by Al Franken

Foul...vile, unfunny...mindless tripe." Whatever possessed Al Franken? The epithets, he would have us believe, are from former U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick's New York Times "review" of this book, an appraisal that Franken offers uncut in chapter one. But, given that this is a collection of stridently liberal essays, even the most gullible reader would doubt the Times' choice of the arch-conservative Kirkpatrick to critique it. (Franken's own protest: How dare they assign a former lover to review his work?)

Readers familiar with the Saturday Night Live comedian will of course dismiss the Times "review" and followup "letters" as hoaxes concocted in a near-lunatic desire to amuse. The rest of the bestselling book is far less innocent, its tone fairly suggested by the incivility of its title.

Franken baits not only Rush Limbaugh but other conservative icons as well. Those readers made uneasy by the Kirkpatrick prank may also question the accuracy of his reportage. Did Limbaugh really show pictures of Socks and Chelsea Clinton on TV, referring to them as the White House cat and the "White House dog"? Was Newt Gingrich really taken to court by his cancer-stricken ex-wife for failing to support her and their kids? Did Phil Gramm, deploring food stamps, really say "all our poor people are fat"?

Readers will have no doubt about the inaccuracy of Franken's four-page index. The entries, devoted entirely to Limbaugh's girth, eating habits and sex life, in no way reflect the content of the pages cited. All in all, this is a most peculiar book—overwritten, intemperate, gratuitously vulgar. And—yes—often very—funny. (Delacorte, $21.95)

Edited by David Brooks

Readers looking for a more conservative view can turn to this collection covering topics from fatherhood to finance by such writers as former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan, novelist Christopher (Thank You for Smoking) Buckley and Yale professor Donald Kagan.

Many of these essays and speeches are entertaining, though certainly less sensational than Franken's work. Particularly winning are those pieces that deal not with proposing policy but with skewering common wisdom, like Joe Queenan's experiences as a smoker in an antismoking world and Danielle Crittenden's hilarious and apt "Knock Me Out with a Truck," in which she suggests that women in labor should just say "yes" to drugs.

If this collection doesn't change the way the majority votes this November, humorist P.J. O'Rourke, for one, probably won't mind. Conservatives enjoy being the political opposition, he writes. "Clinton may be a disaster for the rest of the nation, but he is meat on our table." (Vintage, $13)

Roxanne Pulitzer

In Pulitzer's Palm Beach, the women are beautiful, the men dashing and the sex beyond torrid. When not frolicking between the Porthault sheets, her overpampered denizens are buying baubles at Cartier and looking down their finely sculpted noses at anyone who is NOKD ("Not Our Kind, Dear"). Which is exactly how they view magazine photographer Meg MacDermott and her publisher, Hank Shaw, who come to chronicle its old-money occupants.

But before Meg has scarcely had time to rig up her light meter, she strikes up an affair with rakish playboy Spencer Kendall, and Shaw begins wooing the unhappily married Countess Monteverdi. Will love win out over class distinctions? Does Dom Pérignon make champagne?

The novel's end, of course, proves about as predictable as the steamy sex scenes that cap most chapters. Still, Pulitzer knows a bit about upper-class excess, and her eye for decadent details makes for an entertaining look at the lifestyles of the rich and shallow. (Simon & Schuster, $22)

Michael Connelly

Jack McEvoy is reporting the story of his career—and he couldn't be sorrier. As a columnist for Denver's Rocky Mountain News, his beat is death. And this time he's writing about the death of his twin brother, Sean, a homicide cop who apparently blew his brains out after becoming obsessed with a coed's murder that he couldn't solve.

But as Jack starts researching other police suicides, he becomes increasingly suspicious about Sean's death. Certain similarities—like the high-profile crime on which Sean had been working and the one-line note he left, lifted, it turns out, from Edgar Allan Poe—pose the gruesome question: Could there be a poetically minded cop killer at work? And, if so, is he or she also committing other murders?

