By Augusten Burroughs
ESSAYS

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How deliciously perverse is Augusten Burroughs? In Magical Thinking, he describes a boat ride with "fat Americans" in Key West. Waiting to board, Burroughs is kicked by a tyke with a Hello Kitty backpack. "Stop that," he says evenly. "Don't kick." The little girl levels another blow, giggles and steps on his toe. Burroughs whispers, 'Kick me one more time... and once we get on the boat, I'll push your mother into the ocean, and she'll die. And then I'll hurt your daddy. And then I'll be your new daddy, and I'll take you home with me.'"

Part of Burroughs's charm is his ability to see the melodramatic possibilities in every moment, and to make harsh judgments about himself as well as others. The product of a harrowing childhood (in his 2002 memoir Running with Scissors he describes being sent to live in an Addams Family household with his mom's shrink), he gives pathos a comic spin: Of a toothless fan who smelled "like a gangrenous foot" he writes, "He gummed the words out, 'I wuved wur book.'" Adds Burroughs: "But then, look at me I'm an alcoholic, a 'survivor' of childhood sexual abuse, was raised in a cult.... The only thing that separates me from the guy...is a book deal and some cologne." Of course this sort of thing isn't for everybody; darker than David Sedaris, Burroughs seems willing—even eager—to offend. But whether it's torturing his "evil troll" of a maid or having sex with a mortician, he extracts something funny from every shred of his own warped experience. Magical thinking indeed.

By Joyce Carol Oates
NOVEL
CRITIC'S CHOICE

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REVIEWED BY ELLEN SHAPIRO
From its thunderous opening pages, Oates's 48th novel is as mesmerizing and turbulent as its Niagara Falls locale. In 1950 Ariah Erskine's husband flees their hotel after a disastrous wedding night and throws himself into the roiling waters. A stunned Ariah, accompanied by local lawyer Dirk Burnaby, keeps vigil until the body surfaces. Though she believes she has been damned by God, Ariah marries Dirk and has three children, and her past—and fear of being abandoned again—fade away. But when Dirk becomes obsessed with helping a desperate mother—one of the first victims of poisonous dumping at the infamous Love Canal—Ariah's unhinged jealousy turns her marriage as toxic as the chemicals leeching into Niagara's soil.

Long known for her gothic inclinations, Oates continues her unflinching look at the dark side. But she also infuses the narrative with unexpected subtlety. When the adult Burnaby children uncover corrosive family secrets 15 years later, this immensely satisfying novel doesn't deny them the hope of redemption.

By Miriam Toews
NOVEL

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For a 16-year-old, living in a Mennonite community is like being grounded for eternity: Dancing, rock music, movies, makeup and cavorting after 9 p.m. are no-nos. Calling it the "most embarrassing sub-sect of people to belong to if you're a teenager," the gently rebellious Nomi Nickel is left behind when her older sister and nonconformist mother flee the fictional town of East Village. Living with her loopy father, Ray, whose nocturnal hobby is reorganizing the town dump, Nomi experiments with rite-of-passage misdeeds (smoking dope, drinking alcohol, playing Led Zeppelin) that will guarantee her a spot in the Mennonite sector of hell. Offering incisive reflections on life, death and Lou Reed, the black-sheep Nomi is clearly wise beyond her years, and her voice is unique. The road to anywhere else may be rough for her, but her angst-ridden journey is unforgettable.

By Sophie Kinsella
NOVEL

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In the fourth of Kinsella's bestselling Shopaholic tales, Becky Brandon returns to London from her 10-month honeymoon to discover Jess, a long-lost half sister and no-nonsense geologist who (gasp!) hates shopping. Besides trying to find common ground with her new sib, the well-meaning material girl also must cope with the fact that her honeymoon loot won't fit into her flat. If you understand how uplifting kitten heels with diamanté straps can be—and whipped happily through Kinsella's previous novels—this book's for you. If you prefer fiction with a bit of substance, though, save your money; this is ditzy, even for chick lit.

