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Oryx and Crake

By Margaret Atwood

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday; 374 pp.; $26

Readers who appreciated Margaret Atwood's futuristic novel The Handmaid's Tale will be encouraged by her return to the genre in Oryx and Crake. Her new novel explores a world almost completely devoid of human inhabitants except for the simple, clonelike Children of Crake, or "Crakers," and the near-solitary human, Snowman.

In her troubled paradise, Atwood unleashes impressive scientific-minded individuals who are unhampered by moral complications. Almost every fear or phobia one might harbor regarding such a world is realized in Oryx and Crake, and had Atwood not developed with equal precision the societal trends that led to this disturbed utopia, the novel would be much less compelling.

The novel's backdrop is a neatly stratified world: There are the Compounds, where the gifted reside and carefully guard against infections and contaminations that might infiltrate their super-structured, super-sterilized suburbs. The Compounds are countered by run-down, crime-ridden cities known as Pleeblands.

Atwood's narrative also weaves in and out of several realities and time periods. There is the world of Jimmy and Glenn; there is the world Crake creates and destroys; and there is the narrative strain of Snowman and the remaining Crakers.

As teenage boys, Jimmy (nicknamed "Thickney" after a "defunct double-jointed Australian bird") and Glenn (nicknamed "Crake" after the Australian red-necked crake) inhabit a Compound and spend their time playing violent video games and accessing pornography on the Internet. Their friendship advances, and as they approach graduation from HelthWyzer High, they enter a high-pitched "college" selection process, the same ludicrous application process we know today, only more so.

There is a brief falling away between the two friends, until Crake -- an academic star at his college and now a leading force at the RejoovenEsense Compound -- arranges a position there for Jimmy. RejoovenEsense was "sparkling clean, landscaped, ecologically pristine, and very expensive. The air was particulate-free, due to many solar whirlpool purifying towers, discreetly placed and disguised as modern art."

RejoovenEsense also is home to the beautiful and mysterious Oryx, whom Jimmy instantly fell in love with years ago when he first viewed her on a child-pornography Internet site. A love triangle develops and tragedy falls. It is left to Jimmy, who renames himself "Snowman," to guide and educate the Children of Crake.

Physically beautiful, both males and females of perfect form, Crake's children live in naked, ignorant bliss. The Crakers' bodies produce citrus-oil insect repellent, and they purr to heal injuries. They worship Oryx and Crake and ask Snowman simplistic questions like, "What is toast?" (To his dismay, Crake was never able to eliminate singing and dreaming.) When a woman is fertile or "blue," pregnancy is ensured by a group-mating: four men and one woman. Since it is the pheromones she releases that trigger male excitement, this ritual occurs without love or incident. Gone are rivalries and sexual insecurities. The women nurse their young, and the men perform a bizarre ritual they believe protects the women and children.

Atwood's hypothesis, central to Oryx and Crake, is that people driven by division, safety, sterility, ease, and perfection will lose what it means to be human. Her fans will not be surprised by her ambition and virtuosity, but most will find this new novel less engaging than the brilliant Alias Grace and The Blind Assassin. Still, Oryx and Crake is comprehensive in scope, chilling. -- Lisa C. Hickman

The Dogs of Babel

By Carolyn Parkhurst

Little, Brown; 264 pp.; $21.95

Few novels get the kind of marketing blitz that Little, Brown has given Carolyn Parkhurst's debut, The Dogs of Babel. Months before it was published, the book was already amassing an impressive level of advance buzz as literary prognosticators heralded it as the fiction debut of the year, a summer must-read, and -- most tellingly -- this year's The Lovely Bones.

Like Alice Sebold's celebrated debut, The Dogs of Babel is about death and how we comprehend it when it feels much too large and much too sad to comprehend. Grief is the crucial emotion in both novels, driving the plot and defining the characters even as Sebold and Parkhurst both emphasize therapy over storytelling, received ideas about healing over original insights.

In The Dogs of Babel, after his wife Lexy falls from a tree and dies, linguistics professor Paul Iverson tries to teach their Rhodesian Ridgeback, Lorelei, to talk. His approach is very scientific, beginning with analyzing the sounds she already makes and devising ways she might be trained to expand her vocabulary. His aim, however, is entirely personal: He wants Lorelei to tell him what happened to Lexy, why she climbed the tree, and whether she committed suicide.

