Read It or Not 

In this month's book reviews: Def Jam, lonely lovers, and postmortem bloat.

The Yuletide Bandit
By Mike McIntyre
Great Plains, $11.95

Chilling but true: Men and women all over the world pulling down about $12 an hour to drive money around in armored trucks are regularly engaging in shoot-outs with armed robbers to protect Wal-Mart's petty-cash fund and their own subsistence-wage jobs. That scenario, played out again and again, is the most upsetting aspect in this true-crime tale of Winnipeg's notorious Yuletide Bandit, an unhinged man who parlayed a broken home and any number of minor psychoses into a brief but memorable career as a Canadian frontier folk hero during a series of ballsy daylight heists between 1995 and 2002. It was at Christmastime that he first became famous, and the press, including local crime reporter McIntyre, needed a moniker. McIntyre writes with the authority of one who knows his subject well, and makes good use of jailhouse interviews with Michael Syrnyk, serving 23 years for twenty robberies, to turn a tale of a thief into a psychobiography of the kind normally reserved for writers and artists. "I wasn't out to destroy innocent people," Syrnyk says. "We're all out to feel powerful. That's what this was all about."-- Matt King

Koula
By Menis Koumandareas, translated by Kay Cicellis
Dalkey Archive, $11.95

In this lean-to of a novella, which has been filmed for Greek TV, college-student Dimitri and Koula, an accountant with an emotionally unavailable husband, share little else but a train schedule. For these two lonely hearts, differences are not deal-breakers. One week they are exchanging cautious glances, the next they are half-dressed, smoking, discussing the merits of younger men being with older women. (Dimitri has a history of being paid for sex with them.) It's probably to be expected that Greeks commute to work with such passion, but this novella is a mechanical love story with little to look forward to except the breakup. Koumandareas squeezes whatever humanity he can from what is otherwise a humdrum account of strangers acting out. Dimitri has every reason to reject Koula for a new set of warm thighs -- he's "indecently" handsome, while she wears a gray coat that makes her look like "a soldier from the Albanian front." In the novel's coup de grâce, the reader is treated to a satisfying showdown. -- Scott Steinberg

Make It Happen: The Hip-Hop Generation Guide to Success
By Kevin Liles and Samantha Marshall
Atria, $24

The term "rap mogul" conjures visions of Diddy or Baby in their respective shine and bling, lounging with supermodels on the hoods of sports cars. Enter Kevin Liles -- or, as he's known in the rap world, "Kevin." Liles is the true rap mogul who transformed Def Jam Records from a boutique label to a $400-million-a year brand during his four-year tenure as president. Though there is still plenty of self-aggrandizement to go around in this motivational manual -- Liles, who is now Warner Music Group's executive VP, emphasizes repeatedly that he started at Def Jam as an intern and bootstrapped his way to the top -- there are flashes of studied brilliance such as this: "The truly great leaders all have different qualities that make them successful. But they have one thing in common: They are quiet and unassuming." It's those flashes that make Liles inspirational, if not always exactly informative. Even while plodding through his "Ten Rules to Success" -- such lists are mandatory in this kind of book -- he's in the background trying to put a hip-hop spin on the totally played material. Rule #2, for example, is "Do You: Discover your own flava." A favorite among these is "Always be fresh to death." -- D. Scot Miller

The Smell of the Night
By Andrea Camilleri, translated by Stephen Sartarelli
Penguin, $12

Like a roller coaster, Camilleri's eighth Inspector Montalbano mystery offers mystery fans a rough ride. Fortysomething Sicilian cop Montalbano creates much of the tension himself, acting more like a teenager than an adult and somehow getting away with it. His persona alternates between those of a bumbling Fourth Stooge and a savvy, intuitive officer who can effectively press his authority on underlings. In the first fifty pages, he ruins an expensive sweater, a gift from his sometime girlfriend, by dragging it down a beach; disarms an elderly would-be vigilante; turns the tables on his superior, the commissioner; and seriously vandalizes a newly built vacation villa, all while consuming massive amounts of seafood. The pace is rollicking, but so much so that the inspector at times threatens to overwhelm the story. Camilleri weaves Sicilian dialect and textbook Italian throughout, which was perhaps effective in the original but sometimes distracting in English, since Sartarelli translates the dialect into a phonetic Eliza Doolittle mishmash that requires readers to apply their own detective skills. The novel finishes elegantly, however, as Camilleri connects its plot with William Faulkner's 1930 short story, "A Rose for Emily," tying up the frayed ends in satisfying knots. -- Kate Madden Yee

Tales from the Morgue
By Cyril Wecht and Mark Curriden, with Angela Powell
Prometheus, $26

Wecht is best known for excoriating the Warren Commission's lackluster investigation of JFK's assassination. As head of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, he was the first nongovernmental forensic pathologist to examine the evidence. His findings convinced him of a conspiratorial coup d'état. Although his plea for exhuming Kennedy's corpse borders on the absurd, Wecht is, after all, a coroner. His life has been steeped in gore, as detailed in this bracing omnibus of significant cases. Early in Wecht's career, a young boy was knocked off balance by an open hydrant and swept through city sewers for two days. Weeks later, a drunken tomato picker fell into a processing tank; his corpse surfaced many hours later. Wecht remembers "to this day what both of their bloated bodies looked like." Beyond the savagery of untimely death, these accounts help illuminate the vital role of forensic pathologists in the pursuit of justice. Even within the bounds of medical and legal ethics, there exists a "significant component of subjective interpretation" that subtly manipulates evidence prior to trial. Thus, Wecht argues, is his venerable science emasculated by a legal system couched in high rhetoric but, ultimately, subject to the low discourse of juror gossip, talk-radio potshots, and Court TV. -- Nicholas Raymond

70 Japanese Gestures
By Hamiru-aqui, translated by Aileen Chang
Stone Bridge, $9.95

How do you call a Japanese person bucktoothed without knowing the Japanese word for buckteeth? Cup your hand, palm down, in front of your mouth, advises the Tokyo-based artist who created this hilarious guide to "no-language communication" using photographs of a black-suited salaryman. In Japan, where protruding incisors are considered attractive and "being bucktoothed may not stop you from enjoying a storybook romance," she asserts, "there were many pop idols in the '80s with vampirelike fangs." Learn how to signify "That's hot!" (seizing the earlobes), "I'm furious!" (making devil horns), and more without having to master the hellish grammar and gender rules or the three different alphabets used in written Japanese. Reading manga or watching anime will never be the same once you realize that our "okay" sign means "condom" in Japanese drugstores. The gestures are divided into three categories: general (as in "wait," "yes," and "Let's eat"), children's usage (as in "Your underwear is showing" and "I'm so cute"), and slang (as in "gay," "bribe," and "arrested"). It's funny but, even better, it's true: Tap your temple at home and it means "I'm thinking." Do that in Japan and it means, "You effing nutcase." -- Anneli Rufus

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