SNAP JUDGMENT: BOOKS

Spook by Mary Roach

Her choice of subjects--corpses in her last book ("Stiff") and now the search for the soul--suggests Roach is not your average science writer. Funny, inquisitive and uncowed by experts, she's the general reader's ideal emissary to the arcana of serious science. Whether portraying students of reincarnation or sorting through spiritualist mumbo jumbo--and putting the ech back in ectoplasm--Roach's writing has what science has so far failed to find: a divine spark.

The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt

It's been 10 years since Berendt published "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" and inadvertently rejuvenated Savannah's tourist industry. Venice, the setting for his new book, doesn't need his help. This time, instead of a lurid murder trial, we get a torched opera house--accident or arson? Not a bad formula, but that's what this book is: pure formula.

Vita by Melania G. Mazzucco

The winner of Italy's top literary prize in 2003 is a strangely bifurcated book. Set at the dawn of the 20th century, the tale of young Italian immigrants Vita and Diamante has all the hallmarks of an epic romance: adrift in the New World, Vita teaches her teenage beau English words in exchange for kisses. But this is no sepia-toned paean to the huddled masses. Mazzucco lays out the brutality of America's immigrant experience--the street violence, the exploitation, the emotional cruelty. And since the characters are based on ancestors of hers, several chapters detail her real-life attempt to reconstruct their relationship. The end of her grand love story is thus dictated by both narrative logic and historical fact. If it's hard to take, that's because she so movingly evokes the bright fortune they once pursued.

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