Thursday, February 01, 2007

Smiley's Hollywood, Farah's Somalia, Huck's Pap: New Fiction

By Edward Nawotka

Feb. 1 (Bloomberg) -- A post-Oscars gathering at a famous director's house turns into a marathon conversation about the ambitions and neuroses of the Hollywood elite in Jane Smiley's loquacious new novel ``Ten Days in the Hills'' (Knopf, $26).

Smiley's 1991 Pulitzer Prize winner, ``A Thousand Acres,'' was a modern reimagining of ``King Lear.'' This time she takes Boccaccio's ``Decameron'' as her template.

Ten voices interweave into a cacophony of self-obsession as the host and his guests -- including a writer, an actor, hangers- on and offspring -- watch movies in the screening room, yack endlessly about Hollywood, debate the just-launched war in Iraq and dream aloud. One even considers making a pornographic version of ``My Dinner With Andre.''

Some readers may find the characters pretentious and exasperating, but Smiley's bracing candor about desire, both personal and professional, is engrossing.

Other highlights this month:

``Knots'' by Nuruddin Farah (Riverhead, $25.95). The latest novel from the acclaimed Somali writer vividly tells the story of Cambara, who has emigrated to Canada but returns to Mogadishu to mourn the death of her son. In her war-ravaged homeland she finds succor among women peace activists, who, paradoxically, help her enlist mercenaries to reclaim her family home from a vicious warlord.

``Finn'' by Jon Clinch (Random House, $23.95). In ``The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,'' when Pap, Huck's father, is found dead he's surrounded by a strange assortment of odds and ends, among them a wooden leg, two black cloth masks and some ``women's underclothes.'' Clinch's intriguing aim in his debut novel is to explain the mystery by imagining the drunken old man's childhood and family.

``Red Cat'' by Peter Spiegelman (Knopf, $22.95). In Spiegelman's newest thriller (after ``Black Maps,'' a Shamus Award winner, and ``Death's Little Helpers''), New York City private investigator John March, the black-sheep scion of a banking family, makes his third appearance. This time he's coming to the aid of his rich, arrogant brother, who's being threatened by a predatory Internet connection he made the mistake of sleeping with. Spiegleman's pointed riffs on banking and investment schemes are part of the pleasure.

``Lost City Radio'' by Daniel Alarcon (HarperCollins, $24.95). Alarcon's previous book, ``War by Candlelight,'' was a finalist for the 2006 PEN/Hemingway Award. His new novel is worthy of comparison to Graham Greene. Its central character is a woman in a fictional South American country who uses her popular radio program to connect people with loved ones ``disappeared'' during a civil war and who gets a tip that sends her on a quest to find her own lost husband.

``The Other Side of You'' by Salley Vickers (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $24). Vickers, a former psychologist, delivers a graceful, cerebral novel in the form of a ping-pong therapy session. The psychoanalyst has been traumatized by the childhood death of his brother; his suicidal patient has been traumatized by the death of her Caravaggio-obsessed lover.

``Devotion'' by Howard Norman (Houghton Mifflin, $24). In this powerful study of love and marriage by the highly regarded author of ``The Bird Artist,'' a Canadian father and his new son- in-law come to blows outside a London hotel. But is it solely because the young husband has been unfaithful on his honeymoon -- or is there reason for an even deeper distrust between the men?

``Valentine: A Love Story'' by Chet Raymo (Cowley Publications, $19.95). Raymo, best known for his popular science books, returns to fiction for the first time since 1993's ``The Dork of Cork'' with an entrancing life of the martyr St. Valentine, set against the foment of the early Christian church. After the death of his powerful patron's son, Valentine, a Roman doctor, is sent to prison, where he falls in love with the beautiful blind daughter of his jailer.

``The Time It Takes to Fall'' by Margaret Lazarus Dean (Simon & Schuster, $24) Dean's colorful coming-of-age novel views the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster through the eyes of a space-obsessed young girl, who's embroiled in her own parents' complicated lives in the NASA community at Florida's Cape Canaveral.

