by Tim O'Brien

Surely there are mature and proper ways for a man to react when his wife leaves him for a richer man. But Thomas Chippering will have none of them—which is what makes this latest novel by Tim O'Brien (In the Lake of the Woods) such a riotous good time. The Minnesota linguistics professor and Lorna Sue, his wife of 20 years, are vacationing in Florida when she befriends "a certain hairy gentleman" whose name Chippering now refuses to utter. Their rift sets off a midlife crisis that forces our hero to delve into his troubled, if comical, boyhood. Torn between winning back his wife and following the whims of his own libido, Chippering enlists the assistance of his own new flame, who is also married, in an effort to sabotage Lorna Sue's happy new life. (He also loses his job and tries to find work as Captain Nineteen, a public-access TV superhero.) Crazy? Indeed, Chippering's sanity remains an open question, but there's no doubt O'Brien tells one entertaining tale. (Broadway, $26)

Bottom Line: Laugh-a-page adventures of a dumped husband on the rebound

by Barbara Kingsolver

Book of the week

"Jesus is bängala!" the white evangelical preacher from Georgia thunders at the gathered African villagers he hopes to convert. They look bewildered—and no wonder. The Reverend Nathan Price, who has brought his wife and four daughters along on his misguided mission in 1959, insists on speaking Kikongo, the local language, but mispronounces the word for "precious and dear" and ends up shouting to his uncomprehending listeners that Jesus is a poisonwood tree.

There is more at stake than linguistic confusion in this beautifully written new novel by Barbara Kingsolver, whose 1988 work The Bean Trees sold more than 1 million copies. At Poisonwood's center is the evil that can flourish when arrogance is cloaked in righteousness. When Price's daughter Leah defies both custom and her father by joining the village men on a hunt, she begets a curse destined to affect her entire family. Kingsolver's tale of domestic tragedy is more than just a well-told yarn, however. Played out against the bloody backdrop of political struggles in Congo that continue to this day, it is also particularly timely. (HarperFlamingo, $26)

Bottom Line: A profoundly affecting story of Africa's mysterious ways—and God's

by Mary Higgins Clark

Christmas has been good to Mary Higgins Clark. Her last Yule-themed effort, 1995's heart-tugging suspense novel Silent Night, spent 14 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. Clark's offering to her fans for this year's holiday season is All Through the Night, an equally sentimental tale of an infant abandoned on a church doorstep, some nefarious thieves and a financially strapped after-school shelter in desperate need of a miracle.

The slim book (just 170 pages) is short on surprises and suspense. But it does mark the return of two of Clark's most endearing characters: cleaning-lady-turned-lottery-winner and amateur sleuth Alvirah Meehan and her big-hearted husband, Willy, a retired plumber. (Willy's sister Cordelia, a nun, runs the beleaguered shelter.) And their cozy presence, along with Clark's chatty prose, makes this mild mystery entertaining. (Simon & Schuster, $17)

Bottom Line: Pleasant, if predictable, stocking stuffer

by C. David Heymann

asks his sources, "Oh, yeah?" and the latter just says, "Yeah." This new bio of Robert F. Kennedy by C. David Heymann (A Woman Named Jackie) is written with all the verve of a '74 Chevy Impala owner's manual, which might be forgiven if his sourcing weren't thinner than a Necco wafer. If RFK really did have a "lusty" affair with a stewardess in the mid-1960s, shouldn't we be given some verifying details beyond her claims: witnesses, records, y'know—evidence? An alleged RFK fling with Mary Jo Kopechne, the friend of Ted Kennedy's who later drowned in the Chappaquiddick accident, is backed only by an unidentified "friend" buried in a footnote; another footnote says "evidence suggests" an alleged JFK girlfriend was killed by the CIA, or maybe it was the FBI. What evidence? Heymann isn't telling. There may be some truth in this volume, but there may be a gold earring in your septic tank too: Is it really worth looking? (Dutton, $27.95)

Bottom Line: Ought to be packaged with a bottle of disinfectant

>WHY SINATRA MATTERS Pete Hamill A slim but snazzy ode to Ol' Blue Eyes by a renowned journalist and author, the late singer's sometime drinking buddy. (Little, Brown, $18)

THE REEF Nora Roberts The suspenseful tale of a marine archeologist and a hunky diver who join forces to find a sunken treasure. Putnam, $23.95)

THE ROAD HOME Jim Harrison The Legends of the Fall writer returns with a touching saga of a Nebraska clan. (Atlantic Monthly, $25)

>Jackie Chan

Jackie Chan, martial arts hero of more than 40 kung-fu action flicks, is about to perform yet another difficult stunt: With only 15 minutes to go in a book signing at Borders in Aventura, Fla., near Miami, the Rush Hour star must find a way to please hundreds of fans still waiting to see him. In a snap, Chan, 44, reaches for a pile of presigned editions of his new autobiography, I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action (Ballantine), allowing those in line to exchange their own copies for an autographed book and a quick high five. "I always do the best I can," says the beaming star.

Chan hopes his story will inspire young people to do the same. Its account of 10 harrowing years spent at a Hong Kong boarding school—where severe canings were a common punishment—shows that he could surmount almost any obstacle.

Here, however, just getting a glimpse of Chan is the challenge facing 3,000 devotees in a line that snakes out into the parking lot. "He's really cool," says Yen Yen Cheng, 15, who climbed a bookshelf for a peek at her idol. "This is a beautiful view."

  • Contributors:
  • Thomas Fields-Meyer,
  • Emily Mitchell,
  • Cynthia Sanz,
  • Kyle Smith,
  • Grace Lim.