Express Reviews 

Hot new books for your delectation.

I've Had Brain Surgery, What's Your Excuse?
By Suzy Becker
Workman, $19.95

We read biographies, auto- and otherwise, for two reasons: Either we are intrigued by the person -- Cleopatra, say, or Maya Angelou -- or we are intrigued by the situation, as in Lucky (rape) and Running with Scissors (growing up in an insane household). Writers in the latter category have to engage us, more so than in the former, because most of us can't bring any firsthand knowledge or familiarity to their stories. Becker, whose previous book was All I Need to Know I Learned from My Cat, fails to bring readers into her world in this tale of brain-surgery recovery. There isn't enough medical information to be satisfying, there are too few clever drawings to be engaging (great ideas such as the Mad Hat and Augusta, the SuperHeroine, appear too rarely), and, worst of all, there is too little personal detail to be intriguing. Becker's friends are a cast of faceless, interchangeable film extras. The brain surgery itself just sorta lies there on the table, inert and lifeless. And Becker's descriptions of the post-op speech and cognitive difficulties she experienced make her sound whiny and self-centered. Readers who have had brain surgery might be tempted to pick up this book in hopes of finding some solace or guidance, but will ultimately find little of either here. Becker does recover -- but this book never leaves the ICU. -- Tamra Willett-Johnson

Zero
By Ignácio de Loyola Brandão
Translated from the Portuguese by Ellen Watson
Dalkey Archive, $13.95

Thirty years after it first appeared in its original language, this satirical novel of life under totalitarian rule is once again available in English. Ignácio de who? you're probably asking. That's because the book was banned in Brazil just a year after winning one of that country's most prestigious government prizes, and subsequently never enjoyed any attention in the American press. Despite being considered one of the most important Brazilian novels of the 20th century, it has been out of print in English all this time, perhaps because it (rightfully) suggests CIA involvement in Brazil's 21-year military dictatorship, in which hundreds of supposed guerrillas were tortured or disappeared. But an American audience, weaned on the cathode-ray teat, will not find this book unfamiliar. It is, essentially, a postmodernist's primer, a collection of short takes: commercials, lists, memories, official announcements, news flashes, and disembodied conversations which, piled on top of one another in masterful disorder, tell the story of clubfooted, pensive José, his pudgy wife Rosa, and their absurd lives in an unnamed metropolis. It is also a portrait of lower-middle-class Brazil, at once ignored, terrorized, and courted by an inanely evil power. There are many zeroes in Zero, but Brandão points out the historical one: the stupid emptiness at the heart of the regime, a pinpoint of light fading on an empty screen. -- Nora Sohnen

Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities
By Alexandra Robbins
Hyperion, $23.95

Oh. My. God. Robbins has gone, like, totally undercover and exposed the fetid underbelly of America's epicenters of pedicures and pillow fights. Having already written a best-selling exposé of Yale's Skull & Bones society, Robbins finds that sororities are primarily social groups. But before reaching this overly obvious conclusion she treats us to what turns out to be rather a tour de bore of a year in the life of four sisters at a large Southern university. Going undercover can be a tricky enterprise for many reasons. Ethical questions aside, the word "undercover" promises juicy revelations that couldn't be gleaned through traditional reporting. If that doesn't materialize, one might hope for an amusing personal account of life in a foreign milieu. Robbins provides neither. And that's the problem. Pledged bills itself as an investigation of a subculture, but for all their secret songs and initiation rites, sororities are anything but countercultural. Hell, their own members treat their folklore with the same reverence a theologian might offer the Easter Bunny. As one sister puts it, "It's kind of cool that the ceremonies have been going on since Beta Pi was created, but ritual doesn't mean anything to me. It's a hassle." There is every indication that Robbins was hoping for more from her sources and just struck out. How else to explain so much stultifying fluff: bar-hopping, midnight pancake parties, crushes, hookups, and reunions. ... Isn't this what The OC is for? -- John Dicker

