NOVEL LAND

Turkey is a novelist's dream, or perhaps a land dreamed by a novelist. A border country between Europe and the Middle East, it has for centuries been so many things to so many people--Christians, Muslims, Armenians, Greeks and, of course, Turks--that it has become a place where fantasies and realities collide like tectonic plates. Everybody has a story, and, as two new novels set in Turkey demonstrate, every story is startlingly unique.In "Birds Without Wings," Louis de Bernieres tackles a...

HIGH ART

Sometimes Art Spiegelman has a little trouble figuring out who he is. Especially when he travels, he says, "it's really an identity crisis. You know that form you fill out when you get on an airplane going abroad? I've used every possible description--journalist, writer, graphic artist, whatever. Then, finally, and rather proudly, cartoonist. For a while, I was sort of embarrassed, because for much of my life, being a cartoonist had about as much status as being a plumber. Now one can say it...

AN EYE WITHOUT EQUAL

Few people have led more storied lives than Henri Cartier-Bresson, who died last week at the age of 95. Born rich into a family of French thread merchants, he trained as a painter enamored of the surrealists. After a trip to Africa in 1930, where he wound up nearly dying from blackwater fever, he returned to France and took up photography. Almost immediately, his work set a standard for excellence that has yet to be matched. Art photography, portraiture, photojournalism--there was nothing he...

SNAP JUDGEMENT: BOOKS

Country of Origin by Don LeeIt's 1980, and Lisa Countryman, an exotic young American, goes missing in Tokyo. She had been working as a hostess at an exclusive bar, claiming to be doing research on Japanese women for her dissertation. But Lisa, half Asian and half black, has a secret agenda, which becomes clear only late in the book. Almost all the characters--including a junior U.S. diplomat assigned to her case and a Japanese cop on her trail--have complex issues with race. In this innovative...

BOOKS: BEACH PAPERBACKS

Everybody knows "beach reading" is a contradiction. Too much sand, sun and glare. But if you insist on it, bring along one of these.The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard. Winner of the National Book Award for fiction, it charts three lives as they intertwine in the devastation of post-World War II Japan.The Known World by Edward P. Jones. This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is built around the troubling fact that occasionally, African-Americans also owned slaves in the antebellum South.The Curious...

WAITING FOR THE MOVIE

You don't usually go to government reports for arresting prose. But consider this sentence: "Indeed, at the current rate of loss, literary reading as a leisure activity will virtually disappear in half a century." Yikes. And that's not the half of it. According to a report on the reading habits of Americans issued last week by the National Endowment for the Arts, less than half of the adult American population now reads for pleasure. Using Census Bureau data, the NEA found that the number of...

A 'SMILE' WORTH THE WAIT

I'm sitting in a huge sound-stage in Burbank, Calif., and I've got a serious case of the willies. First off, I still can't believe what I'm seeing: Brian Wilson, fronting a 10-piece band, poised to launch into a rehearsal of "Smile." This is so surreally unbelievable--like an acid flashback to something that never actually happened. In the heavily chronicled legend of Wilson and the Beach Boys--a story that begins in innocence and ends in drugs, mental illness and acrimony--"Smile" is the...

THE TWELFTH BOOK OF REVELATION

Beverly Reynolds got to the Christian Supply Store in Spartanburg, South Carolina, at 5:30 p.m. Along with 900 other fans, she was waiting in line recently to buy a signed copy of "Glorious Appearing." The 12th volume in the "Left Behind" series, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, describes the events leading up to the last days, when Christ returns to earth. The authors, kicking off a 12-city U.S. promotional tour, weren't due to start signing until 7 p.m. But while the crowd was patient and...

DIVING INTO A MYSTERY

When the seeker dropped anchor out in the Atlantic miles off the New Jersey coast in the fall of 1991, the 13 wreck divers on board were simply looking for their idea of a good time. That is, they were preparing to dive 200 feet into uncharted waters and risk their lives exploring an unidentified object on the ocean floor. They didn't know what they would find. So when the first divers surfaced with the news that they had discovered a submarine, the men were ecstatic. When subsequent dives...

CLINTON: SELLING HIMSELF

Bill Clinton's keynote address to Book Expo America earlier this month in Chicago was a reminder that nobody sells Clinton like Clinton. Promoting his autobiography, "My Life," to the annual convention of the nation's publishers and booksellers, he began by saying, "People tell me books like this are boring and self-serving. I just hope mine is interesting and self-serving." If the book is anything like his speech, no worries. A typical response: Richard Howorth, owner of Square Books in...

