In the opening pages of the new novel by Carolyn See (Dreaming, Golden Days), a critic seeks a foundation grant to study the work of Bob Hampton, an internationally renowned painter in his late fifties who is venerated by his fans with almost cultlike devotion. The rest of See's inventive and energetic story whisks us back to his scruffier 20s, when Hampton's artistic exploits were not as appreciated, and his job as a Los Angeles handyman required a great deal more of him than skill with a hammer and nails. As this charming, often hilarious novel details Hampton's highly unusual duties—chasing down an eccentric family's unruly, exotic pets; caring for a young man with AIDS; saving a toddler from drowning; comforting a grieving widow; in short, repairing and rearranging the lives of everyone around him—See offers a satisfying take on the mysterious and unpredictable ways that real life can be turned into art. (Random House, $22.95)
Bottom Line: Romantic Mr. Fixit crafts magic in LA.
by David Guterson
David Guterson's bestselling debut novel, 1995's Snow Falling on Cedars (soon to be a film starring Ethan Hawke), told the moving story of a Japanese-American fisherman charged with murder in Washington State in the 1950s. Admirers of Guterson's hyperdetailed prose may well enjoy this similarly crafted followup, set in the same region.
As the novel begins, Ben Givens, a retired surgeon with terminal cancer, is preparing to commit suicide. He sets out on a hunting trip with his two Brittany spaniels to make his death appear accidental, but before he can turn his antique Winchester shotgun on himself, unexpected events force him to reconsider.
Despite a promising opening, though, East of the Mountains lacks the underlying drama and social commentary that energized Cedars. Yes, Guterson's descriptions of whatever filters through Ben's mind—from his technique for bagging the small birds called chukars to the suffering he witnessed during World War II—are impressively nuanced. But the novel's plot, like its morally tortured main character, is flat and predictable. "Try shooting yourself," Givens, a master of the obvious, tells one character. "It isn't easy." But if you're in the mood for lyrical images of hay fields, apple orchards and vineyards in Washington's Columbia Basin, this book may be just the thing. (Harcourt Brace, $25)
Bottom Line: Gifted writer's second novel falls too far from the tree
by Greg King
"I'm not nearly so interested in clothes as people think. I'd rather talk about Red Cross work and infant welfare." No, that's not Princess Diana talking—it's the famously frivolous Duchess of Windsor, soon after Edward VIII had abdicated Britain's throne to marry her. In this uneven new biography, author King aims to rehabilitate the good name of a woman he calls one of our century's "most reviled." It's no easy task: The duchess's charity efforts pale next to those spent earning her spot on best-dressed lists ("I'd rather shop than eat," she once said) or micromanaging her many parties. King does succeed in attributing the couple's vapid existence to Edward's relatives, who refused to find useful work for him. And it's impossible not to feel something for the woman who wrote to her dethroned husband in 1937: "Whatever happens, we will make something of our lives." (Birch Lane, $27.50)
Bottom Line: Makeover that misses
by Natalie Angier
Book of the week
Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter Natalie Angier has that rare dual talent: a true passion for science combined with a poet's linguistic flair. In this lively dissection of womanhood, she places everything from estrogen to the politics of motherhood beneath her flawlessly focused microscope, offering innumerable tidbits both surprising and fascinating. "Who knew, for instance, that the clitoris has twice as many nerve fibers—8,000—as the penis? Or that in hunter-gatherer societies, it was the roots and berries gathered by women, not the occasional macho-man meat treat, that sustained the tribe? Women readers especially may feel invigorated by this celebration of their multifaceted selves. (Houghton Mifflin, $25)
Bottom Line: First-rate girl talk
by Kirk Mitchell
Tony Hillerman, watch your back: Kirk Mitchell, a former sheriff's deputy who patrolled the Native American reservations of Inyo County, Calif., has concocted an exciting new competitor for the bestselling Jim Chee-Joe Leaphorn Navajo mysteries.
In Cry Dance, Mitchell's new series opener, Bureau of Indian Affairs agent Emmett Parker is called to investigate after a body is found at a remote outpost in the Grand Canyon. Parker, a Comanche, is no sensitive, Dances with Wolves type: He's about as subtle as a tomahawk and twice as lethal, and his weapon of choice is something large and automatic. Mitchell knows his turf and delivers a savory whodunit without remorse. (Bantam, $23.95)
Bottom Line: Piercing mystery
by Stephen King
Stephen King has never been known for his female characters, but he has created a credible one with this novel about 9-year-old Trisha McFarland, who gets lost in the Maine woods.
Her ordeal turns into a shaggy monster story: King being King, some fiendish creature seems to be stalking Trisha, tearing the heads off deer and foxes and making ominous noises from the shadows of the forest. Meanwhile, she hallucinates about meeting her idol, star Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Tom "Flash" Gordon, who's called in from the bullpen here as a symbol for God.
Despite King's relentless references to pop culture—he even takes approving note of the Budweiser frog commercials—the slender volume (219 pages) delivers an engaging little-girl-in-jeopardy tale. You may not care about Gordon, but you will about Trisha. (Scribner, $16.95)
Bottom Line: Our top yarn-spinner serves up an absorbing tale
>HUSH MONEY Robert B. Parker In the 26th Spenser mystery, the popular Boston PI courts danger when he agrees to take on two cases for loved ones. (Putnam, $22.95)
YESTERDAY, I CRIED lyanla Vanzant The bestselling minister and spiritual guide mines her own troubled past to teach life's healing lessons. (Simon & Schuster, $22)
THE ELEANOR ROOSEVELT GIRLS Bonnie Bluh In this funny and poignant tale, seven bosom buddies draw strength from their friendship as they navigate the decades. (Lyre Bird, $12)
It's National Poetry Month, and at grassroots poetry slams and readings around the country—such as the People's Poetry Gathering in New York City on April 9-11—audiences have been whooping, heckling and getting the spirit. On paper, too, the art is thriving, as these gems attest:
Jackstraws by Charles Simic A master of the surreal, Simic packs his poems full of horror movies, bleak jokes, savage ironies and the things an insomniac notices on the ceiling. (Harcourt Brace, $22)
Vita Nova by Louise Glück In her best book since winning the Pulitzer Prize six years ago, Glück explores that terrible interval between the loss of a love and the stirrings of new life and new emotions. (Ecco, $22)
On the Bus with Rosa Parks by Rita Dove The former U.S. Poet Laureate, best known for Thomas and Beulah, movingly honors the woman who set off a civil rights revolution when she refused to move to the back of a Montgomery, Ala., bus in 1955. (Norton, $21)
Allegory of the Supermarket by Stephanie Brown
In witty poems like "I Was a Phony Baloney!" and "Marriage," Brown's tart insights—"She had the harsh hearty laughter Of the women who believe the men will leave them"—show that humor can sting as well as beguile. (University of Georgia, $15.95)
- Francine Prose,
- Alec Foege,
- Kim Hubbard,
- J.D. Reed,
- Ralph Novak,
- David Lehman.