Kiss It Away
By Carol Anne Davis
Do-Not, $16.95

Despite the fact that it involves a troubled steroid addict who bumbles his way through town slashing this person's throat, bashing that person's face in, and raping someone else, chances are you will find yourself tittering more than once while reading this witty, surprisingly lightweight crime-suspense novel by a Scottish writer. From page one onward, we know who the perp is, but that's not the point. After Dawn and her much younger boyfriend Ben have a minor communication breakdown in bed, he leaves her apartment in the middle of the night. Unfortunately, he then wanders into the same dark park in which steroid-addicted bodybuilder Nick is prowling. Nick rapes Ben, steals his wallet and jacket, and leaves the park only to commit a murder in town later that night. Ashamed and bleeding profusely, Ben makes his way home and proceeds to avoid Dawn and otherwise act strangely for a couple of weeks -- at precisely the same time that the police are on the lookout for the murderer. Meanwhile, puzzling over Ben, Dawn pines for her ex-husband Richard, while Richard is dating the much younger, insecure Rachel. While there isn't always enough meat on this novel's narrative bones and its dialogue is occasionally realistic to the point of being a bit dull, it is not lacking in a serious underlying message: Davis brings to our attention the subject of male-on-male rape, a crime so widely ignored as to make Ben feel for a time like the only such victim in the world. -- Kim Hedges

I Dream of Microwaves
By Imad Rahman
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $23

In this debut collection of interrelated short stories, a struggling Pakistani-American thespian by the name of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, "best known for his ability to look like a Latino on America's Most Wanted," tackles a number of dramatic roles, most having nothing to do with a stage. Stuffing his stories overfull with pop-culture detritus, Rahman tries to go for a brand of White Noise cultural criticism through invoking the inane stuff American culture most craves, throwing in a doctor named Doctor Pepper and characters who speak only in movie lines. And he critiques not only America's consumer culture but also America's wavy stance on its "brown" population: the Latino, Pakistani, and Indian Americans whom the author believes the majority of other Americans, especially in the Midwest where most of these tales take place, lump together in one category. The collection's most poignant and successful story is its first, the title story, in which Abdul-Jabbar convincingly plays the part of a Bosnian refugee and which skewers America's ability to be obsessed with the underdog while at the same time hogging the lion's share of the world's resources. But although Rahman does have biting wit, he bites off a little more than he can chew at times and the other stories lack the first one's promise. Even so, this is still a fun, hip read which will make new fans all the more eager for his next book. -- Elise Proulx

Troll: A Love Story
By Johanna Sinisalo
Translated from the Finnish by Herbert Lomas
Grove, $12

Trolls are deeply embedded in Scandinavian mythology and children's lit, much as fairies are in ours. So it's no surprise that a Finnish author has decided to bring this fantastic creature to modern fiction. What is surprising is that Sinisalo has chosen to do so within the framework of a homoerotic thriller. In Troll, hot-stuff photographer Angel (so nicknamed because of his golden good looks and given name, Mikael) rescues a wounded troll cub from a pack of violent teenagers outside his apartment building, and immediately finds himself overwhelmed by a desire to shelter the hairy black hominid. As the novel progresses, Angel is overcome by many desires, most of which he can't really understand; unfortunately, neither can the reader. Perhaps it's because of a clunky translation, or that Sinisalo is a woman trying to write herself into a gay male milieu, but Pessi (as Angel comes to call the grunting troll) never truly becomes the avatar of primitive feeling that the author seems to be aiming for, languishing instead as a cartoon character. The book does have some interesting conceits -- it supposes trolls are actual beings, classified by scientists in the early 20th century but very rarely seen. And though it is told from the perspective of many characters, interspersed with a variety of Scandinavian lore, some genuine, some tailor-made for the novel, the narrative line stays relatively clear. However, by the end, you might be left wishing you'd read troll tales as a child, just so you can figure out what all the fuss is about. -- Stefanie Kalem

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