``Jamestown'' by Matthew Sharpe (Soft Skull Press, $25). With Brooklyn at war and Manhattan inhospitable, refugees flee on buses to Virginia in an ingenious post-apocalyptic satire that pits the natives (whose skin has turned red from their SPF 90 sunblock) against the unprepared interlopers. Much of the book is narrated in hilarious riffs by a trippy Pocahontas.

(Edward Nawotka is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Oil, Nixon and Mao, Soulful Economists: February Nonfiction

By Edward Nawotka

Jan. 31 (Bloomberg) -- Americans make 16 billion trips to the gas station and pump an average of 1,068 gallons per capita annually. Yet few of us understand the economic, political and cultural ramifications of such rampant consumption, Lisa Margonelli observes in ``Oil on the Brain: Adventures From the Pump to the Pipeline'' (Doubleday, $26).

After watching an Alaskan chemist use napalm to clean up an oil slick, Margonelli sets off on a 100,000-mile trek -- burning some 3,000 gallons of gas and jet fuel, she dutifully reports -- to explore ``petroleum culture'' and the global oil-supply chain.

Her chatty combination of reportage and travelogue serves up some fascinating facts: For example, China's booming car sales have resulted in traffic fatalities equivalent to ``a daily 747 crash.''

Other highlights this month:

``Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement'' by Brian Doherty (PublicAffairs, $35). Doherty, an editor at Reason magazine, offers an astute, entertaining history of thinkers as diverse as Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman, who both believed that the best government was the one that involved itself least in the life of its citizens.

``The Soulful Science: What Economists Really Do and Why It Matters'' by Diane Coyle (Princeton, $27.95). Countering Thomas Carlyle's description of economics as the dismal science, Coyle shows how contemporary economists are bringing theory out of the classroom as they adopt a more pragmatic, humanistic approach to such problems as poverty and pollution.

``The Unwritten Laws of Business'' by W.J. King and James G. Skakoon (Currency, $14.95). This revised edition of the 60-year- old business primer ``The Unwritten Laws of Engineering'' (which helped inspire Raytheon CEO William Swanson's popular self- published pamphlet ``Swanson's Unwritten Rules of Management'') is full of aphoristic advice -- for example, ``If you have no intention of listening to, considering, and perhaps using, someone's opinion, don't ask for it.''

``Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic'' by Chalmers Johnson (Metropolitan, $25). Following his bestselling ``Blowback'' and ``The Sorrows of Empire,'' Johnson powerfully demonstrates how the United States' costly attempts to install democracy abroad (too often with security as the real goal) have lured it into a permanent war economy that threatens to undermine the Constitution and bankrupt the nation.

``Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World'' by Margaret MacMillan (Random House, $27.95). The bestselling author of ``Paris 1919'' offers a fascinating look at the events surrounding that historic handshake of February 1972 and the important roles that Henry Kissinger, Pat Nixon, Chou En-lai and Jiang Qing also played.

``Gerald R. Ford'' by Douglas Brinkley (Times Books, $20). Ford, who died on Dec. 26, is largely remembered as the man unwittingly thrust into the presidency. Brinkley recounts key episodes in his brief tenure, most notably the signing of the Helsinki Accords, which, the author maintains, laid the groundwork for the end of the Cold War.

``The China Fantasy: How Our Leaders Explain Away Chinese Repression'' by James Mann (Viking, $19.95). Mann, a former Beijing bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times and the author of ``Rise of the Vulcans,'' shows why China's deeply embedded authoritarian culture is likely to persist despite the West's mistaken belief that economic reforms will inevitably lead to a humanistic democracy (``the soothing scenario'') or else revolution (``the upheaval scenario'').

``Planet India: How the Rise of the Fastest-Growing Democracy Is Transforming America and the World'' by Mira Kamdar. (Scribner, $26). Kamdar, a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute, weighs in on the Indian companies that have marshaled technology to transform the country into an economic dynamo that now imperils the West's economic and cultural hegemony.

(Edward Nawotka is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)