Season's Readings

From a terrorist's plot to a pedant's revolt, a Flyer guide to the books of summer.

| July 06, 2006

Sorry, folks -- and apologies in advance to writers Karen Finley and Andrea Barham -- but the Flyer's look at some of this summer's books is heavy-duty white and male. (Least they aren't dead, white, and male.) We didn't plan it that way -- honest. But perhaps you've heard of the authors here.

In the fiction department: Philip Roth and John Updike. In the same department, Southern division: Howard Bahr and Steve Yarbrough. And on the crime scene: Michael Connelly. Granted, a few of these guys are positively un-American. Think Peter Carey, Leonard Cohen, Alexander Masters, and Will Self.

Stateside, though, consider the all-American sport of overeating. Jason Fagone does. Count on baseball. Bill James did. (And Scott Gray does.) Then admit it: The U.S.A. is an "armed madhouse." But that's Greg Palast for you. Hypocrisy? It's a good thing! Ask Jeremy Lott. Then grab a lawn chair. Chill. Read on. It's summer 2006.

The Terrorist

By John Updike

Knopf, 310 pp., $25

John Updike, who's been publishing books for more than four decades -- almost 40 titles altogether, of various kinds, roughly one a year -- is both as exasperating and as satisfying as ever with this latest novel, an attempt to get inside the body, the mind, and, most importantly, the soul of a bona fide American-born Islamic jihadist -- one who, in the course of the novel, is determined to blow himself up, along with several thousand other people and a nice hunk of Manhattan infrastructure. All in the name of Allah.

Or in the name of self-realization -- a favorite theme of Updike's, especially in the four "Rabbit" novels that the author is best known for. Like those books, The Terrorist is a Bildungsroman of sorts, a coming-of-age that happens to coincide with a coming-into-eternity. The hard way.

That's the plan, anyhow. And a considerate reviewer will treat the working out of that circumstance with all the caution and circumspection that a review of a thriller demands. For that's the odd thing. Updike actually succeeds in generating considerable momentum and suspense, despite indulging in all of the annoying mannerisms that have always clogged the arteries of his tales. As ever, he writes whole long passages in a kind of tiresomely dense rococo, with static descriptions which have all the pop and sizzle of a page in a thesaurus. Or strained metaphors like this one: "[The boy's] eyes seem round black lamps upon the stark white shirt; they burn into Levy's memory and return at times like afterimages of the sun at sunset, or the flash from a camera when you obligingly pose, trying to look natural, and it goes off unexpectedly soon."

Right. You can puzzle all of that out, but it takes a while.

The Levy of the quoted passage is an over-the-hill cynic, a guidance counselor at the New Jersey high school where the protagonist of the novel, a half-Arab, half-Irish, virginal lad named Ahmad, tries to decide whether he owes his cherry to this world or the next one. Levy is a multi-tasker, bedding Ahmad's mom (giving Updike a chance to reprise some of his Couples-era randiness) while he mentors the seriously angst-ridden boy. And in the latter task the counselor has serious competition in the person of a shadowy imam figure who steers Ahmad, post-graduation, toward a truck-driver's gig -- setting up, ultimately, a suicide mission with a bomb-laden vehicle in the Lincoln Tunnel.

Along the way there's a generous panoply of supportive characters. Inter alia: a thuggish pimp named Tylenol, a heartthrob-turned-hooker named Joryleen, and a wise-cracking Lebanese-American furniture dealer named Charlie who exhorts Ahmad toward both "poontang" and self-immolation with equal enthusiasm. There are agents and double-agents and serious dissertations on the pluses and minuses of Islam, Christianity, Judaism, secularism, and materialism.

There's a fair amount of derring-do and an unexpected plot twist or two. Some of his critics notwithstanding, Updike, in his oh-so-literary way, is still up to the task. -- Jackson Baker

Everyman

By Philip Roth

Houghton Mifflin, 192 pp., $24

In addition to collecting every literary award except a much-deserved Nobel Prize, Philip Roth has over the past decade steadily zeroed in on his one true subject, putting a finer and finer point on it with each subsequent novel: death. He writes not only of inevitable mortality but of the constant, needling worry that comes from living each day with the realization that you will die. Your organs will lose their efficiency, your heart will grow unreliable, your limbs will become slow and creaky, your mind will or will not cloud up, your body will betray you.

Documenting such everyday entropy does not make Roth unique. In fact, some might say the fear of death is the underlying theme of every work of art, especially storytelling. But this physical decay is not just the substance of Roth's slim, efficient new novel, Everyman; it is its whole plot.