By Gloria Vanderbilt
MEMOIR

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The photo of the author on the cover of Vanderbilt's memoir reveals almost as much about her as the pages inside. No wonder so many illustrious men—Howard Hughes, Sidney Lumet, Frank Sinatra—were drawn to the gorgeous socialite-actress-fashion magnate! If the book seems a little weak on depth, it makes up for it with honesty and a frothy charm. Vanderbilt's tangled relationship with her bisexual mother, her son's suicide, her three marriages and many affairs—it's all here. You might want to skip her musings on the nature of fun, but it's hard not to pay attention when she writes about waiting for Marlon Brando to call after a one-night stand. This isn't meant to be a serious autobiography. Rather, it reads like zippy postcards from a colorful romantic journey.

BUZZ BOOKS

People We Know, Horses They Love

In a new book by Today Show entertainment reporter Jill Rappaport and writer Wendy Wilkinson (with photos by Linda Solomon), 30 stars talk about their passion for all things equestrian.

GISELE BUNDCHEN

I started riding at the age of 8.I was visiting my aunt's farm [in southern Brazil] during the summer, and one of the cowboys put me on a very tall gelding and hit him on the butt. When he finally stopped—no thanks to me—instead of being scared, I said, "I want to do it again!"

HILARY DUFF My family owns a ranch outside of Austin, and my parents used to put my older sister Haylie and me on the ponies when we were babies. We may have been just about able to sit up, but we knew we had to hold on tight. I think having a special animal in your life can help anyone learn to appreciate nature more. And a horse can become your best friend, just like a dog.

RICHARD GERE First horses are like your first girlfriend: You never forget. [My Appaloosa] is very athletic and very fast. We've taken good care of each other over the years. The first rides that [wife Carey Lowell] and I took were up here [New York] in the winter. Wonderful fresh snow on miles and miles of trails. She was fearless and I thought, "Man, this girl's for me."

Jon Stewart Want to reconnect with your smart-aleck high school self? Pick up America (The Book): A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction, a new civics-text parody by Emmy winners Stewart and his writers on The Daily Show.

HOW DID THE BOOK COME ABOUT? We thought it would be a fun little project. But I think there's a reason why most TV shows' books are transcriptions of their best bits: because it's a giant pain in the ass to write one from scratch.

WHY A TEXTBOOK? It was a question of how do you get the sensibility of the show into paper form? The show has a sort of false authority, and so do textbooks. Pretension works beautifully in TV news, as well as in academia.

HOW DIFFICULT A PROJECT WAS THIS? Everybody worked very hard for a good nine months. During that time, we were able to completely ignore the show. That was the beauty of what we did: We sacrificed the quality and integrity of the program to do the book.

DID YOU EVER SEE YOUR FAMILIES? Occasionally, mostly because our families work at Kinko's. We would see them when we would bring things in to be printed. Yes, it was a relatively encompassing pursuit. What's the word I'm looking for...a drag. It was a drag.

IN YOUR TEXT, ITS'S CLEAR THAT YOU FAVOR ONE FORM OF GOVERNMENT, AND THAT IT'S... Democracy, baby. As we point out in the chapter [outlining all other forms of government], whatever imperfections in our system, have you taken a gander at the rest of the world lately?

DESCRIBE YOUR TARGET AUDIENCE—THE RIGHT, THE LEFT, THE YOUTH OF AMERICA? People with $25.... This ain't government cheese.

THE BOMB IN MY GARDEN Subtitled The Secrets of Saddam's Nuclear Mastermind and cowritten by People contributor Kurt Pitzer and Iraqi scientist Mahdi Obeidi, this is an insider's look at Iraq's quest to acquire weapons of mass destruction.

FINAL BEGINNINGS Written with People correspondent Natasha Stoynoff, this second novel from psychic and author John Edward is a supernatural thriller set in New York City.

  • Contributors:
  • Michelle Green,
  • Ellen Shapiro,
  • Janice P. Nimura,
  • Francine Prose.