Book Marks

A SLENDER THREAD, by Diane Ackerman (Random House. $24). Diane Ackerman is a sort of hippie naturalist, and this is her latest excuse to chase butterflies. The book is ostensibly about Ackerman's work manning a crisis hot line. Still, you've got to wonder what suicidal callers would make of her fuzzy, planet-hugging effusions, reports on the revivifying effects of bicycling and endless chatter about the squirrels in her backyard. (Circle of life: yeah, we know.) Ackerman declines to discuss her own emotional resume, but does say airily, "I was born with a poet's sensibility, and Prozac made it impossible for me to do what comes naturally--think metaphorically, allusively, exploring the hidden connection between seemingly unrelated things." As a hot-line staffer, Ackerman has "empathy to the nth" and knows how to listen. But as a writer she sure loves the sound of her own voice.

GUIDED TOURS OF HELL, by Francine Prose (Metropolitan. $23). These two buoyant novellas describing dark nights of the soul in Prague and Paris are among Prose's most winning works. In the title story, a nebbishy American playwright lugs all his petty miseries along on a tour of a concentration camp. Death-camp culture doesn't normally inspire satire, but Prose mingles the horrific, the funny and the poignant with perfect pitch. "Three Pigs in Five Days" tracks another tourist as she searches Paris for clues to her emotional disarray. Next time you pack for a trip, take these maps to the psyche with you.

THE HUNDRED BROTHERS, by Donald Antrim (Crown. $21). The family is, at its most basic, a matter of numbers--you plus some other people. Multiplying that idea out to, well, not its logical but certainly a fruitful conclusion, novelist Donald Antrim creates a clan of 100 sons, ranging from Hiram, at 93 the eldest, to Zachary, the giant; Pierce, the "designer of radically unbuildable buildings," and so on, through four sets of twins. They all gather one fateful night in the ancestral mansion to find the urn that holds their father's ashes, but their reunion is in fact spent on unsettled scores and petty rivalries--the tragicomic glue, in short, that's been the stuff of family lore since Cain and Abel. Numerically and literarily, Antrim takes the tradition to new heights.