The main character, as the title suggests, is an ordinary man of Roth's generation and bearing no coincidental resemblance to the author's alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, whose own infirmity was portrayed in novels such as American Pastoral (1997) and The Human Stain (2000). Everyman traces the unnamed character's life through his numerous surgeries and hospital visits: his hernia operation as a child, the emergency appendectomy in his 30s, the triple bypass in middle age, and a carotid endarterectomy in his later years. "Eluding death," Roth writes, "seemed to have become the central business of his life and bodily decay his entire story."

The character's personal reflections allow Roth to write from within the head of his everyman, vividly evoking memories of his childhood and his father's jewelry store, where he became fascinated not only with watches (and the constancy of time) but with the young girls who worked there. But as the character ages and his health begins to fail, even a romantic walk on the beach provokes fears: "The profusion of stars told him unambiguously that he was doomed to die, and the thunder of the sea only yards away -- and the nightmare of the blackest blackness beneath the frenzy of the water -- made him want to run from the menace of oblivion." Obviously, Everyman isn't a beach read.

In between hospital visits, the character ruminates on his three failed marriages, his three very different children, and his older brother Howie, who remains completely unafflicted by natural decay and in fact seems to grow more virile -- and wealthy -- as he ages. However, whenever the main character interacts with these or other people -- for instance, with a doomed woman, who lives at the same senior community -- Roth's writing becomes shaky and the dialogue awkward. Such a minor blemish can't lessen the book's impact, which seemingly -- and ironically -- counters the novel's main arguments about human decay.

As Philip Roth ages, he shows no trace of flagging abilities and his books exhibit a very sturdy, very direct thoughtfulness that is quietly exciting. Everyman is a fine addition to a sound body of work. -- Stephen Deusner

The Judas Field

By Howard Bahr

Henry Holt, 304 pp., $25

The Judas Field follows Howard Bahr's prize-winning debut novel, The Black Flower (1997), and The Year of Jubilo (2000). But thematically and stylistically it delivers the concerns of the previous novels with a tighter, more forceful effort. Bahr's eloquent and evocative style as he visits and revisits the reality of war renders his trademark characters -- here, Cass and Lucian Wakefield and Roger Lewellyn -- part wasted war veterans and part philosophers.

While The Black Flower offered a riveting account of the Battle of Franklin (Tennessee) and its aftermath, The Year of Jubilo settled on Reconstruction and the Confederate soldiers' attempts at post-war life. The Judas Field manages both. Cass, Lucian, and Roger are survivors of the Battle of Franklin -- survivors only in the sense that they are alive -- who set out to bring home the remains of their colonel and his son. The request, from an old friend and daughter of the colonel, is made of Cass, yet the others must make the journey as well.

Twenty years have passed since the 1864 battle. The men retrace their steps through a changed landscape accompanied by their relentless memories. As the narrative progresses, Bahr adeptly dismisses comfortable illusions: There are no post-war recoveries; battles are never forgotten, nor are the dead and wounded; God doesn't grant "miracles" for some and choose death for others. Such notions are as shallow and meager as the word "closure."

"Some things could never be hid, and some places could not be healed," Bahr writes of the battle site. Lucian feels the dead soldiers -- the "lost ones" -- brush against him even in the sunlight, "feels them under his feet, restless, pushing against the weight of the earth."

Though set in a time period Bahr has staked for himself, the lessons of this novel apply to all wars. The veterans suffer from post-traumatic shock and they self-medicate with liquor, laudanum, and "Injun weed." Their dreams are mostly nightmares. Lucian, young but intuitive, decides that "God could not be blamed for this. ... Something else -- vanity, madness, illusion -- had risen from the will of Man and laid all this under the moon. God grieved among them, as bent and helpless and alone as any. ... God suffered more than any, for He had seen this countless times before and knew He would see it again and again."

Bahr finds his way through these threads to a bittersweet conclusion marred only by a description of a courthouse bell and its roosting pigeons. The passage, similar to one found in Faulkner's Requiem for a Nun, takes a bit of the luster off the prose of an otherwise exceptional novel. -- Lisa C. Hickman

The End of California

By Steve Yarbrough

Knopf, 303 pp., $23.95

Novelist Steve Yarbrough lives and teaches in Fresno, California, but he was born in the Mississippi Delta, the setting for his fourth novel, The End of California -- which makes the plot of this tale seem something of a case of "writing what you know."

