by John Katzenbach
Ballantine (2002), $7.99
Tommy Hart, a second-year student at Harvard's law school when World War II breaks out, joins the Air Force and gets shot down over Germany, then passes his days in a POW camp studying law books and mooting cases with fellow prisoners. Into their miserable midst one day walks Lincoln Scott, the first African-American pilot anyone in camp has ever seen. Scott's presence stirs up some hateful racists; soon, the worst camp bigot is found murdered in the privy. Scott is court-martialed, with only Hart to defend his life. The Bavarian forest circa 1943 seems an unlikely setting for a whodunit with a civil-rights motif, but it allows for some nice riffs on the nature of freedom, loyalty, and justice.
Though its ideas are grand, this is not a book to linger over. Themes are laid out with no subtlety in either narration or dialogue. Characters are stock: the frail British barrister who converses Socratically; the hockey-playing Canadian Mountie with a nose for just-the-facts; the brilliant, athletic black fighter pilot whose proud integrity isolates him; the evil, one-armed German officer with a cruel smile and a scar under his eye who is forever emerging from shadows. Details of mood and setting are repeated, in case you missed them the first two times.
Still, Hart faces both the trial and his fears with character, and his saga offers a satisfying rush toward an ending that delivers both pleasing plot twists and hair-raising adventure.
-- Susan Lee
INSIDE OSCAR 2
By Damien Bona
Ballantine (2002), $16
Dissing the Academy Awards is somewhat akin to shooting fish in a barrel, and in this sequel to Inside Oscar: The Unofficial History of the Academy Awards 1927-1994, Damien Bona doesn't disappoint seekers of dirt, dish, and industry-insider innuendo. He does, however, get into trouble when attempting to put the competition into some sort of historical perspective, mainly due to the fact that he seems to thoroughly disdain his topic.
Less ambitious than its predecessor (which Bona cowrote with the now-deceased Mason Wiley), Inside Oscar 2 chronicles only five years' worth of Oscar blunders, bloopers, and bests (as opposed to the 67 contests tackled in the first book), yet it is still a lengthy crawl, as Bona quotes almost every individual who ever wrote a film review as well as even the most inconsequential media-mongers. And for all his complaints about time wasted during the ceremonies, he could've easily cut his own book in half.
Another problem is the selectiveness of his skewerings: maligning such ubiquitous fashion miscreants as Jennifer Lopez and Cher ("in a get-up that looked as if Busby Berkeley had upchucked on her head"), he unabashedly defends Björk's swan dress -- which many consider the most bizarre Oscar-night outfit ever. Characterizing James "I'm King of the World" Cameron and Roberto Benigni as media whores, he then commits the ultimate sin by concluding his book not with any insights he's gleaned from his research, but rather by quoting Julia Roberts on her breakup with Benjamin Bratt, unwittingly giving credence to a film song (The Bandwagon's "That's Entertainment") rather than his own critical prowess.
-- Vicki Cameron
THE MYSTIC MASSEUR
By V.S. Naipaul
Vintage (2002), $12
Originally published in 1957 and now re-released to coincide with a Merchant/Ivory film adaptation, the Nobel laureate's first novel is the story of a quackery so profound that it goes full circle and passes briefly through wisdom on its way back to an even more egregious quackery.
One can't help but be impressed that Merchant/Ivory was willing to undertake a narrative so far outside the cinematic mainstream. Fascinating as he is, the book's protagonist -- a Trinidad schoolteacher who, in due course, also works as a masseur, a mystic, and a politician -- is presented as an object of study, not as a character with whom the reader can really bond. In this tale, likable characters are few and far between.
It's clear that Naipaul was getting at something. The reader can sense that there's a thematic elephant in the room, but Naipaul won't admit it. The novel, then, becomes a thematic whodunit. As it goes on, the mystery increases; before long there aren't many pages left and the answer still hasn't appeared and the reader begins to read faster out of fear that perhaps there isn't anything there after all.
Rest assured; the elephant is revealed at last. The final few scenes, and especially the epilogue, suddenly deliver the perspective that renders the rest of the book instantly and retroactively intelligible. And the reader sighs. That's what it was all about, all this time. It's a good feeling.
-- Dan Heath
THE FUTURE OF LIFE
by Edward O. Wilson
Knopf (2002), $22
Like Pandora's box, this small jewel of a book holds premonitions of impending doom. Pleading for preservation of the planet's dwindling oases of biodiversity, it has the effect of undergoing a routine checkup only to learn that you're very, very sick.
One in four species of mammal and one in eight bird species, writes Wilson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvard biologist, now face a significant degree of risk for extinction. Industrial development and human overpopulation are having catastrophic effects on the rest of Earth's life forms.
Unlike petroleum or other raw materials for which substitutes can be found, biodiversity is a fragile and finite resource. No one can recreate a species once it is extinct. And for all the attention given the environmental movement's "poster children" -- say, the panda and the California condor -- Wilson reveals legions of other mammals as well as plants and insects that have been quietly eliminated with virtually no protest at all.
Wilson doesn't confine himself to standard Sierra Club arguments. He demonstrates, astutely, the economic loss to governments and corporations when natural preserves are eliminated. South American rainforests, for example, yield exotic organisms that can be harvested for pharmaceuticals. The profits from such enterprises, not to mention ecotourism, exceed those that can be made from harvesting timber or clearing forests for agriculture.
Wilson's arguments for literally saving the world are lucid and profound. Yet it's hard not to wonder, reading his elegant prose, whether reason and morality are viable weapons in this particular war.
-- Nora Ostrofe
CROSSING TO KILL
by Simon Whitechapel
Virgin (2002), $9.95
Taking a dreamily passionate approach to a weird -- and, incredibly, ongoing -- crime wave, this true crime book is about as far as you can get from Ann Rule. The prolific Whitechapel has earned a cult following in England thanks to his writings on such diverse topics as Jack Chick comics and the history of dildos. In Crossing to Kill, he turns his attention to Ciudad Juárez, a grim and sprawling factory town on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande. In the past dozen years, hundreds of teenage girls and young women have been raped and murdered there. Most of the victims come from the constantly refilling pool of factory workers who leave their home villages and travel cross-country for jobs that pay $3 a day. Quoting from classic literature and transcribing harrowing interviews with men who turned a night on the town into someone's worst nightmare, Whitechapel does not follow a strictly chronological narrative. Instead, he wanders down the story's various odd avenues: districts of town where workers live in cardboard shacks; dead bodies that will remain forever unidentified; the curious fact that prime suspect Abdul Latif Sharif Sharif, an Egyptian engineer, now in jail, seems to be paying local gangbangers to keep up the killing spree. It's a dark look at dark acts in a smoke-dark town, rendered lyrically enough to give that darkness lots of texture.
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