Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Woman Warrior, Surreal Satire, Diamond Thieves: New Books

Woman Warrior, Surreal Satire, Diamond Thieves: New Books

(The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of Bloomberg.)

By Edward Nawotka

Oct. 12 (Bloomberg) -- Kim Ponders is a major in the U.S. Air Force who flew E-3 AWAC surveillance planes during the 1991 Gulf War. She uses that experience as the basis for her debut novel, ``The Art of Uncontrolled Flight'' (HarperCollins, 181 pages, $19.95).

The main character is Captain Annie Viola Shaw, an Air Force Academy graduate who becomes an E-3 co-pilot during the first Gulf War. As a 5-year-old, Annie learns the ``elements of flight'' from her father Roc, himself a decorated pilot, and becomes enamored with his war stories about Korea and Vietnam. After Annie's mother dies in a fire started by a smoldering cigarette, father and daughter bounce between Roc's lovers in Boston and Texas until Annie escapes into the Air Force, marriage and, eventually, war.

Chapters jump back and forth in time, introducing us to the rest of Annie's E-3 crew: Bear, a banjo-strumming Baptist navigator; Killer, the misogynist radar operator; and Jago, the pilot and Annie's wartime lover. They build camaraderie in strip clubs, during SCUD missile attacks and in combat, where Annie's affair with Jago indirectly results in their plane getting shot down and her winning the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Ponders's message that ``the trick to being a woman in the military was to make yourself stand out, but only in a way that would leave them speechless to do everything twice as well'' isn't especially new. Fortunately, Annie is not reduced to a mere mouthpiece, and Ponders portrays her convincingly as a daughter, wife and lover, as well as a military officer.

Phil's Reign

George Saunders's ``The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil'' (Riverhead, 134 pages, $13) is unlike anything else you're likely to read this year. Part Dr. Seuss, part George Orwell, it's a surreal political parable about a pair of nations, Inner Horner and Outer Horner, that are populated by men, machines and plants fighting over the limited land resources.

Outer Horner is a spacious country that surrounds Inner Horner, a country ``so small it could contain only one Inner Hornerite'' at a time. One day, Inner Horner is struck by an earthquake that makes it three-quarters smaller and forces some of the Inner Hornerites into Outer Horner territory. Phil, a middle-aged ``slightly bitter nobody,'' rallies the Outer Horner militia to view it as an invasion and push them back.

Megaphones, Clavicles

Urged on by sycophants, including a media described as ``squat little men with detachable megaphones growing out of their clavicles,'' Phil soon seizes power and imposes martial law. He surrounds Inner Horner with a ``Peace Encouraging Enclosure'' and begins ``disassembling'' all who are disloyal to him.

Saunders, author of the short story collections ``Pastoralia'' and ``CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,'' may be the most widely read experimental fiction writer in America. His latest book may sound crazy, but once you're finished, it all somehow makes sense.

`Sweet and Vicious'

``Sweet and Vicious'' (Dial Press, 212 pages, $14) by David Schickler, describes the odd-coupling of God-fearing, Wisconsin farm girl Grace McGlone and thug Henry Dante.

Dante has stolen Los Planetos de Don Canto -- $40 million worth of diamonds named for and cut to look like the planets, from Chicago mob boss Honey Probrinkis. With McGlone, he flees across the Great Plains in a pickup truck, pursued by Probrinkis's minions.

Frustrating the mobsters' efforts to get the rocks back, the duo gives away the diamonds to people they encounter as a kind of penance for their previous sins. How McGlone and Dante dispense with each of the diamonds creates a discreet story of its own and leads to a confrontation with preacher Bertram Block, who raped McGlone as a 15-year-old during one of his God's Will Revivals.

As with his best-selling short story collection, ``Kissing in Manhattan,'' Schickler creates a series of bold, almost cartoon-like characters, among them ``the Adam Smith of the black-market ice trade from Moscow to Mayberry'' who is addicted to eating blueberries soaked in red wine.

Schickler's irreverent intermingling of sex, religion and crime is both provocative and funny.

Last Updated: October 12, 2005 00:06 EDT