The book centers around Pete Barrington, a physician and former football star who has moved his family back to his native Mississippi from California. The reason for the move? A vaguely alluded to scandal involving Barrington and a female patient. His wife, Angela, and teenage daughter, Toni, smolder with resentment -- for the forced move and for the affair that provoked it.

But there are ghosts of the past awaiting the Barrington family in Loring, Pete's tiny Mississippi hometown. Seems the good doctor has had a problem keeping his privates private for quite some time. As a teenager, he fooled around with the mother of one of his high school friends, Alan DePoyster, a scandal that eventually caused the destruction of the DePoysters' marriage. Alan, it turns out, now a repressed religious fundamentalist who runs the local Kroger store, is not the type to forgive and forget. Further complicating matters is the fact that Alan's got a teenage son and Pete's got a teenage daughter, and ever the twain shall meet.

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The complications continue, as the hard-drinking Angela finds herself attracted to Pete's best friend, Tim, who returns the favor. It's a thick and juicy plot, like an episode of Desperate Southern Housewives. All that's missing is a racial angle. Oh wait, there it is: A shrewd black sheriff gets drawn into the drama as an investigator when murder ensues.

Yarbrough's multi-layered tale moves briskly, making it a good airplane/beach read, though his prose is sometimes perfunctory and often cluttered with sludgy details, as in: "She opened the refrigerator door, and light spilled out, pooling on the floor. Inside, where she'd put them the night before, were a bag of grapes and a ham and cheese on rye. These she stuck in a brown paper sack, along with a bottle of Evian."

Still, if you're a fan of messy Southern soap operas with a healthy dollop of sex and violence, you could do much worse than pick up The End of California. It's a page-turner with enough surprising twists to keep you reading. -- Bruce VanWyngarden

George & Martha

By Karen Finley

Verso, 102 pp., $15 (paper)

"What a dump!" Martha Stewart says, referring to the hotel room she shares with the object of her (lacking) affection, George W. Bush. Or is she talking about the state of America?

New York-based performance artist Karen Finley's seventh book, originally intended for the stage, George & Martha (with illustrations by Finley) is a snappy running dialogue consisting of politically incorrect, at times pornographic, conversations between the couple. While adding fuel to the fire of national debate, the book is a healthy sign that in America freedom of speech and genuine creativity are alive and well.

The hotel room serves as the setting for George and Martha's final tryst before Martha heads to prison. George is married but not to Martha. Still, they fight like a married couple.

Much of the conflict stems from Martha's dominant nature. She's Ann Coulter's worst nightmare, clearly the boss in the relationship. She pays sharp attention to detail, while George forgets at one point that he is president. George may have started a war, but it's Martha who calls the shots, even critiquing America's presence in Iraq. "And the Iraqis will say, 'I lost my entire family during American bombings, but I will be able to cast a vote. Thank you, America!'" Martha snaps.

Realizing that Martha is "more of a man than I am," George copes by focusing on the fact that she's the one going to jail. "Oh, I give up, Martha. Why don't you run for President?" he says. "Oh, you can't. You're a convicted felon. I can't even get your vote."

And the reader can't help but question which figure should be heading to prison -- the one who messed with the stock market (and justifies it by playing the victim of a misogynistic society) or the one who messed with multiple countries (and justifies it as a counter-terrorism move to spread American-style democracy). Finley's opinion is apparent, but she leaves it to the reader to decide.

Despite all their bickering, though, the couple depend on each other to soothe their insecurities. Both feel that they were never able to live up to their parents' standards, and both remain desperate for approval. George calls Martha "Mommy" because she nurtures him, which in turn gives her greater power.

In a telephone conversation with his father, George blubbers, "Hi, Daddy. Do you know what a coop day tat is? Is that from rum ba ba bum a Christmas carol? ... Yes, Dad, I am that stupid. ... Yes, isn't it amazing that such a smart man like you could have such a stupid son like me?" He later comments to Martha: "Fettucine, linguini, fusilli? They all sound pornographic. I am going to have to get the FCC to regulate cookbooks."

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The only aspect of this hilarious satire that might make the reader uncomfortable is its tragic likeness to the truth. But perhaps it takes this degree of lampoonery for us to question why our country is in such a state of political disarray. -- Shea O'Rourke

Theft: A Love Story

By Peter Carey

Knopf, 269 pp., $24

Art and love -- and the love of art and the art of love -- have been tangled up since before the Church commissioned its first fresco. The topics have inspired countless novels, paintings, poems, and songs. And yet they still inspire.

