Express Reviews 

The ink's not even dry on these books yet.

The Middle of the Night
By Daniel Stolar
Picador, $23
For too long now, the short story has been more craft than art, all technique and no inspiration. Desperate to distinguish themselves and drunk on grad-school theory, too many writers have forsaken storytelling for nervous tics and speech impediments. Their work is showy and antiseptic and -- most impressive to editors at The New Yorker -- boring. But not Daniel Stolar, who eschews adornment for the necessary detail. The eight stories in his debut collection are witty, scattered, charming, and sharply imagined. Even when he uses the boy-girl construction, Stolar reaches beyond it, tackling race, politics, and the tricky relationships between parents and their grown children. The stories are not perfect, but they're without serious flaws. Each one ends with a punch to the face. Stolar's narrators -- an old man grasping at family life, a widower introducing his new mate to his in-laws, a grown woman meeting her father for the first time, a man stung by a missed chance at adultery -- all suffer a waking sleeplessness, ruined for an ordinary life by being too keenly aware. "The almost wistful glint in her eye will suggest that there's something higher about our friendship," one thinks to himself. "But I know that there's not." Though his stories are about loss and longing, Stolar is never maudlin or resigned. He writes with the style and obsessiveness of one who might someday be great. He will be compared to Raymond Carver, but is much closer to Leonard Cohen. He will make you laugh and feel physically ill, and there is no higher praise. -- Matt King

Well
By Matthew McIntosh
Grove, $23
McIntosh sets his audacious debut novel among the junkies, strippers, laborers, bartenders, and punch-drunk boxers of the blue-collar Seattle suburb called Federal Way. But the real action of the book takes place on a psychic landscape. Well is a patchwork of interior monologues, overheard conversations, and fever dreams, rendered with what seems like every trick in the writer's bag: streams of consciousness, changes in font size, a chapter formatted as a newspaper column. The book's controlling metaphor is the world as well shaft -- lonely, desperate, illuminated only by a patch of sky (read: hope). The characters suffer abuse, humiliation, and disease. They hear voices that may or may not be God. They dream of raptures and revelations that never come. They medicate themselves with booze, drugs, and sex. And they cry. This passage is typical: "I started crying, because I knew something, or my heart knew something -- or the answer to something, and when you know the answer, it hurts terribly." The trouble is, no one talks like that -- no one, that is, except an author straining for profundity. McIntosh is gifted and fluent, but his characters, and their agonies, do not give the impression of life. The hand-waving style and frequent lapses into bathos make Well hard to take seriously as a meditation on the real world. Nonetheless, it bears the marks of a ferocious ambition and an undeniable talent -- an author who merits watching. -- Chris Ulbrich

The Yardbirds
By Alan Clayson
Backbeat, $22.95
Subtitled "The Band That Launched Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page," this book is a mix of scrapbook and bombastic personal essay, oddly focused on disparaging the band's most notable alumni. "To my mind," Clayson writes early in the text, "The Yardbirds made names for their successive guitarists, not the other way round. ... Indeed, although Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page have racked up heftier commercial achievements since, I firmly believe none of them has left as insidious legacy to pop as they did when each was a humble Yardbird." Setting aside the peculiar word choice of "insidious," this disingenuous beginning is a solid warning sign for those who dare venture further. Clapton, in particular, is singled out for vindictive treatment, such as when Clayson writes, "To certain perverse devotees, it was Clapton's misfortune to live on after shedding the greater part of his artistic load. Perhaps he should have been killed in 1966 in the same car crash as Johnny Kidd." When the author's pen is not being used as a sword, it cuts a wide path of second-person conjecture and agonized metaphor in imagining the Yardbirds' beginnings, à la "the pervading smell of soiled nappies and overcooked cabbage, and streets ... roamed by gangs of a menacing if narcissistic teenage cult, identified by seedy-flash finery and quiffed glaciers of brilliantine" and "the debauchee face-down in a puddle of piss on the stairwell ... sock-smelling frowsiness, overflowing ashtrays, and pooling loose change for a trip up the off-licence to see you and your colleagues through candlelit palaver until dawn"-- all a brassy attempt to pad the word count on the band's relatively short career. For embittered Yardbirds fans only. -- Rob Trucks