Of the two books, The Dogs of Babel feels grittier and more realistic, despite an entertaining subplot about an underground cadre of canine linguists. Whereas The Lovely Bones was narrated by a teenage girl in an idealized afterlife, The Dogs of Babel sticks to the ugliness of reality, where messy emotions only get messier. Paul's growing obsession with Lorelei's speech capabilities threatens his job, his friendships, and his sanity. Soon he resorts to cruelty, breaking "one of the cardinal rules of dog ownership" by withholding water from Lorelei.

On the other hand, The Lovely Bones is more artfully and more charmingly written, its sentences eloquently and knowingly conjuring the pain of the bereaved and the horrors of murder. Where Parkhurst succeeds in concept, she fails in technique. Her prose can politely be described as workmanlike: There are moments of inspired clarity, but Parkhurst has not yet learned to make her sentences do more than get from point A to point B.

Her storytelling troubles run more than sentence-deep. The plot moves fitfully, in digressions and asides. Paul alternates between describing his linguistics experiments with Lorelei and recalling his life with Lexy, and at times it feels like we're reading his journal, but Parkhurst leaves this structuring device frustratingly vague.

She also breaks one of the cardinal rules of fiction-writing by withholding crucial evidence from her readers. About two-thirds into the novel, Parkhurst reveals a new clue to Lexy's death, but Paul admits he has known it all along. This contrivance makes Paul seem untrustworthy and Lexy seem unreal, leaving Lorelei the most well-drawn and likable character.

Despite the marketers' best efforts, it seems unlikely that The Dogs of Babel will make as big an impact as The Lovely Bones, which still haunts the bestseller list almost a year after its release. Commercial and literary successes like Sebold's are few and far between, and successors typically fare less well. Still, Parkhurst's debut is an intense, if intensely flawed, addition to the growing literature on grief and healing. -- Stephen Deusner

Fear Itself

By Walter Mosley

Little, Brown; 316 pp.; $24.95

Cowards, take heart. Fear Itself is not the hair-raising adventure suggested by the title of Walter Mosley's latest crime noir. Not a roller-coaster ride, Fear Itself is more of a sporting drive around 1950s Los Angeles, where an unassuming bookshop owner, Paris Minton, and his imposing friend, Fearless Jones, attempt to locate a missing man but find instead a family in deadly turmoil and a business community in cutthroat competition. Needing money, and wanting a unique manuscript that becomes the crux of the conflict, Paris is more likable than some protagonists in a genre pioneered by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.

Through his narrator, Mosley explores the noir tradition, at the same time placing the African-American community within it. When the used-book business is slow, Paris is content to read from the stock; but he is quick to distinguish between his tastes and the romances, westerns, and violent action stories preferred by most of his patrons. He reads the likes of Candide, Don Quixote, and the poetry of Langston Hughes. He claims that fear is his primary motivating force in most situations. Absence of fear is the state achieved while reading an inspiring book that may require some deciphering. He longs for written records of the thoughts of black people. By relating his experiences with Fearless, he contributes to those accounts.

Although Paris often quotes his mother's pithy observations, his own ruminations are more interesting. ("Thieves are the people most afraid of being robbed" and "Greed will make even a meek man into a fool.") He regrets that the civil rights movement in Los Angeles lags behind the momentum building in the Southern states. He shuffles and jives for the white cops and lapses into a familiar patois with Fearless and his friends. Some transitions from one idiom to another aren't altogether consistent (there seems to be some confusion about the pronunciation of "with"), but Paris' realization that anticipation is the greater part of joy, along with his insight related to the whereabouts of a fly, is sparkling stuff. While the mystery of Fear Itself is resolved largely through dialogue, there is a merciful absence of tedious exchanges that have to be reread backward to determine who said what. Mosley is adept at identifying speakers within the context of scene and action.

