There are few more inviting targets in America than the computer subculture, with its insidious jargon, frivolous obsessions and unending irritations. Fortunately, satirist Barry couldn't resist, and he takes dead-on aim in this relentlessly funny book.
Though his research included a visit to a computer trade show in Las Vegas, an event he calls Nerdstock, Barry writes mostly of his own misadventures with personal computing, focusing on his familiarity with the three magic words, Abort?, Retry? and Fail?, and his futile attempts to find a living person on the other end of a technical support line.
Barry admits to writing on a computer, but he holds no reverence for cyberspace or its boosters: "Let's not forget the hardware manufacturers, who are constantly coming out with faster and more powerful computers in a relentless quest to render obsolete the computers they talked you into buying last month."
Aside from a couple of rare lapses of taste, Barry shines, and he clearly knows whereof he spoofs. He concludes, "We cannot predict where, ultimately, the Computer Revolution will take us. All we know for certain is that, when we finally get there, we won't have enough RAM." (Crown, $22)
by John Updike
Ernest Hemingway had bullfights; Norman Mailer, boxing. John Updike, master chronicler of middle-aged angst, has golf. His enduring love of the links, of what he calls "the soaring grandeur that blooms of its own out of a good swing," has made the game a persistent theme in his work, most notably in his four Rabbit novels, where a round of golf is usually a metaphor for life's lost chances. The 30 entries in this collection, drawn mainly from magazine pieces, constitute a championship round.
Consider his joyful take on cleated shoes and leather gloves: "We feel, dressed for golf, knightly, charging toward distant pennants past dragon-shaped hazards." Or his rhapsodic description of his finest golf shot ever: "The astounded ball, smitten, soared far up the fairway, curling toward the fat part of the green with just the daintiest trace of a fade, hit once on the fringe, kicked smartly toward the flagstick, and stopped two feet from the cup."
This unbridled appreciation of golf's mystical opportunities for grace and redemption will enthrall even those who have never followed an 80-yard worm-burner with an elegant chip to the pin. Updike, who has been playing, erratically, for nearly 40 years, may forever battle a flawed swing, but he has long since established himself as the Jack Nicklaus of golf writing. (Knopf, $23)
by Ed McBain
Florida defense attorney Matthew Hope seems to have a sunny, sandy and funny case. His client, sexy toy designer Elaine Commins, is suing her former employer Brett Toland for stealing her idea: a cross-eyed teddy bear, whose ocular problem is corrected by magic glasses. (The name comes from a play on a line from a popular hymn: "gladly the cross I'll bear.") When Toland is murdered, the cops arrest Commins, and the lawyer finds himself in a tangle of sexual and emotional kudzu as he struggles toward the awkward truth.
With his wide shelf of the the ever-popular Hope and 87th Precinct books, the masterful McBain (novelist Evan Hunter's nom de crime) could easily coast down fictional waterways, but he invests Gladly throughout with enough snap, sizzle—and heart—to make it one of his best. (Warner, $23)
by Geoffrey C. Ward
When Buffalo Bill opened his first Wild West Show in 1883, the frontier West was disappearing. A seemingly empty, impenetrable wilderness had become dotted with settlements, the buffalo were nearly gone, and the Indians had been consigned to reservations. What was once an awesome landscape had been reduced to a source of entertainment.
This hefty companion volume to Ken Burns's eight-part PBS series (airing this week) examines the transformation of the frontier that began in 1527 with the arrival of conquistadors aiming to expand the Spanish empire.
Ward, author of the substantive histories The Civil War and Baseball, deftly mixes archival photographs (among them well-preserved daguerreotypes) with the words (culled from private letters and diaries) of the ordinary men and women who witnessed the events. People like William Swain, a 27-year-old New Yorker who crossed the continent to try his luck in California's gold fields, and Red Cloud of the Oglala Lakota tribe, who complained bitterly and eloquently to President Ulysses S. Grant about the hardships his people faced at the hands of new settlers. "We are melting like snow on the hillside," he said, "while you are growing like spring grass."
This is a vivid account of the American experience, filled with stories of the greed, folly, courage, ambition and hope that still fuel the dreams of this nation. (Little, Brown, $60)
by Penelope Evans
Twelve years later, narrator Larry Mann still hasn't quite recovered from the shock of his wife's leaving him. But the 72-year-old London townhouse boarder brightens with the arrival of Amanda, a good-hearted college student who rents the rooms below. This quaint premise slowly turns creepy as Mann grows obsessed with his emotionally fragile neighbor. He slips into her place during the day, at first to leave little gifts for his "Mandylove," then to rifle through her belongings. He's jealous of the phone calls she gets from her Edinburgh boyfriend, jealous even of his own canary when Amanda pays it too much attention. And yet the story's every chilling turn has a certain logic, at least as related by chatty old Larry.