These deadly conundrums, and the suspense that ensues, would be reason enough to recommend this psychological thriller. But there's more. Author Connelly (The Concrete Blonde), who has won fans all the way up to the White House, introduces an intriguing new protagonist whose realism probably owes something to Connelly's own past as a police reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Perhaps best of all, Connelly doesn't just talk about poets, he writes like one, with a spare elegiac grace that is the perfect voice for the haunting tale he has to tell. (Little, Brown, $22.95)

by John Pierson

Such are the out-of-whack economics of Hollywood that, for the cost of one Waterworld, a plucky independent filmmaker like Kevin Smith could have made more than 6,000 Clerks, his 1994 debut. Low-budget dreamers and schemers like Smith are brought to life in this quirky book by Pierson, a film nerd who sank $10,000 into Spike Lee's first feature, She's Gotta Have It, kick-starting his own career as a producer's rep. His indie flicks include Michael Moore's Roger & Me, Richard Linklater's Slackers and the lesbian-themed Go Fish—hence the book's silly title. Pierson's years spent watching movies helped sharpen his skill at turning the dry subject of film financing into a fresh, funny, even suspenseful story.

Chapters on last-minute distribution deals and film-festival intrigue zing along, buoyed by Pierson's fondness for "credit-card, family-money, film-stock-in-the-refrigerator" directors like the gutsy Lee. But Pierson knows that the passion and innocence of his beloved art-house auteurs cannot last. He warns that many directors dubbed the Next Big Thing can expect a life of compromise once they're caught in the clutches of Hollywood. (Hyperion, $22.95)

Minette Walters

Page-Turner of the Week

JANE KIXGSLEY RICHLY DESERVES HER nickname, Jinx. After the London fashion photographer's husband is beaten to death—an officially unsolved crime behind which police see the hand of her gangster-turned-tycoon father—she loses the baby she is carrying. When Jinx finally finds a new love, he leaves her weeks before the wedding—for her best friend. And then within days she makes what appear to be two suicide attempts, the second of which leaves her with partial amnesia in what she calls a nutter's hospital.

But fans of this award-winning British writer's previous three suspense novels know that in her books appearances are usually deceptive. As this engaging mystery twists toward its surprising conclusion, odds are you'll be rooting for the plucky Jinx—even while suspecting her of the worst. (Putnam, $23.95)

>John Gilstrap

PUNCTUATION AND PRETZELS

AN EXCLAMATION POINT ALMOST KEPT John Gilstrap from getting published. New York City agent Molly Friedrich was about to become the 28th to reject Gilstrap's manuscript, then called Nathan!, in her case without reading it because of the offending punctuation. ("It apparently screams, 'Amateur!,' the author explains.) But Friedrich's assistant Sheri Holman noticed Gilstrap was a fellow William & Mary grad and read further. The result: a heart-pounding tale of suspense—re-christened Nathan's Run, about a 12-year-old murder suspect trying to elude the heat and a hit man—that has already earned more than a million dollars in book and film rights.

"I'd like to have fallen through the floor," says Gilstrap, 39, who lives in Woodbridge, Va., with wife Joy, an insurance-claim rep, their 9-year-old son Chris and black Lab Joe. "We dreamt that if we got $25,000 out of this we'd be able to finish the basement and put something away for Chris's education, and we'd call that a success."

So far the only signs of the windfall are a large stash of Gilstrap's favorite cinnamon-and-sugar pretzels and the fact that he now spends most of his time working on a new novel rather than for the environmental-consulting firm he owns. But his company played a key role in his success. During a 1994 trip to Montana, Gilstrap found himself making the 16-hour drive between two clients several times—with no radio reception. "I had nothing to do but think," he says. "I had the novel outlined within a few days."

Though Gilstrap isn't writing the Nathan script, he admits to some mental casting. "I think the Bitch [a radio shock jock] would be nicely played by Whoopi Goldberg. And for [cop] Warren Michaels, Harrison Ford would be great." But, Gilstrap adds, "it's hard for me to separate who I'd like to see in it and who I'd like to meet."

  • Contributors:
  • Jeff Brown,
  • Sara Nelson,
  • Cynthia Sanz,
  • Pam Lambert,
  • Alex Tresniowski.