In Theft: A Love Story, Peter Carey explores the twin natures of love and art, braiding a bizarre love triangle between painter Michael "Butcher" Boone; Marlene, a beautiful blond art authenticator; and a canvas. Told by dual narrators -- Michael and his damaged brother Hugh -- the novel is a suspenseful account of what it means to love beyond suspicion, familial duty, and betrayal.

Carey, a two-time winner of the Booker Prize, is known for his characters and Theft is no exception: It features a former arsonist with a quick mind, a would-be butcher with a slow mind, and an angry, spewing artist.

At the beginning, the two brothers are exiled to a remote part of Australia where they eke out an existence as caretakers of a country home. One day, Marlene walks out of the pouring rain. Soon a priceless painting is stolen, and both the painter and the art authenticator are suspected. But the two aid and abet each other, both personally and professionally, gradually becoming a couple.

Like many novels that rest upon art, this is a tale of two artists: the painter inside the pages and the writer living in the outside world. Carey's language is beautiful but rugged, so much so that it often leaps off the page in aggressive bursts.

"If you are MAKING ART the labour never ends, no peace, no Sabbath, just eternal churning and cursing and worrying and fretting and there is nothing else to think of but the idiots who buy it or the insects destroying TWO DIMENSIONAL SPACE," he writes.

But his language is also tender and packed with taut detail and emotion: "She was so, so gorgeous, the reading light catching her left cheek, a wash of gold dust, rising from a slate blue field," he writes. "She held her arms open and I held her, smelled her jasmine skin, her shampooed hair. Did I say I loved her? Of course I did. I slid my hand down her pole-climber's back, touching every vertebra in that nubbly line of life."

Unlike with simple foils, the dual narrators play off one another, exposing each other's flaws in perception. It makes for a more complete -- and more complex -- understanding of character.

In the end, perhaps the difference between art and love is that art can withstand secrets -- maybe thrives on them -- while love cannot. But both become more valuable the rarer they are. -- Mary Cashiola

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Book of Longing

By Leonard Cohen

Ecco, 240 pp., $24.95

Leonard Cohen has been making music and writing books for over 50 years. He is treasured for his ability to take the personal, typically in the form of bittersweet love affairs, and make it universal. He is, perhaps, more honored in his native Canada for his literary output than he is here, possibly because we are persnickety about letting a pop star into the pantheon. Cohen is also, mistakenly, labeled a gloom-laden songster, or as one wag put it, he makes music to slit your wrists by. He was and is an artist of the sacred and the profane, and he walks that tightrope with grace. "There is a war," he told us long ago, "between the odd and the even."

In this, his first book of new poetry since Book of Mercy (1984), we find a man still longing, still searching, though there is about the collection an element of peacefulness, of -- almost -- contentment. In the title poem he says, "I know she is coming/I know she will look/And that is the longing/And this is the book."

That's 22 years between Mercy and Longing, 22 years after which Cohen concludes, "Now that I am dying/I don't regret/A single step."

Yet, there is even now restlessness and the pursuit that Cohen has elevated to the sanctified: the search for whatever it is that begins and often ends in the feminine. "[M]ay you speedily be embraced by/the girlishness of your own/dark girlish religion" is how he ends one poem. And in one of the book's many self-portraits (visual self-portraits: the book is illustrated with Cohen's own drawings) he has written on his own forehead, "I never found the girl/I never got rich/Follow me."

Book of Longing, like Philip Roth's new novel, Everyman, is an old man's book, not so much a summing up as it is a memento mori. Or, in Cohen's case, a psalmody, for he approaches the shadow and wants to sing: "The Body I chased/It chased me as well/My longing's a place/My dying a sail."

This collection of poems, lyrics, prose, and prose poems is perhaps the most complete and revealing that Cohen has ever produced. Nowhere else does the reader get as close to the man behind the lyricism. This is partly due to a fresher, more open style of writing and partly due to the book itself, a lovely production that invites the reader in. Cohen's drawings are charming, playful, dark, erotic, and pious. They complement the poems and elucidate the themes.

Now 72 years old, Cohen is still scraping the raw emotions, still writing the difficult line, still probing, provoking, illuminating. Near the end of this gorgeous book, in one of the last drawings, he says, "Only one thing made him happy and now that it was gone everything made him happy." Longtime readers of Leonard Cohen may be able to guess what that one lost thing is and may suppose that this temperate ending does not mean that the war is not still going on. -- Corey Mesler

Crime Beat

By Michael Connelly

Little, Brown, 375 pp., $25.95

Michael Connelly writes some of the best crime fiction on the market today. By its very nature, Crime Beat is not destined to be among these fictional bestsellers. But its substance is such that it may have a more durable shelf life than its more lucrative cousins.