Bump
By Diana Wagman
Carroll & Graf, $24
Darkly funny and compelling, set on the first day of spring in Los Angeles, Bump follows four people who have been involved in a three-car pileup. Dorothy Fairweather is driving to pick up her bridal gown when, anxious and distracted by memories of a man who abandoned her two years before, she runs a red light, is hit by an oncoming car, spins into a Mercedes, and ends up over the divide upside down in a flowerbed. Madelyn Morrison, in the Mercedes, is an unhappily married Beverly Hills soccer mom. After the wreck, the first person she longs to call is not her self-absorbed studio-exec husband but Steve, a double amputee she has met on a suicide-prevention hotline. Driving the car that hits Dorothy is Leo, a yellow-eyed Latino who speaks no Spanish, and who has come to LA from back East in search of the girlfriend who left him a year earlier, heading West in search of stardom. Finally, police officer Ray Cork has just been left by his wife of three years, who could no longer bear his obsession with suicide and fixation on "what can happen out there." The foremost theme running through Bump, and it's an insightful one, is suicide as its own form of rebirth. That Wagman sets the story on the first day of spring, generally considered the season of renewal, is no fluke. Dealing with alienation, obsession, twisted synchronicity, and the ultimate "whyness" of living, Bump belts the reader in for a trippy Carveresque adventure which takes twists, turns, and an ultimate arrival somewhere, if not exactly where you expected. -- Beth Bachtold

Twentieth-Century Attitudes: Literary Powers in Uncertain Times
By Brooke Allen
Ivan R. Dee, $26
In the 1990s, academic institutions began looking at classics through the prism of political correctness. And so Virginia Woolf became a symbol of female subjugation, Colette a heroine for feminists. Allen works to undo such misreading by revisiting the life and work of misunderstood novelists in the social context of their time. The opening piece on Colette threads between two fat new volumes on the mercurial French novelist and characterizes her as a "supremely selfish, greedy, ruthless, and often ridiculous woman." Another piece, "The Cult of Victimhood," pries Virginia Woolf away from critics who view her as a "martyr-heroine," and rightly celebrates her as a "tough and resourceful person who overcame the handicaps of her sex and her mental illness." Reading these essays one gets the sense that Allen would make a fabulous dinner-party guest, a formidable opponent in argument. Her prose swaggers with an authority drawn from true learning, and she cracks her snobbery like a whip. Writing of the "drawing-room novel," Allen observes that the genre "has lost little of its appeal despite the rapidly waning number of drawing rooms and of educated, leisured people to make witty remarks in them." In another piece Allen belittles a critic by saying she "would be hard put to make sense of anything more subtle than Thomas the Tank Engine. " Zingers like this make the book a lively read, but there's more to it than that. Unlike so many critics working today, Allen works against the grain. She questions sacred assumptions and suspends judgment on all but the writing. As a result, this volume is a shrewd work of revision. Finishing it, readers might feel that they have not merely read about these authors, but met them for the first time in a long, long while. -- John Freeman


QUICK PICKS

1. The Descent of Man, by Steve Jones (Houghton Mifflin, $25). Dads have it, sons have it: This lowdown on the "prince of chromosomes" by a British science writer is fact-packed and funny -- if you aren't going bald.

2. The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini (Riverhead, $24.95). This first-ever English- language novel about modern Afghanistan by a Bay Area doctor is a textured tale of friendship and the power fathers wield over their sons.

3. Mother Shock, by Andrea J. Buchanan (Seal, $14.95). There comes a point, we learn in this funny and fearless first-year memoir/manual of motherhood, when drool and dirty diapers seem like the least of a gal's problems.

4. My Heart Will Cross This Ocean, by Kadiatou Diallou and Craig Wolff (Ballantine/One World, $24.95). The touching story of a young Guinean woman, her husband's second wife, whose son was killed in an NYPD snafu and who strove to clear his name.

5. Keeping Faith, by John Schaeffer and Frank Schaeffer (Carroll & Graf, $25). When a prep-school grad opted to join the Few, the Proud, and the Brave, it startled his ambitious dad. The result is this illuminating memoir, told back and forth in both men's voices.

6. A Mouthful of Air, by Amy Koppelman (MacAdam/Cage, $23). Julie has everything: loving husband, cute baby, comfy middle-class life. Yet on the heels of a suicide attempt, "everything" doesn't look so good, as we learn in this poignant The Bell Jar for moms.

7. The Englishman's Daughter, by Ben Macintyre (Delta, $13.95). In this true-life account, we learn how one of four British WWI soldiers trapped between enemy lines in France fathered a child -- a passionate encounter that led to tragedy.

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