Short Takes 

Funny dogs, Zappa the control freak, the Venus de Milo, and more.

You Are a Dog
By Terry Bain
Harmony, $16

You want to write a book about dogs, and you want it to be a funny book. Your task, and it will be a crucial one, the one that keeps your book out of the bargain bins, is this: to bridge the gap between dog owners and non-dog owners. (You cannot cross the chasm between dog people and cat people, so you do not even try.) Also, you must rise above the thousands of cutesy-pootsy pet paeans that somehow manage to get published. So you decide to write your book in the second-person (second-canine?) singular, which could easily be a pretentious choice, à la Tom Robbins, but ends up working well enough. Your book is about dogs, but it is just as much about people, because the idea of what you call "dogness" is inextricably wound up with "peopleness" -- in fact, that the essence of dogness is the dog's struggle between the wild outside and the ordered inside. For you know well that dogs, despite millennia of domestication, face competing urges every second. They are driven equally by the desire to please their "people" and their desire to fill their stomachs, chase squirrels, and roll in shit. Sometimes these desires overlap, but often, of course, they don't. And you have succeeded in making this predicament quite funny. -- Nora Sohnen

Edited by Shanna Compton
Soft Skull, $14.95

Video games used to be strictly for misfits. But somewhere between Dig Dug and Doom 3, things changed. Now frat boys talk trash over Madden NFL, and teenage girls dressed in Tokyo chic line up for Dance Dance Revolution. Accordingly, Compton makes room for dilettantes and devotees alike in this anthology of writings about joysticks, power-ups, and the people who love them. In a bitterly humorous essay, Laurel Snyder lies back and thinks of Tetris while her soon-to-be ex pumps weakly atop her (no bonus round for him). Daniel Nester racks up the book's high score with a profile of video-game iron man Todd Rogers, who once played the rock-marketing tie-in Journey Escape for almost 86 hours straight -- approximately 86 hours longer than lesser men could stand. The anthology's low points include a handful of academic musings, complete with references to po-mo boss robots Barthes, Lacan, and Baudrillard. But the very names Moon Patrol, Gorf, and Wizard of Wor will work like the scent of madeleines on joystick jockeys of a certain age. It's a pleasure, but a slight one, and lasts no longer than the average round of Stargate. -- Chris Ulbrich

Zappa: A Biography
By Barry Miles
Grove, $25

Frank Zappa was a musician who yearned to be taken seriously by the contemporary classical establishment, yet wrote countless rock 'n' roll songs about smutty sex; he was an intellectual who scorned the educational system to the point of refusing to pay his kids' way through college; and, despite his wild-guy image, he was a control freak who hired and fired several orchestras' worth of musicians. These enigmas have made him a difficult subject for biographers, but Miles makes the best attempt yet at pinning down Zappa in a relatively straightforward way, in the process uncovering a lot of the mystery behind the musician's wayward and rather nomadic youth and his foggy five years at the margins of the music business prior to the formation of the Mothers of Invention. The late-'60s heyday of the Mothers is, wisely, covered in the greatest detail, and if the text sometimes drags within Zappa's flood of albums and ever-changing band lineups through the '70s and '80s, it's worth persevering to his improbable recognition as a statesman and cultural hero in Eastern Europe shortly before his death. -- Richie Unterberger

True Fires
By Susan Carol McCarthy
Bantam, $13

If Harry Crews and Harriet Beecher Stowe conceived a love child and that child grew up reading William Faulkner and Anna Maxted and watching Bill Moyers and Sex & the City, that child would write books like this one, a misguided blend of social consciousness and painfully constructed self-conscious narrative. Our story is set in a redneck town whose sheriff sees his fortune in ruining the Dare family, whose children might be black and might be white, but definitely aren't white enough to attend the local school. "Ain't that the niggerest nose you ever saw?" Sheriff K.A. "Kick Ass" DeLuth asks his wife about the young Dare girl. As with McCarthy's debut, the award-winning Lay That Trumpet in Our Hands, this novel evokes a small town content to amble along its dark shameful path until it confronts an act of racial prejudice so egregious that some branches and brambles must be hacked away. What's good here is the intent. McCarthy is best when she's in the head of Daniel Dare, brother of the girl with the suspicious proboscis. Daniel is too young to know artifice, though he sees almost nothing but. -- Matt King

By Gregory Curtis
Vintage, $14

This is not a book about a single work of art -- the Venus de Milo -- but rather the story of an inanimate object that literally changed the world. The sculptor is unknown; the statue belongs to no single person, government, or even identifiable movement or period; but it nonetheless has played a role in numerous international dramas and been the object of many obsessions, real as well as opportunistically feigned. Curtis traces the statue's discovery by French naval officers in 1820 on the inhospitable -- and literally toxic -- Greek island of Melos, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire, to its placement in the Louvre, where it can still be seen today. In the process, we learn the story of a continent's cultural reawakening. Like an archaeologist excavating an ancient site, Curtis charts the discoveries over the years that have revealed how the statue was restored, revised, and even damaged again and again by those who created it, cared for it, and displayed it. The result is an engaging book that reads more like mystery fiction than a work of art history. -- Keith Bowers

The Man Who Cried I Am
By John A. Williams
Overlook, $14.95

Novelist Max Reddick knows that engaging characters make good stories. Unfortunately, in the hands of Williams -- the novelist of whose novel Reddick, the novelist, is the protagonist -- he fails on just about all counts. In this 1967 release now reissued with an introduction by Walter Mosley, Reddick is an African American who writes, screws, travels, and laments the cancer that is killing him. He's accomplished and intelligent but simply not someone with whom you'd want to spend four hundred pages. Other characters are similarly obnoxious: The men are all cheaters, and the women hapless dependents. At one point New York is described as "a city filled with lonely women frowning at their telephones, anxious to make love, desperate to be with someone." With a phone call, that someone usually becomes Max, but he rarely if ever sticks around after the loving. This book's most likable elements are its descriptions of place, from America to Africa to Amsterdam. Williams is a skilled writer, but sadly he allows his rotten-to-the-core characters to drown out his vivid talents. -- Allison Landa

The Lichtenberg Figures
By Ben Lerner
Copper Canyon, $14

I love you. Fuck you. I'll change. No, it's not a snippet from a bad breakup conversation, or the working title of an earnest Off-Off-Broadway show. It's a line from one of 52 untitled poems in Lerner's debut collection, winner of the Hayden Carruth Award for Emerging Poets -- and a perfect example of Lerner's gift for snatching words and phrases out of the lexicon of modern relationships and putting them to his own subversive uses. He will have you smiling bemusedly almost as often as he'll have you reaching for your dictionary-- which will be often, unless you find words like corrigendum, dehisce, and parturition cropping up in your everyday conversations. And, just when his cynical observations and clever wordplay veer a little too close to cute and smug, he offers a dose of self-deprecation: And yes, of course, I sicken me. Pop culture is an easy target, so Lerner also lambastes criticism and the academy (though the latter seems to have served him well, given his Fulbright and two degrees from Brown). Despite his palpable disdain, along with the angry-young-man vibe that infuses most of the collection, Lerner seems to have retained his affection for his art, as in: And not reflection/with its bad infinitude, nor religion, with its eighth of mushrooms/can bring orgasm to orgasm like poetry. -- Blair Campbell


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