Before There Were Hobbits 

East Bay bookstores' best-sellers celebrate Einstein, eating, and Elvish.

Someone like Albert Einstein comes along not just once a century, but perhaps once or twice every millennium, if we're lucky. Maybe that's why Einstein bios constitute a genre unto themselves, and why two different new ones are the hottest books in town, despite the existence of no fewer than three hundred predecessors. Walter Isaacson's Einstein: His Life and Universe (Simon & Schuster, $32) takes the new gossipcentric approach, focusing less on the boring ol' science, which is handled in a few equationless passages. New in English, Jürgen Neffe's Einstein: A Biography (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $30) was a 2005 German best-seller, picking up overflow shoppers in the burgeoning Einstein-bio market sector. Both books reveal the contents of previously secret private correspondence. But these revelations only de-emphasize the cosmological side of the Einstein story, and in the end we realize that Al was just a guy — normal, flawed, fickle — whose personal life was essentially irrelevant to his genius. I'm seriously conflicted about Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (HarperCollins, $26.95), which chronicles her family's year-long quest to eat only locally grown food as a protest against big agribusiness and globalization. While I agree, in theory, with nearly every word she writes, and also wish that we could all reconnect with nature and grow our own meals, I also understand that this fantasy is little more than a dilettantish "wish-fact," a boutique conceit of well-to-do foodies. The very existence of urban areas and the need to feed Earth's six billion inhabitants (many of whom live in otherwise inhospitable ecosystems such as Buffalo and Phoenix) preclude the self-congratulatory daydream of heirloom tomatoes for all. Kingsolver spends the briefest paragraphs addressing this fundamental problem, encouraging urbanites to grow herbs in windowboxes, as if that would be anything more than a gesture. The only way to achieve "local sustainability" is to revert to a pre-industrialized agrarian economy — giving up the delights of the modern, globalized world in the process — and to shed 90 percent of the planet's populace as we retreat to the temperate zones. Until then, books such as this are just a way for bourgeois gourmands to alleviate their guilt. Viewers saw a holographic 1968-era Elvis Presley bluescreened and singing alongside an almost equally lifeless Celine Dion on American Idol last month. One gets the same unsettling sensation from the hugely popular "new" Tolkien epic The Children of Hurin (Houghton Mifflin, $26), in which Christopher Tolkien dusts off some of his father's most obtuse half-finished manuscripts and performs the literary equivalent of an undead duet, filling in the blanks JRR left incomplete. The difficulty is that the saga — which takes place in the distant mythological past, thousands of years prior to the familiar Hobbit world — reads more like a genealogical list from the Old Testament, or a cuneiform tablet from some mercifully extinct civilization. Everything Tolkien flies off the shelves these days, but unless you're deeply enthused by Elvish linguistics or family trees extending back to the Big Bang, you have permission to skip this.


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