By John Updike
NOVEL
CRITIC'S CHOICE

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There is no reason to assume that Villages will be John Updike's swan song; he remains prolific at age 72. Yet this book is beautifully suited to that role. It is wise and elegiac and warmed by a sense of reconciliation with the most vexatious elements of Updike's fiction: women and sex. From the vantage point of old age, Owen Mackenzie looks back on the three villages that have defined his life. Willow, Pa., was the scene of a pinched if unremarkable boyhood. Middle Falls, Conn., became his "institute of middle-class know-how," where the scholarship boy from MIT settled with his brainy wife and learned to mix a cocktail, serve a tennis ball, run a business and commit serial adultery. Haskell's Crossing, Mass., is the old-money enclave where Owen, enriched by an early foray into computer engineering, escapes with his second wife to hide out from the mess they made in Middle Falls. Looking back on their small circle and its furtive infidelities, Owen recalls that, in most cases, "the man of the couple was a comic figure, but the woman was not." He is more philosophical than bitter, however, subdued by a waning libido and thoughts of death. Villages is Updike in top form, every sentence a marvel of insight and imagery. But what lingers is the melancholic sympathy Owen discovers late in life for his mother's awkward striving, his first wife's thwarted talent for mathematics, his mistresses' jagged longings. Could Rabbit be at peace?

By Suketu Mehta
NONFICTION

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Sprawling, epic, vibrant—and more than a little scary—Maximum City does justice to its monumental subject, the city of Bombay. After 21 years abroad, author Suketu Mehta revisited the city where he lived as a child and spent two years exploring the heights and depths of the crowded and complex metropolis. He interviewed politicians and poets, movie stars and transvestite bar dancers, crusading activists and small-time thugs, and as they tell their fascinating stories, each voice rises clearly above the urban din. Though this book is over 500 pages long, there's not a boring moment as Mehta's sparkling prose and prodigious descriptive powers make the distant city seem as vital to us as the neighborhood in which we live.

By Melissa P.
MEMOIR

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100 Strokes is a naughty memoir that sold a million copies overseas, roughly one for each sex scene, despite (or because of) a theme that sounds like spam you delete from your in-box: I am a 15-year-old Italian schoolgirl on a voyage of sexual discovery. Melissa P. (for Panarello) falls for a stud who mistreats her (though not as badly as she mistreats us by chatting about "my foaming waves"), so she begins a mission of self-degradation, at one point thoroughly entertaining five gentlemen callers at once. Nice to see young people getting along. Blindfolds play a part, as do men with ringlets, seaside backdrops with more foaming waves and a well-accessorized black latex bodysuit. This is upscale erotica, plenty sultry.

By Herbert Breslin
MEMOIR

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He is unquestionably the greatest tenor of his generation. Seductive, lazy, superstitious, relentlessly demanding of attention and bright shiny objects, Luciano Pavarotti is, in this gleefully entertaining memoir, like a greedy toddler with one supernatural gift. But what a gift it is.

Subtitled The Uncensored Tale of Luciano Pavarotti's Rise to Fame by His Manager, Friend and Sometime Adversary, Breslin's book paints a gruffly affectionate portrait of an exasperating maestro whose appetites take precedence over his artistry—and whose avarice leads him to continue hoisting his girth onstage long after most tenors would have retired. But as Breslin notes, Pavarotti does what no rival does half as well:"...make love to you with the sound of his voice."

Gossipy without being malicious, The King and I is as much about the opera business as it is about Pavarotti. It's a delicious crossover book about a crossover artist, not just for the cognoscenti but for those who think Giocon-da is a very large snake.

Precious By Melanie Dunea and Nigel Parry

Celebrity photographers Melanie Dunea and Nigel Parry asked 97 prominent people to talk about their favorite body part—and allow it to be shot—for Precious, a just-published photo book. Here, some of the book's highlights:

Feet "Because they're the only excuse I have to buy shoes." HARRISON FORD

Skin "Because I'm comfortable in it." ERIC MCCORMACK

Eyes "The eyes have it...for with them, I can let you in or shut you out." MONICA LEWINSKY

Hands "As a kid growing up, I hated my hands.... As I became an adult, I grew to accept them because they are uniquely my own." EDIE FALCO

  • Contributors:
  • Lee Aitken,
  • Francine Prose,
  • Kyle Smith,
  • Judith Newman.