As the subtitle ("A Decade of Covering Cops and Killers") indicates, Crime Beat is a compilation of news accounts written by Connelly for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and the Los Angeles Times during the 1980s and early '90s. In his introduction to the book, Connelly relates how, as a teenager, he became interested in criminal investigation after seeing a man run from a crime scene and stash a gun in a hedge. The Fort Lauderdale police thought their young witness did not identify any of the suspects they rounded up because he was afraid, when, in fact, they simply did not have the right person. Eventually, Connelly would learn that the victim of the shooting had survived, but he heard nothing more about the perpetrator or the search for him. There was no coverage of the event in the local newspapers, a source of great mystification to the young man who had been deeply affected by the crime by merely witnessing one aspect of it. Connelly tells the story without rancor or cynicism but with the clarity and insight that distinguishes all his writing.

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Several years after his initial brush with the law, Connelly returned to that same precinct as a reporter and watched the police as closely as the crimes they were investigating. He also began practicing the craft of fiction writing. Not unexpectedly, the later fiction would contain images and situations based on some of those Connelly encountered in his career as a news writer. It is somewhat surprising, though, that the news stories display a synthesis of event and emotion rarely achieved in the crunch of daily deadlines. In 22 chapters, most of which are series of stories written as follow-up to a precipitating event, there is not one occurrence of the traditionally overused word "chilling" and perhaps one "grisly," even though much of the material would warrant such qualifiers.

On the strength of its portrayal of crime as a virus infecting the whole of society, Crime Beat is informative reading for a diverse audience. With its concise and straightforward prose, it could be a valuable resource for students of writing, sociology, and criminology. It also affords historical perspective on organized, individual, and random crime during the last two decades of the 20th century.

Connelly portrays detectives working past exhaustion and criminals who never seem to tire. The cost of crime is examined -- from the millions of dollars (including defense fees) required to shut down one murderous drug ring to the emotional and financial stress endured by an elderly woman who will never again feel safe after her home was ransacked by a crack-crazed neighbor.

The book is divided into sections titled "The Cops," "The Killers," and "The Cases." Why not a section titled "The Victims"? As Crime Beat shows, they are everywhere. -- Linda Baker

In Defense of Hypocrisy:

Picking Sides in the War on Virtue

By Jeremy Lott

Nelson Current, 186 pp., $22.99

Jeremy Lott thinks hypocrisy is a grossly misunderstood and unfairly reviled social device that, when all is said and done, may do as much good as harm. Hypocrisy, he believes, promotes order by perpetuating "useful fictions."

In his book In Defense of Hypocrisy, Lott reminds us (repeatedly) that the word "hypocrisy" was -- back in the days when Socrates prowled the streets of Athens -- a morally neutral construction meaning, "to act a part." That's true, but if words are the ever-changing currency of discourse, Lott's trivial pursuit is no more meaningful than calculating one's net worth based on the purchasing value of a dollar circa 1900. It might be a fun little game for down-at-heel economists, but it won't improve your credit rating.

Because Lott invests so much in original meaning and treats the modern pejorative as an annoying ant at the picnic, all forms of pretense are rendered hypocritical. This creates a false equilibrium where everything defensible is also justifiable. Whereas actors playing out their parts in a film are hypocritical by trade, a priest who saves souls on Sunday but diddles little boys throughout the week is not. In Lott's view, the clergyman deserves some sympathy since his Sunday persona may encourage others to behave morally. Hollywood stars who use their time and money to champion causes, however, aren't given quite the same pass. Stars enhance their brand (and may get free meals) by affiliating themselves with charities, and unless they admit this openly -- like Drew Carey, Lott's shining example of show-biz integrity -- they're a bunch of dirty hypocrites. That's okay, of course, as long as they are.

The best example of Lott's semantic and philosophical shortcomings is his heartfelt apologia for Strom Thurmond, the fierce Southern segregationist who represented South Carolina in the Senate for a significant chunk of the 20th century. The author openly admits Thurmond was a racist but calls hypocrisy on critics who don't recognize the senator's role in improving education for his (black) labor force and curtailing lynch mobs in South Carolina. Ignoring the ironic force behind exceptions that prove a rule, and without any consideration that successful vigilantism threatens its direct targets and the establishment, Lott never considers that Thurmond, who swore to keep the races separate and whites in charge, may very well have saved the village in order to burn it.