The air of detachment in crime noir partly derives from occasional vibrant descriptions strategically placed amid a vague backdrop, much like circles of streetlight on a dark sidewalk. Mosley's characters are described in detail, with particular attention to the range in skin tones. Their motives are complex, multilayered, and subject to change whenever expedient. Paris and Fearless motor down enough streets to conjure a virtual grid of Los Angeles in 1955, but lack of specifics conveys a feeling of suspension. Paris' bookshop, two mansions, O'Brien's bar and a boarding house on Denker provide vintage glimpses into the heyday of the lonely investigator prying secrets out of the darkness. -- Linda Baker

The Probable Future

By Alice Hoffman

Doubleday; 336 pp.; $24.95

"But whether the season had been fair or foul, in all this time there had been only one baby to be born feet first, the mark of a healer, and that child was Stella Sparrow Avery."

So, Alice Hoffman, in her beguiling new novel, The Probable Future, introduces the reader to the youngest Sparrow in a long line of witchy women in the New England town of Unity. Each generation's child possesses a supernatural gift, which comes upon her on her 13th birthday. That Stella is the 13th child of the mystic Sparrow clan means that she is going to be especially gifted, and she is the focus of this multigenerational story. Stella's gift is that she can see the future, can foresee a person's death.

Hoffman's mesmeric novels -- this is her 22nd -- almost always contain some element of the paranormal woven seamlessly into everyday life. She is the godmother of urban magic-realism. Her distinguished and prolific career has had more hits than misses, and The Probable Future is one of her stronger successes.

Briefly: Rebecca Sparrow, the matriarch of the family, could feel no pain. Stella's grandmother, Elinor, has a built-in lie detector. Stella's mother, Jenny, can see into people's dreams and is separated from Stella's father, Will, a bright man who never amounted to much.

This story is set in motion when Stella visits her father to confess her gift, which she sees as an affliction. Will challenges her to predict someone's death -- someone in the restaurant where they are eating. Stella then foresees something horrible: a pretty, young blond woman across the way with her throat slit. She tells her father to do something, and in a misguided attempt at being a good parent, Will takes this information to the police. When the woman is found murdered a week later, Will is, of course, arrested as a suspect.

Jenny, who had been dreading her daughter's 13th birthday, quickly perceives what occurred: "Now Jenny understood, this was the aptitude that had been visited on Stella an eye for death, an ability to read the human timetable; a nightmare of a gift." Stella is sent to live with Elinor.

"Jenny couldn't help but resent the other girls who worried about grades and clothing and their love-lives, when her own daughter would be fretting over the many ways it was possible to lose someone in this world." Hoffman gracefully weaves this theme into her story, and she writes beautifully of the physical forces at work in the universe. But her characters, so in tune with the world of flora and fauna, the whole expiring planet, are perceived as witches in the community.

Fear of the Sparrow women is part of life in Unity. Is it that most folks go about their business blithely unaware of the wonders of the world and that the women of the Sparrow family are tuned in, somehow chosen?

Hoffman's theme -- the inevitability of death, the ironic "probable future" -- in less deft hands would weigh down the story. But this novel is masterfully constructed with a light touch: Mortality is what makes us human. Our temporal landscape is all there is, fraught as it is with danger, love, luck, loss, frailty, and the vulnerability of the human heart.

The Probable Future is lush with literary enchantment. You won't soon forget the outlandish Sparrow women.

-- Corey Mesler

Ten Little Indians

By Sherman Alexie

Grove Press; 242 pp.; $24

It's no criticism to say that Sherman Alexie shouldn't quit his day job. In addition to writing highly intelligent and decidedly offbeat short stories about the lives of Native Americans, he also is a filmmaker and screenwriter, poet, newspaper columnist, activist, and stand-up comedian.

But his greatest talent is literary, not only because his stories capture all the complexities of his subject matter but also because they encompass all his other activities: His imaginative and keenly insightful stories about modern Native Americans bristle with jokey humor, political and social outrage, and deeply observed tragedy.

The stories in Ten Little Indians, his third short-story collection and his 12th book overall, are mostly populated by Native Americans caught between a reservation-centered world they long ago rejected and a white, capitalist world that does not fully accept them. While these racial contradictions often present earth-shattering dilemmas, the characters face them with humor intact, often making jokes at their own expense and laughing in the face of misfortune.

