket confines us is one we have fashioned together over the ages.

Read Killer Woman Blues with caution. DeMott’s interpretations of pop culture can be clumsy and ham-fisted. (Most of us know Mrs. Doubtfire is not a serious analysis of reversed gender roles.) But the general argument is sound. We need to move beyond the body blows and catcalls, no matter who delivers them.

Maybe in round three we will fight to a draw.

BUD, SWEAT, AND TEES
BY ALAN SHIPNUCK
SIMON & SCHUSTER, $24


The tale of the young golfer trying to break through on the professional tour has been told many times, but Alan Shipnuck makes it fresh again. Bud, Sweat, and Tees follows the true story of Rich Beem, who has an A game and probably a temperament and is barely doing okay when he meets a caddy, Steve Duplantis, who is doing worse. Duplantis, in fact, has just been fired by one of the stars of the tour. He also has a problem with discipline — he is chronically late — and is a single father who likes to party. This pairing looks the opposite of synergy.

But Beem finds himself in the lead going into the last day of the Kemper Open. Not a “major,” but still a big tournament. He will be playing against a veteran who is in second place and who makes sure Beem overhears a cell phone conversation in which he describes Beem disparagingly as “some rookie.” Shipnuck wrings the last drop of tension from the round.

He also takes the reader inside the tour and introduces him to various unwholesome elements. And he tells tales, such as how Tiger fired his caddy, the man called Fluff. In short, he uses the story of Beem and his big tournament to cover a lot of ground in a first-class treatment of the world of professional golf. — G.N.