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Lott is fundamentally correct in his assertion that we're all guilty of pretension and hypocrisy and that our failings may result in some "positive externalities." But there's a huge gulf between hypocrisy and Hypocrisy; a gulf defined by an actor's motivation and his sphere of influence. And like a wise man once said, "What good's a positive externality if you lose your immortal soul in the bargain?" -- Chris Davis

Junk Mail

By Will Self

Black Cat, 336 pp., $14 (paper)

The updated, American publication of Will Self's Junk Mail shows up a couple of major differences between America's youngish, famous writers and the U.K. equivalents (Self is now 44 and famous): 1) We rarely have high-profile literary "bad boys" (at least, not anymore), and 2) British writers succeed effortlessly at traversing genre and format.

As for the first difference, Self solidified his place in this club with an incident that occurred in 1997: During an assignment for The Observer, he was caught snorting heroin on the prime minister's jet. Not that I'm advocating such behavior, but it seems the worst American writers do is lie about doing drugs.

The second difference is explained in Self's intro to Junk Mail: "Because of the centralization of the print media in London, there is a long-established British tradition of writers being jacks-of-all-trades. We write books, prospectuses, screenplays, articles, reviews, political commentary, feuilletons -- whatever will pay the rent."

As is common with collections of nonfiction, one doesn't have to be an unwavering fan of Self's fiction to enjoy the alternative in Junk Mail. Much of his magazine journalism (the bulk of material here) is straightforwardly executed, whereas his novels can be anything but. The tabloid saturation of the dope-huffing incident was certainly helped along by the reputation as a novelist that Self had established. His worlds are often humorous, horrifying, satirical, and simultaneously alternate realities that convey one roundabout message: The human condition is an irreparable mess that needs stirring; humanity can be stupid and bad ... and then some. Great Apes, widely regarded as his masterwork, was an excessively cynical, quasi-interpretation of Planet of the Apes, and the two novellas of Cock and Bull "tackled" gender by having a female protagonist grow a penis and a male develop a vagina, which is for some reason located behind his knee. If Self's heroes (in spirit more than manner) are J.G. Ballard and William S. Burroughs, his attitudinal and stylistic running mate is Martin Amis, with whom he is a close friend. (At the onset of the younger writer's career, it was even rumored that "Will Self" was Amis.)

If Self's tone is light and funny in these pieces, don't worry about the subject matter always following suit. He takes us on a tour of London crack houses, he writes of his verbal annihilation at the hands of artist Tracey Emin, and he downplays Bret Easton Ellis as a shuffling super-nice everyman. Uber-feminist maniac Andrea Dworkin gets a thoughtful and humane treatment in an interview feature, but more interesting (and almost worth the price of admission) is "Dealing With the Devil," a fascinating examination of the "recovered memory" phenomenon that birthed a flurry of fraudulent sexual and/or ritualistic satanic abuse claims.

Self is widely considered a brilliant linguist and, as such, has a slight habit of overwriting (do I really need the words "imbroglio" or "epigones" in my life?), coming off as not so much a master of language as a writer chronically reaching for the thesaurus. That and the infrequent street slang are the only distractions in a collection that shows Self to be adept at writing about anything ... and making one want to read it.

-- Andrew Earles

Stuart: A Life Backwards

By Alexander Masters

Delacorte Press, 300 pp., $20

Stuart Shorter was a homeless person living much of his life on the streets of Cambridge, England. He was an addict who put unspeakable toxins into his body, which was already compromised by muscular dystrophy. He was violent, having pulled a knife on his stepfather and threatening to kill his infant son during a police standoff. He tried to commit suicide many times and went to jail many times. But, as it turns out, Stuart Shorter was a pretty good editor.

The biography Stuart opens with the subject having a heart-to-heart with the author Alexander Masters. Having read Masters' manuscript, Stuart finds the writer's rendering of his life something of a yawn. Too academic, not enough action. So, Stuart proposes a new approach: "Do it the other way round. Make it more like a murder mystery. What murdered the boy I was? See? Write it backwards."

Masters did see. He tossed two years' worth of work and began again. The result is a slow, affecting and effective, unwinding of how Stuart came to be such a chaotic mess. It's a biography but also part-memoir, with Stuart the destructive dervish in Masters' life.

Masters first meets his subject when he literally stumbles upon him squatting in a doorway. Stuart, through the mushed vocabulary of a user, explains that he has a plan to commit suicide, and, if Masters doesn't mind, could he please move along: His body is blocking other passersby who could potentially give him money. It's the start of a friendship of sorts that has the two teaming up to protest the arrest of a pair of advocates for the homeless. It's also the beginning of a teacher-student relationship, with Stuart trying through words and bizarre behavior to help Masters understand what it's like to be him.

