Beltrami's River
By Thomas Edward Shaw
Carson Street, $16.95
In 1823, the enigmatic Italian judge Giacomo Constantine Beltrami became the first white man to discover the source of the Mississippi River. Or so he claimed: His achievement wasn't widely recognized in his lifetime, and his accounts were contradicted. Shaw's research has yielded this ingenious simulated narrative of the judge's explorations, told in a direct, concise language far more accessible to the 21st-century reader than the embroidered blowhard prose of many actual early-19th-century journals. These stories of crossing the Atlantic amid the squalor of a cargo ship, navigating the elements, and diving into uncharted territory without a roadmap are sometimes riveting. But extra layers of subtleties make this into something richer than just a digestible history lesson. There are no simple good guys and bad guys, with both white settlers and indigenous tribes capable of both sparkling humanity and unspeakable barbarity. Beltrami isn't assimilated into either camp, as an exiled quasi-aristocrat who takes care to enter the most treacherous situations outfitted with his pantaloons, top hat, and umbrella. Yet in the process he discovers not only a mighty river source, but also untapped sources of power and wisdom within himself. -- Richie Unterberger

What Was She Thinking? (Notes on a Scandal)
by Zoë Heller
Henry Holt, $23
Cute-as-a-button Heller is a columnist with a difference: She can really write, and she often takes a stance that's less than predictable. So when she turned to writing novels, it wasn't surprising that she was good at it. This is just about the biggest page-turner since Sarah Waters' Tipping the Velvet, a literary bodice-ripper of a somewhat similar persuasion. Seen through the eyes of unreliable narrator Barbara Covett (the kind of woman for whom the word "schoolmarm" was invented), we learn about her fellow teacher, sculptress Sheba Hart, and Sheba's reckless affair with doltish fifteen-year-old Steven Connolly. Dippy, privileged Sheba, who's more than a little reminiscent of "I'm as thick as two short planks" Lady Di in her diaphanous skirt and comparatively carefree days, is uproariously funny in her self-absorption and delusion. Yet to Heller's credit, we can still sympathize with the disastrous affair -- it's fleshed out and not just an abstract joke or easy target. Equally well-documented is how the dowdy Covett becomes enraptured with nymphlike Sheba, and thus evolves into first her confidante and then her protector. What doesn't work quite as well are the often-caricaturish colleagues -- surely not all schoolteachers are buffoons -- and Connolly's relentless laddishness. And there's a crisis involving a pet that begins convincingly but ends up dismissed in almost cavalier fashion, and thus reads like a plot device. But these quibbles aside, the book is not just a hoot but a hoot with a heart. -- Susan Compo

Main Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader
Edited by John Morthland
Anchor, $15
Reading Bangs posthumously -- the seminal rock critic died at 33 in 1982 -- is the closest you'll get to knowing how he'd feel about Eminem, the White Stripes, Nirvana, and Tupac. As ex-Creem editor Morthland, coexecutor of Bangs' literary estate, writes in his introduction: "The single factor that strikes me most after months of immersion in Lester's work is that rock critics don't fantasize enough these days." It was this fantasizing, this fantastic mainline to his subject and his audience, that made Bangs worthy of the title "legend." The book's first section, "Drug Punk," collects three previously unpublished writings from Bangs' teenage years, when a muse was furiously struggling for freedom. "I would rather write like a dancer shaking my ass to boogaloo inside my head," he writes, "and perhaps reach only readers who like to use books to shake their asses." As music journalism now moves perilously closer to sheer PR, it's good to know that a new, more approachable Bangs collection is out there for fledgling scribes to grow on. -- Stefanie Kalem

The Martian Child
By David Gerrold
Tor, $12.95
Why write a memoir and call it a novel "based on a true story"? This poignant story of a single man adopting a troubled boy should stand on its own, without raising questions about which part is true and which part is made up -- and what was left out. It's tempting to speculate that perhaps the writer wanted to present himself in the best possible light, and the narrator here certainly seems the stuff of fiction. He wants only to provide a stable, warm, loving home for a boy badly in need of one. He is patient and kind and says all the right things. In short, he's too good to be true. But why write a novel if it's not more interesting than the truth? At first the feel-good saga makes adoption -- and parenting -- sound easy (the way only someone who's never had children might imagine it). Then for a moment it seems about to spin off in an unexpected direction. The adopted boy claims to be a Martian, and warm, loving, supportive new dad finds himself wondering if it could be true. He even does a little research, finds other kids who say they're from Mars, with remarkably similar stories about how and why they came to Earth. Too bad award-winning sci-fi writer Gerrold strays off that path and back onto the main highway, on a crash course with a happy ending. -- Melanie Curry

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