In "The Search Engine," the best story here, "Corliss figured she could certainly benefit from positive ethnic stereotypes and not feel any guilt about it. For five centuries, Indians were slaughtered because they were Indians, so if Corliss received a free coffee now and again from the local free-range lesbian Indiophile, who could possibly find the wrong in that?"

A bookish reservation girl skimping to get through college, Corliss is enamored with white poets like Gerard Manley Hopkins even though her family disapproves. Alexie reveals the social and political implications of her rebellion -- "It was easy to hate white vanity and white rage and white ignorance, but what about white compassion and white genius and white poetry?" -- but his main interest is personal. Without quite realizing it, Corliss has been searching for a Native American voice, which she finds in an obscure poet named Harlan Atwater. Despite the difference in gender, this story feels autobiographical and is all the more affecting for it.

Alexie has a tendency to indulge in digressions, jazzy riffs on politics or pop culture in characters' voices. Occasionally, however, he digresses simply to reach a punchline, slowing the story's momentum and distracting from its central conflicts. For example, he begins the devastating "Can I Get a Witness?" with a lengthy aside about rampant consumerism ("Pretty soon I'll wear shopping bags for dresses, and what would Donna Karan think of that?"). Since there is no character yet to anchor these observations, they do nothing but delay the story, which, once it gets going, is a harrowing and beautifully defiant response to America's post-9/11 pieties.

Infusing his stories with an explicit outrage that often borders on righteous, Alexie not only reveals his own politics through these characters but also shows how hard it is for us to live up to our own ideals. His characters are often second-guessing their liberal practices and questioning their own valued beliefs, and Alexie does them justice by forgoing easy answers in favor of even harder questions. Ultimately, his Native American characters are trapped beyond escape, a predicament they share with every other American. -- Stephen Deusner

The Book Against God

By James Wood

Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 257 pp.; $24

Peopled with the kind of highbrow characters one would expect from an author ensconced in the world of intellectuals, The Book Against God is James Wood's not surprisingly heady attempt at a first novel. (Wood is the particularly tough book critic for The New Republic.)

Surrounded by those who care for him and love him most, the book's protagonist, Thomas Bunting, insists on being paranoid, self-absorbed, jobless, and chronically philosophical. Consequently, his marriage is on the rocks, his relationship with his parents is strained, and even his closest friend Max, a successful political columnist, is frowning at him.

When the book begins, Bunting, a self-proclaimed liar and atheist, is separated from his wife Jane, an accomplished pianist with a saint's patience, who had (until "the incident") supported him financially while he "finished" his Ph.D. dissertation in philosophy. Instead of finishing, though, Bunting began a secret work he calls "The Book Against God" or "the BAG" -- a profuse, obsessive collection of arguments with God and with religious thinkers and believers, most importantly, Kierkegaard and his father, a theologian turned minister.

The book begins, "I denied my father three times, twice before he died, once afterwards," which immediately draws a very thin line between God and the father, both of whom are equally incomprehensible to Bunting.

At first, it seems the name-dropping nature of the dialogue (which is bound to go over most heads) is going to be a cumbersome unloading of the author's vast scholarship. But however thinly Wood has disguised himself as the protagonist, eventually the many intellectual warfares become believable enough. Bunting develops an irrational need (brought on, presumably, by the secret work of the BAG) to argue with everyone around him about God. Of course, one gets that Nietzsche feeling that anyone so fixated on his opposition to God does believe in God.

Wood's abilities as a storyteller really come to fruition in a touching, brief conversation that Bunting has with his father and in a eulogy Bunting delivers at his father's funeral, a truly wonderful culmination of the various attempts by Bunting to be honest with himself.

In the end, Wood creates a character who is both despicable and somehow understandable. This sentiment can be summed up in one sentence uttered by Jane on more than one occasion: "Tom, pull yourself together, for goodness' sake."

Despite a springy narrative that moves from outward reality to Bunting's thoughts, Wood manages a pleasing pace that doesn't feel gimmicky or annoyingly postmodern. And ultimately, it is satisfying (if a little strained). Anyone who has religious baggage or courts a God different from the one he or she grew up with is going to appreciate the situation that poor Thomas Bunting has gotten himself into.