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Masters dots the book with doodles he's drawn of Stuart's misadventures, which suggest that at times words weren't enough to express the experience. The drawings are playful and give the book a levity that the text does not really support.

Stuart's dust jacket has 14 quotes from book reviews, five of which describe it as funny. Another uses the word "hilarious." Stuart is not, but it is natural that the reader would seek to find humor within the havoc. How else to make sense of the senseless? Stuart, which comes to a sad and messy end, has pinpointed the exact moment that "murdered the boy," and yet there are plenty of horrifying instances that are just as lethal. -- Susan Ellis

Armed Madhouse

By Greg Palast

Dutton, 341 pp., $25.95

Greg Palast, an expatriate BBC correspondent, cut his teeth as a forensic economist, going after corporate scumbags the way Jim Rockford goes after hoods. As an investigative journalist, he exposed the grossly mismanaged purge of voter rolls that delivered the 2000 presidential election to George W. Bush. Similar claims that John Kerry won in Ohio in 2004, though grounded in fact, required great statistical leaps of faith, making Palast -- a humorous, if curmudgeonly, writer -- seem a little less credible. His latest offering, Armed Madhouse, however, is an entertaining, mind-expanding, and more than occasionally terrifying exercise in what Henry Kissinger famously called linkage. In Madhouse, Palast connects the dots on everything from Middle Eastern oil to No Child Left Behind, and he does it all with the weary, bewildered tone of a stranger in his own country.

Why do the terrorists hate America? Because we demand cheap oil, and all of bin Laden's expressed goals have pointed to seizing control of OPEC and establishing a new pan-Arabian caliphate.

Why are school vouchers a bad idea? Because they're not vouchers but coupons that seldom cover the cost of a quality education and are overwhelmingly used by families who already have their kids in private schools.

Why is No Child Left Behind classist? Have you seen the questions on the sample test about doubles tennis?

For all of his exhaustive research (and disturbing news), Palast is at his best when he finds the black humor in America's late befuddlement.

After riffing on the bizarre use of Homeland Security funds to protect his sleepy hometown's most vulnerable site, a ferry taking cars to an Indian casino, Palast feigns dread and quips, "All [the terrorists] have to do is review the Homeland Security website for the town's vulnerability point. ... Hit the waterslide, Ahmed! The casino ferry's being watched."

That's good stuff.

-- Chris Davis

The Mind of Bill James:

How a Complete Outsider

Changed Baseball

By Scott Gray

Doubleday, 288 pp., $23.95

In 1977, while working as a security guard at a pork-and-beans plant in Kansas, Bill James self-published a pamphlet of unconventional baseball essays with the fanciful title 1977 Baseball Abstract: Featuring 18 Categories of Statistical Information That You Just Can't Find Anywhere Else. He put a classified ad in the back of The Sporting News magazine, offering copies for $3.50 each. Less than 30 years later, James had entered the inner circle of an industry that had long been resistant to his unconventional ideas. Hired by a young acolyte as a consultant for the Boston Red Sox a couple of years earlier, James celebrated on the field in 2004 when the Sox won their first World Series in nearly a hundred years.

Already a longtime baseball fanatic and certified math geek, Bill James changed my life in junior high school. Rooting around at the old Memphis Central Library, I came across a book with the odd title Baseball Abstract. In it, some guy named Bill James took obvious things about the game I thought I knew and revealed them for the uninterrogated conventional wisdom they really were.

In The Mind of Bill James, author Scott Gray recounts a similar "aha!" moment when he first discovered James' then-annual Abstract in 1983, at the age of 15. Remembering this discovery, Gray cites something James wrote in the introduction of the 1983 Abstract: "Like baseball itself, this book is just here for you to enjoy. This is a book for those who abandon themselves to the game, for those to whom the hurried and casual summaries of journalism are a daily affront. It is not for people who already know all about baseball, but for those who want to learn."

"I wasn't conscious of it at the time," Gray writes, "but that appealed to me as an approach to life as much as a way to look at baseball."

James has achieved some measure of fame as a "guru of baseball statistics," a label he despises. But the mission of this book -- less a biography than an overview of James' ideas -- is to assert that, rather than a number cruncher, Bill James is an important thinker and engaging, funny writer.