In an age when thrillers often measure their menace in body counts, this carefully controlled, harrowing portrait of domestic terror, written by a first-time novelist, delivers some old-fashioned pleasures, however unsettling they may be. You think you dread the holiday season? Wait till you read how Larry tries to make sure that Amanda stays home for Christmas. (St. Martin's, $21.95)
by Alan Furst
While Jean Casson, a Parisian film producer, sleeps with his latest conquest, a leggy young assistant named Gabriella, Wehrmacht commando units invade France. So begins Furst's latest thriller about an ordinary man who reluctantly joins the underworld of spies and counterspies.
The details of life under the Germans' iron heel—the ration coupons, coded phone conversations and daily moral dilemmas of the Occupation—are vivid. But the book lapses into macho clichés ("there were women to be made love to, bottles of wine to be opened") and poor plotting. By the time the spy games finally begin, the story has gotten so murky there's no suspense, not even when Casson is cast out into the cold for good. (Random House, $23)
by Anna Shapiro
This Feast is the literary equivalent of a tasting menu: an elaborately staged succession of signature dishes served in tantalizing bites so as not to exhaust the palate. Here, the master "chefs" are 20 or so of the world's greatest writers. Novelist Shapiro has culled choice morsels from their work: celebrations of food, memorably awful meals, plots that turn and fates that hinge on breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Shapiro also offers dozens of enticing recipes and cooking tips for readers whose appetites have been whetted by such lovingly detailed repasts as the sumptuous feast shared by Levin and Prince Oblonsky in Anna Karenina, the delectable fish chowder served early in Moby Dick, the strawberries that spark a revelation in Emma. It's a pleasure to be reminded of (or to discover) Dora Copperfield's inability to shop for food, the leg of lamb as murder weapon in Roald Dahl's Lamb to the Slaughter and the malodorous Brussels sprouts that spell social disaster in Booth Tarkington's Alice Adams.
This is a book that leaves us with an appetite for novels we want to read and reread—and for meals that we want to cook. A Feast of Words is haute cuisine for the body and the spirit. (Norton, $23)
by Jody Jaffe
Page-Turner of the Week
REPORTER AND RIDING ENTHUSIAST Nattie Gold is dying to transfer off the fashion beat at the North Carolina newspaper where she works. However, the obit page isn't quite what she has in mind—which is just where she might land if she keeps poking into the suspicious death of fellow horse fancier Josane Ashmore, a vivacious former beauty queen.
It takes more than a few cut brake lines, however, to discourage our Nattie. She muckrakes in the tony horse haven of Middleburg, Va., with the help of patrician colleague Henry Goode, an investigative reporter probing a series of death threats aimed at prominent citizens. Before long, the two sleuths begin to suspect a connection between their stories—as well as one of a more personal nature with each other.
Jaffe, herself a former feature writer for the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer and owner of six steeds, amusingly satirizes both the newspaper business and the horsy set without slowing her galloping plot by a single stride. (Fawcett, $21)
LOVING THE LOVE STUFF
EVEN BEFORE HER OWN BOOKS STARTED climbing the bestseller lists, Catherine Coulter knew what to do with a novel. "I was reading a book and I thought, 'I can do better than this,' " says Catherine Coulter. "Then I threw it across the room."
In 1978, Coulter made her debut with The Autumn Countess, set in the 19th century. Six more romances followed, and soon she was able to quit her job writing speeches for an insurance executive. "Success," she says, "is when you can quit your day job and feed your cat."
Her cat Gilly never goes hungry now that Coulter's canon numbers 40 books, more than half of them bestsellers. In addition to romances, she specializes in historical sagas—her latest is Rosehaven, a hot-blooded medieval romp—but she also churns out contemporary suspense yarns like The Cove, published last February. Whatever century she's working in, Coulter puts herself into the story. "Particularly in the heroine," she says. "There's always some of you in your main character."
Coulter, who lives with her husband, a physician, in Marin County, Calif., has no plans to stop writing romance novels but insists her themes cut across genre. "Humor, mysteries, really good love stories are all about relationships," says the Texas native, a stickler for happy endings. "I like reaffirming that to love somebody is a good thing." Something else her novels have in common: creative hanky-panky. "I do great love scenes," she laughs. "The trick is that they are not about body parts, because that's silly."
- Ralph Novak,
- Alex Tresniowski,
- J.D. Reed,
- Thomas Curwen,
- Mark Lasswell,
- Paula Chin,
- Pam Lambert,
- Francine Prose,
- Gabrielle Saveri.