-- Lesha Hurliman

The Song Reader

By Lisa Tucker

Downtown Press; 306 pp.; $12 (paper)

The desire to help others is human nature. From the time most of us are in kindergarten, we dream of being doctors and nurses or teachers or even the president, and when grown-ups ask us why, we respond with a simple, "I want to help people." But for some, that seemingly innocent desire can become so self-consuming that it becomes a reason, perhaps the only reason, for living.

Such is the case in Lisa Tucker's debut novel, The Song Reader, a tale of two sisters trying to make it on their own after their mother's premature death in a car accident. The story is narrated by the younger sister, Leeann, an intuitive teen whose complex assessments of the world around her make her seem wise beyond her years. The story's set in a small Missouri town on the Mississippi River in the 1980s.

The elder sister, Mary Beth, is left to head the household, and to supplement her income as a waitress, she takes her love for music and transforms it into a money-making passion. She calls the practice "song reading" and devises a system of charts to keep track of the songs her troubled customers report to be stuck in their heads. She spends days listening to the songs, carefully picking apart the lyrics and using that information to get at what's going on inside her customers -- a sort of song shrink, if you will, until the problems get more serious. When one customer reveals her darkest secret, Mary Beth divulges her best advice. But when that advice results in near-tragedy, Mary Beth takes a turn for the worse and retreats within herself, unable to care for her family. That leaves young Leeann to fend for herself and Tommy, a toddler whom Mary Beth took in after one of her customers decided she didn't want him.

In the early chapters of the book, Leeann longs for her estranged father, whose disappearance from her life remains a mystery until Mary Beth's breakdown reveals the family's dark, buried past. Leeann eventually finds her father, but he's too caught up in his own mysterious mental illness to take charge. Leeann's character is forced to do a 180 as she steps up to the plate.

Tucker does an excellent job painting a complex picture of this very dysfunctional family, all the while maintaining an easy-to-follow narrative. Her style is to-the-point but by no means simple, even if it is in the voice of Leeann, who, despite her maturity, still sees things from a teenager's perspective.

It's a first-person narrative that's a little reminiscent of J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, and the constant references to the music of the 1980s bring back fond memories of a time when things were simpler, despite the fact that things are not so simple for our two main characters.

In addition to its major themes -- the fragility of the family, self-discovery -- The Song Reader addresses an unpleasant reality: The desire to please others can be dangerous. Through a brilliant, hard-to-put-down novel, Tucker teaches us a life lesson: It's okay to fulfill the natural desire to help, but don't forget your own happiness. -- Bianca Phillips

Jonah Sees Ghosts

By Mark Sullivan

Akashic Books; 196 pp.;

$13.95 (paper)

Dysfunction is a strange shape-shifter of an animal. In Mark Sullivan's Jonah Sees Ghosts, it's also one that lives on in the imagination, expressed in this case through a boy named Jonah, who, um, sees ghosts.

Essentially a modern-day coming-of-age novel -- albeit one including gun-toting geriatric lesbian specters, a half-naked janitor who appears out of nowhere, and a dead cleaning lady in the bathroom, to name a few -- Sullivan's tale centers upon a boy dealing with the aftereffects of a childhood framed by alcoholism.

You see, when Jonah was 6 his father flew off a cliff after imbibing one too many of his ritual noontime martinis. And so our story begins, quite literally, in the first sentence: "Dan Hart died on his son Jonah's sixth birthday."

But for Jonah, at least, Dan stays in the picture, a primary figment among the increasing plethora of ghosts that the boy encounters everywhere, right on through his teenage years, during which most of this story takes place. Think about a pizza with bloody fingers on it. This, my friends, is Jonah's daily life.

Oh, and at night he can leave his body and travel into the ether, retreating into worlds as large as the bedroom of a girl or as small as a Coke can. As if it weren't hard enough to make it through high school without the dead constantly harassing you.

But as Jonah says, "One thing is very much like another." And here's the root of our protagonist's dilemma: Emerging from tragedy through the vehicle of the imagination, things tend to blur.

The other main character in the story is Jonah's mother, Susan, who, while less eccentric than her son, carries her loss in her own quirky way. Think neospiritualist control freak with a really good heart and a large collection of erotica, if such an archetype exists.