And Gray proves his case in the easiest way possible: by packing his book with James in his own words, either through lengthy passages from James' published work or long excerpts from Woods' own interviews with him. This makes The Mind of Bill James a joy for James fans but also a perfect introduction for baseball fans who haven't yet read the most influential baseball writer alive. -- Chris Herrington

Horsemen of the Esophagus:

Competitive Eating and

the Big Fat American Dream

By Jason Fagone

Crown, 298 pp., $24

Five or six people, with paper napkins tucked into their shirt collars, are given a blueberry pie. An announcer takes the mic and yells, "Ready, set, go!" And they're off, cramming their mouths full of bluish-purple goo in an effort to see who can stuff the most pie down his throat in the least amount of time. For decades, it's been a familiar scene at county fairs across the country.

Eating contests can easily be written off as good, clean American fun. But in Horsemen of the Esophagus, Jason Fagone explores the darker side of competitive eating by analyzing what drives pro eaters to obsess over this weird subculture and what it says about American culture.

He shapes his story around people who make a living swallowing Nathan's hot dogs, Buffalo wings, pizza, and other junk food. These people work for the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE), a PR-driven organization of eaters who consider themselves professional athletes (complete with top-dollar contracts).

Fagone, a writer-at-large for Philadelphia magazine, embraces his subject, living as close to the life of a pro eater on the competitive circuit as one can without actually competing.

He also follows the independent eaters -- those who have rebelled against the rule-heavy IFOCE to form their own eating groups, like the Association of Independent Competitive Eaters (AICE).

Fagone spends months getting to know these people -- people with names like Arnie "Chowhound" Chapman, Bill "El Wingador" Simmons, and Dave "Coondog" O'Karma. He has dinner with their families and interviews cousins and uncles. He sits in on contests and training sessions.

The result is an analysis of the big, fat American Dream. He compares competitive eating to the mass consumerism that drives this great country. We want more, more, more and faster, faster, faster. But ultimately, like many of the eaters, we're still never satisfied.

Fagone's analysis is riddled with humorous anecdotes and plenty of juicy dialogue, so it's never dry or boring. In the end, Horsemen of the Esophagus may drive you away from the very idea of competitive eating. Or it may just make you hungry.

-- Bianca Phillips

The Pedant's Revolt

By Andrea Barham

Delacorte Press, 148 pp., $15

A pedant, this book's publisher helpfully explains, is "a person who is excessively concerned with minor details and rules, or with displaying academic learning." And author Andrea Barham, acknowledging that she is indeed one of these persons, announces in her foreword that "The Pedant's Revolt is for everyone who wants to throw out received wisdom and welcome in the facts."

A worthy tome, I decided, to battle all the fallacies and fiction that we encounter on a daily basis, so I settled down and prepared to be "revolted" by the dark truths included in this slim volume. With 20 chapters that cover everything from food, drink, historical figures, medical matters, sayings, and lots more, I expected plenty of fascinating and little-known facts.

So imagine my surprise when the very first fallacy discussed is: "Harpo Marx was mute." This was not an encouraging beginning. Was there really any movie buff who thought this wild-haired Marx Brother was really unable to speak? Apparently Barham thinks so, for she quickly explains that not only was he "perfectly able to speak [but] he was also a talented and self-taught harpist, which is how he got his nickname."

Well, DUH.

A few of the topics she discusses are fairly interesting: "Powdered glass is an effective poison" (not really). "Sitting on hot or cold surfaces causes hemorrhoids" (nope). "Ducks' quacks don't echo" (huh?).

But out of some 185 topics, that's just not a very good percentage. The majority of them fall into two categories: "facts" that are so obviously wrong that no intelligent person would dispute them and "facts" that are so boring that it is hard to imagine anyone would care. As a magazine editor, for example, I have certainly had plenty of chances to change "its" to "it's." But the topic rarely comes up in conversation. Even so, here it is in the "Language and Grammar" chapter. Fallacy: "'It's' is a possessive pronoun." The author, citing The Good Word Guide, carefully explains that "it's" is a contraction of "it is."

Well, I'm glad we settled that.

My other gripe is that Barham finds it necessary to cite one, two, three, and sometimes more authorities when making her point. Is it really necessary to quote from Owls Aren't Wise and Bats Aren't Blind, then from Bats of the World, and even the Encyclopedia Britannica to dispute the notion that "Bats are blind"?

In fact, the most interesting part of the book may be those other sources. When Barham dispels the notion that "Eating Jell-O aids nail growth" (again, another yawner) by referring to a book called Eve-Olution written by somebody with the remarkable name of Faith Popcorn, I wanted to stop reading this book and pick up that one.

-- Michael Finger

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