Bumpy Road Ahead

Experience teaches us that when we are approached on the street by a man carrying a sign announcing the end is near, we should do two things: give the guy a wide berth and don't believe a word he says. But what if the person carrying the sign turns out to be a highly respected social critic or a noted cultural historian? Maybe we should stick around and listen up.Back when Jane Jacobs published "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" in 1961, city planners and traffic engineers did their...

Snap Judgment

BOOKSGB84 by David PeaceHere. He. Goes." Too many paragraphs in Peace's book begin this way. Such postmodern cant has no place in a work by one of Granta magazine's 2003 Best of Young British Novelists. Nor does the extended-text-message style do justice to Peace's topic: the 1984-85 coal miners' strike that Margaret Thatcher crushed, forever weakening the British trade-union movement. "GB84's" only saving grace is a noir mood that captures the high-stakes brutality, and finality, of the...

Fiction: New Snack Attack

Tom Perrotta's new novel, "Little Children," appeared in March to glowing reviews. The critics loved his darkly comic story of what happens to a quiet suburb when a convicted child molester moves back to town. Then readers started loving it, too. The book has been back to press six times, with 95,000 copies now in print. But as St. Martin's Press, the book's publisher, discovered a few weeks after publication, not everyone was a fan. The folks at Pepperidge Farm, in particular, were...

War Wounds

Alexandra Fuller remembers precisely the moment that "Scribbling the Cat" got tricky. "I was sitting in the Denver airport three years ago," she said in a phone interview from outside Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where she lives with her husband and two children. She was reading over a draft of a story that would run in The New Yorker about a white African--an ex-soldier in the Rhodesian Army and a born-again Christian. "The magazine had asked for 6,000 words and already I was up to 30,000, and...

HAUNTING QUESTIONS

It's easy to see why Nuruddin Farah's name keeps coming up as a likely recipient of a Nobel Prize in Literature. He has the good fortune--from a writer's point of view--of being a native of Somalia, a Third World country whose recent past has been cursed first by dictatorship, then by civil war. Farah himself was persecuted and exiled during the years of dictatorship. But his eligibility for the Nobel is much more than circumstantial. He has turned not just his hard life but the life of his...

A BLEAK BOOK YOU CAN'T PUT DOWN

It's easy to see why Nuruddin Farah's name keeps coming up as a likely recipient of a Nobel Prize in Literature. He had the good fortune--from a writer's point of view--of being a native of Somalia, a Third World country whose recent past has been cursed first by dictatorship, then by civil war. But his eligibility for the Nobel is much more than circumstantial. His books debate the great themes of people versus the state, clan versus nationality, family versus the individual. It's just the...

THE TWELFTH BOOK OF REVELATION

Beverly Reynolds got to the Christian Supply Store in Spartanburg, S.C., at 5:30 p.m. last Tuesday. Along with 900 other fans, she was waiting in line to buy a signed copy of "Glorious Appearing," the 12th volume in the "Left Behind" series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins that describes the events leading up to the last days, when Christ returns to earth. The authors, kicking off a 12-city promotional tour, weren't due to start signing until 7 p.m. But while the crowd was patient and polite,...

A LOVABLE POOL SHARK

In an "ACKNOWLEDGMENTS" section at the end of "Something Rising (Light and Swift)," author Haven Kimmel thanks the book clubs that read and discussed her first two books, the memoir "A Girl Named Zippy" and the novel "The Solace of Leaving Early." That made me flinch, because I don't want to think of Kimmel as a writer who has issues that you can dissect and parse over jug wine and crackers. The loveliness of "Something Rising" has nothing to do with talking points and everything to do with...

No Master, No Commander

Avast! the armada of recent books on global exploration and seafaring disaster has swelled far beyond the limits of a mere trend. It is now a genre unto itself. Antarctica's Scott and Shackleton have their own (continental?) shelves. The past month alone has seen books on Magellan, Cook, the HMS Bounty and Russian explorers trapped in the Arctic. Plainly, we can't get enough of mutiny, rogue whales attacking ships or megalomaniacal explorers. The worse the voyage, the better. But if the great...

Finding Humor In The Crudeness

Rude, immature, inappropriate--"Vernon God Little," DBC Pierre's Man Booker Prize-winning debut, seems to bring out the schoolmarm in critics. I mean, I'd call it all those things, and I like the book. But the fact is, you're not supposed to write a novel about a Columbine-like school-shooting spree in the barbecue-sauce (nice touch) capital of central Texas--or anywhere else, for that matter. Some things just aren't funny. That truism, though, is one that you just know Pierre would disagree...