The blurring of the boundaries between the real, surreal, and unreal, and the effect of that confusion upon one who has suffered a great loss, is the power behind this impressive first novel by Mark Sullivan. Although there is an inherent sadness in Jonah's situation, the author manages to paint a character who is wholly endearing.

The book is almost like a ghost itself: not intensely plot-driven but more an impressionistic rendering of the psyche of one family. And though the story sometimes feels slightly unfocused, especially when the story begins to unravel, the humor of some of the otherworldly encounters (remember those lesbian grannies?) makes it a quick and entertaining read. It might even elicit a tear or two. Check it out if you get a chance. -- Jenn Hall

The Gangster We Are

All Looking For

By là thi diem th£y

Knopf; 158 pp.; $18

The opening line of là thi diem th£y's debut novel sets a precedent for the rest of the story: "Linda Vista, with its rows of yellow houses, is where we eventually washed to shore." From this point on, the narrator uses color and water to mark time, although time in this book is never in one direction, merely an indicator of change.

The book is written in short passages and told through the eyes and remembrances of a young Vietnamese girl who carries readers along, sometimes forward, sometimes backward, sometimes into her own secret, made-up world. The book also chronicles the story of one Vietnamese family before and after their arrival in America. The narrator, age 6, begins the novel by detailing the escape and resettling of six refugees (the girl, her father, and four "uncles") in San Diego with the reluctant son of a deceased philanthropist whose dying wish was to help the Vietnamese boat people.

The six muddle through their new country and language, shuffling for two years between various housing arrangements and jobs, before the girl's mother finally joins the family. During these first two years, the narrator introduces readers to her world: Glass animals are her friends; she hears the heartbeat in a butterfly statue; and, with just a pull of a seam in the clouds, her family and favorite belongings fall from the sky.

Family contentment, which the narrator had hoped her mother would bring, never comes. Prejudice and inequality take their toll on unhealed wounds. As the young girl grows, so do her experiences and imagination. Vietnam resurfaces, including memories of an older brother who drowned long before the trip across the ocean, memories of a war-ravaged homeland, and memories of the rumors surrounding her parents' differences.

As she moves into adolescence, the narrator becomes aware of her father's violent alcoholism and her mother's past demons, which cripple any hope for a stable future. The continuous fights reveal that the rebellious marriage of a "Catholic schoolgirl from the South" and a "Buddhist gangster from the North" is about more than mere anger. It is an emotional tug-of-war bred from years of war and suffering.

Eventually, it all becomes too much for the teenage narrator, who runs away for good to the East Coast to begin a new journey. On her own, she realizes that self-discovery cannot be accomplished without a trip to her homeland. There, she confronts her own past, accepts her brother's death, and recognizes that the intricacies of her family are much deeper than they appeared. The novel ends much as it begins -- in the past with water symbolizing country and with time as an "event."

Although this is a story about a Vietnamese boat family, it could be adapted to any immigrant people. If not for the experiences of a new life, a new country, and a new language, it could be the story of any young person facing truth for the first time. -- Janel Davis

Firewater

By Edward Stone Cohen

Akashic Books; 200 pp.; $13.95 (paper)

"What's the difference between a headtrip and a mindfuck?" This is the query raised in the second chapter of Firewater. The answer? Not much difference at all, apparently. The book is billed as a "comic environmental novel." If only such a thing were possible.

Edward Stone Cohen -- activist, proponent of organic oyster farming, owner of two stately inns on both coasts -- wrote Firewater but died before it was published. His legacy as an author does indeed consist of equal parts headtrip and mindfuck. Touted as a "green novel," the overriding color scheme is brown: Attempts at humor are strictly scatological. Though not as godawful as Julia Butterfly Hill's nonfiction account of her two years spent tree-sitting in the redwoods, Firewater could make anybody want to climb trees. Or walls.

Set in the Pacific Northwest during some nonlinear near-future, the book eschews any potential Tom Robbins-style openness in favor of a repetitive ego-display. Cohen's grab bag of foulmouthed characters all spew the same rant -- an annoyance not unlike the drone of a chainsaw. The lone sympathetic heroine vanishes inexplicably into the pages of surreal muck midway through, leaving the reader to slog past a drunken, lecherous Native American presidential candidate called "the Chief," several government neo-Nazi death-scientists, mutant guerrilla-dwarfs, and brain-dead, burger-addicted po' folks. Reaching the book's sudden, gastrically cathartic conclusion brings relief as well as a burning question: By penning such a heaping platter of steaming, vented spleen, did the author somehow sacrifice himself and/or seal his own doom?