Heading In A Novel Direction

Anyone who has ever met a famous person knows the feeling: it's weirdly like meeting someone you've met already. So when you meet Jimmy Carter, know this going in: most of what you thought you knew is true. He's polite. He's very smart. He has no taste for small talk. He hews to the discipline of a schedule. An interview with the former president conducted in his office at the Carter Center in Atlanta begins on schedule at precisely 4:45 p.m. and ends exactly an hour later. But watch out,...

L.A. Noir, In The Rough

Lionel Walk, whose nick-name supplies the title for Pete Dexter's dazzling new novel, "Train," caddies at an exclusive Los Angeles country club in the early '50s. Something of a golf prodigy himself, the 18-year-old Train does his best not to draw attention to his talent: to a young black man in segregated America, attention almost always means trouble. He survives by paying close attention to everything around him, even the way a fat man's legs move in his slacks "like children hiding in the...

Love, Death And Light

Everything I do is arduous," Sally Mann says as she coats a glass plate with collodion and ether, just the way photographers did it 150 years ago. "Why do I do that? I don't know. Not because I'm better than anyone else..." Mann has always used unwieldy large-format bellows cameras with 19th-century brass-rimmed lenses, equipment so crude that she uses her hand--the only digital thing in sight--as the shutter. A few years ago, she raised the bar when she began working with these collodion...

Riffing On The Blues

One night in 1903, W. C. Handy was standing on a railroad platform in Tutwiler, Miss., waiting for a train, when he heard a man playing a guitar using a knife for a slide on the strings. Handy, who would later write "St. Louis Blues," the first great blues pop song, said he'd never known anything like it. He called it "the weirdest music I had ever heard." One hundred years later, the blues still sounds... not weird, maybe--it's too familiar and ubiquitous now--but still utterly distinct,...

Why Didion Is Still Great

Recently a friend of mine told me that she'd grown tired of reading Joan Didion. Almost immediately, she corrected herself, saying that this wasn't always true, that sometimes Didion still got her excited and that she was such a masterful writer that even the stuff you didn't like was always admirable. I know what she means, though.My friend and I are in our 50s, and there are writers that you start out admiring early in life and somewhere along the line you get tired of them. This is a vaguely...

Midnight Ramblers

It's not surprising that Keith Richards is the most interesting talker in "According to the Rolling Stones," the band's own oral history and coffee-table photo book. In interviews, he's always been the most thoughtful, the funniest and certainly the frankest member of the group. (Best Keith line here: "I've always thought of songs as gifts that just arrive... I mean, after all, I'm the guy that wrote 'Satisfaction' in my sleep.") What does raise an eyebrow is that the second most interesting...

Adventurous Spirit

His name was George Hamilton Milligan IV, but he was better suited to his nickname: Joe. A warm spirit, Milligan craved adventure--sky diving, bungee-jumping, snowboarding and scuba diving his way through life. More than anything, he loved to surf. So the Florida native moved to Australia, where he found the most spectacular waves yet. Highly intelligent but apolitical, he wasn't suspicious of anyone. He never considered the possibility that his surfing jaunts to Indonesia were potentially...

Books: The Next Jonathan?

Word on the literary street is that Jonathan Lethem could be the next Jonathan Franzen. Franzen had his success with "The Corrections," a sprawling literary novel about America. Lethem's new novel, "The Fortress of Solitude," takes an equally big slice out of the American pie. Officially, Lethem's publisher, Doubleday, won't go near such a comparison, although editor in chief Bill Thomas thinks Lethem's book will do well, "and I don't just mean sell well. I mean this book will be read by my...

Love, Death, Light

"Everything I do is arduous," Sally Mann says as she coats a glass plate with collodion and ether, just the way photographers did it 150 years ago. "Why do I do that? I don't know. Not because I'm better than anyone else... " Mann always used unwieldy large-format bellows cameras with 19th-century brass-rimmed lenses, equipment so crude that she uses her hand--the only digital thing in sight--as the shutter. A few years ago, she raised the bar another several notches when she began working with...

SECONDHAND PROSE

Some people check stock quotations to see how their investments are doing. I look at used-book prices online. I've never been a collector, but over the years a few novels that I've hung on to simply because I liked them have, ah, matured in value. I own a couple of Cormac McCarthy hardcovers from the '80s, for instance, that are now worth $1,500 each. My indifference to collecting took a beating the day I discovered those prices online. But what really holds my attention when I visit a...

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