The brief bio after the novel's conclusion gives no clue to what did in the 62-year-old Cohen. Did he follow in the steps of Richard Brautigan or John Kennedy Toole? Was he a casualty of white bread, olestra, or E. coli poisoning (the fate awaiting Firewater's disordered set of multiple personalities)?

Stating in rambling terms the current crisis facing "the clogged large intestine that is America," Cohen resurrects Nixon, Reagan, Thatcher, Uncle Remus -- even a certain cocktail dress stained with DNA; produces prescient lamentations on the Middle East; raises the specter of nuclear annihilation; recaps Union Carbide's chemical meltdown (a report tentatively titled "Eyeless in Eurasia"); and bemoans the tainting of our nation's breadbasket -- all within 200 pages. Overwhelming, yes, but no more so than the various wars and poxes afloat in real life or the knowledge that most supermarket food is now irradiated.

Firewater is ultimately less fascinating than a consideration of the forces that produced it, and Cohen might have been better off heeding Voltaire's Candide: Tend your oyster-bed? Sadly, Firewater is entirely devoid of the one thing crucial to believable fiction: innocence. This tragic lack is summed up by the only child character, who recites a poem called (ironically enough for a posthumous novel) "The End": "And when you get your diarrhea/You start to think about Korea./And your gut goes green/With a broken spleen,/And your cunt falls off in smithereens."

Now, please excuse me while I go for a cup of stomach-settling, organic chamomile tea. As an argument for saving the world from drowning in its own fertilizer, this book could have at least been printed on tree-free hemp paper. -- Denise White

Library:

An Unquiet History

By Matthew Battles

Norton; 256 pp.; $24.95

I have a confession to make. I'm a librarian, a male reference librarian to be exact, and sometimes I feel, well, less than manly in my choice of profession. I made peace with being a Southern sissy decades ago, and I've been in the library field for well over a quarter-century. So I ought to feel comfortable in a job where information of every kind and every format is readily available for the asking. All I have to do is help people find it. My work environment is very tranquil and untroubled, but sometimes I think I ought to be doing something else with my hands besides plunking on a computer keyboard. Being a part-time bar-band drummer is not a classically male career choice that I can dump librarianship for either. (Doesn't pay too well, and, frankly, I'm too old to move back in with my long-suffering parents Mom, Dad, your 50-year-old boy is home.)

What's a male librarian like me to do? Well, Matthew Battles, a male librarian himself at Harvard University's Houghton Library, has written a book that will make even the wimpiest librarian feel proud and almost macho about his career path.

Library: An Unquiet History takes a selective look at the history of libraries and finds that they have often been intellectual battlegrounds and real battlegrounds as well. From antiquity, libraries have often been targeted for destruction by invading hordes that knew the quickest path to eradicating a culture was by the wholesale destruction of its libraries.

From the time of Julius Caesar to the bombing of Sarajevo, libraries (and even some librarians) have been razed and burned. Books and book burning just seem to go together in our history as human beings.

It hasn't all been cinders and ash in the library trade, Battles (yeah, like the name) notes. From the beginning, libraries and librarians have tried to strike a balance between two opposing models: the "Parnassan" library and the "universal" library. The former is more selective and elitist, picking works that are worthy of inclusion in a highly thought-out collection. The latter is the kitchen-sink approach, which tries to include any and all information -- the impossible quest, so to speak. Of course, the two models have warred with each other over the centuries, but the author asserts that the two seemingly conflicting impulses make peace somehow whenever a library user finds what he or she needs.

Battles closes this rather slim volume (not much over 200 pages; that's slim by today's bloated publishing standards) with a stirring essay on the highly democratic nature of the library. It's enough to make a male librarian stand up and applaud, but this is a library, so Shhh I've been wanting to do that for years. -- Ross Johnson

Malcolm Muggeridge:

A Biography

By Gregory Wolfe

ISI Books; 449 pp.; $15 (paper)

Within every human being there exists a multitude of contradictions, but the life of Malcolm Muggeridge, the British pundit, is a testimony to both the sinner and the angel that can reside simultaneously in even the most enlightened thinkers.

Muggeridge, once a socialist, would come to denounce communism. He preached the emptiness of carnal appetites but only after years of betraying his own marriage vows. He grew disenchanted with modern media after years of working as a television celebrity known for his often-superficial antics. He would become renowned for his search for eternal truths but during World War II served in the darkest of deceptive arts -- espionage.

By the time most Americans encountered Muggeridge, he had already passed through the prime of his career as essayist, novelist, and television personality. He served in England as editor of Punch magazine and The Daily Telegraph and even won a spot in Madame Tussaud's Waxwork Museum in London, which displays replicas of the famous and the infamous.

Muggeridge, however, is best remembered for the final chapter of his life, during which he converted to Christianity and finally Roman Catholicism. That journey toward faith and the eloquence with which he expressed it have placed him in the company of G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers, Thomas Merton, and C.S. Lewis as one of the great spiritual writers of the 20th century.

All of this is ably captured by Gregory Wolfe in his tidy and easy-to-read biography, Malcolm Muggeridge, recently reissued in paperback upon the centennial of Muggeridge's birth (born in 1903, died in 1990). It is a story well told, though this should not deter readers from seeking out Muggeridge's own autobiography, Chronicles of Wasted Time, a classic in the confessional genre.

Muggeridge seemed to find his authentic voice when he wrestled with the issues of faith, suffering, and death. But, as he once observed, "A totally conformist society never laughs -- laughter itself being a kind of criticism, an expression of the immense disparity between human aspiration and human performance."

This might explain why Muggeridge was such a compelling social critic. With disarming humor or mordant wit, depending on his mood, he set about lampooning the pretensions of those who would worship at the altar of worldly excess, always mindful that he himself bent his knee too often in the devil's direction. It is a kind of honesty that has not gone unnoticed. Even Christopher Hitchens, a noted atheist, recently took the time to celebrate Muggeridge's life and Wolfe's excellent biography. Muggeridge is endlessly enlightening -- whether as sinner or as God's compelling instrument. -- George Shadroui

12,000 Miles in the

Nick of Time

By Mark Jacobson

Atlantic Monthly Press; 269 pp.; $23

The Jacobson family is watching dead bodies being burned on an Indian street at the outset of 12,000 Miles in the Nick of Time. It's part of a three-month trip around the world that includes not only India but Cambodia, Thailand, Nepal, Jordan, Israel, France, and England. Initially, you may be puzzled that Mark Jacobson, who intends this trip to be a learning experience, brings his children, ages 9 to 16, to the Burning Ghat. What exactly is a 9-year-old going to get out of watching a funeral pyre in action? Jacobson, however, feels that you are never too young to experience what life is like outside your cushy reality.

Jacobson worried that his intelligent New York children were jaded, narrow-minded, and ignorant due to the easy lifestyle Americans are afforded. So he and his family visit the farthest extremities the world has to offer. After the account of the Burning Ghat, Jacobson relates their visit to Cambodia, where Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge eliminated nearly a quarter of the population not so long ago. At this point, I really thought Jacobson a fool and wondered when this crazy family fun was going to end. However, as the story progresses, you learn that for every terrifying experience the family also witnesses great beauty. They see in Cambodia the horrors that humans can inflict on one another, but then they meet the jolly Boudin people, generous, charming nomads who treat the Jacobson family as old friends. They stand and watch carcasses burning but also stand on Freak Street in Nepal and listen to the chanting of monks drifting down the hillside. Jacobson achieves his ultimate goal -- for his children and the reader -- by demonstrating the sublimity of the world.

Jacobson hopes to impress upon his children a sense of global continuity, which will let them know that life, theirs and others', is not lived in vain. Because there is love, there is heartache; because there is life, there is death. The world works in cycles, and while some stages are terrifying, they are integral to the whole. The book reflects the same idea. Chapters that begin in a disturbing way leave you awestruck at the end.

Mark Jacobson's attention to his children has paid off: They are kind and respectful of others. Shocked out of their comfort zone, the Jacobsons will make you grateful for your own. -- Leah Ourso

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