Beltrami's River
By Thomas Edward Shaw
Carson Street, $16.95
In 1823, the enigmatic Italian judge Giacomo Constantine Beltrami became the first white man to discover the source of the Mississippi River. Or so he claimed: His achievement wasn't widely recognized in his lifetime, and his accounts were contradicted. Shaw's research has yielded this ingenious simulated narrative of the judge's explorations, told in a direct, concise language far more accessible to the 21st-century reader than the embroidered blowhard prose of many actual early-19th-century journals. These stories of crossing the Atlantic amid the squalor of a cargo ship, navigating the elements, and diving into uncharted territory without a roadmap are sometimes riveting. But extra layers of subtleties make this into something richer than just a digestible history lesson. There are no simple good guys and bad guys, with both white settlers and indigenous tribes capable of both sparkling humanity and unspeakable barbarity. Beltrami isn't assimilated into either camp, as an exiled quasi-aristocrat who takes care to enter the most treacherous situations outfitted with his pantaloons, top hat, and umbrella. Yet in the process he discovers not only a mighty river source, but also untapped sources of power and wisdom within himself. -- Richie Unterberger

What Was She Thinking? (Notes on a Scandal)
by Zoë Heller
Henry Holt, $23
Cute-as-a-button Heller is a columnist with a difference: She can really write, and she often takes a stance that's less than predictable. So when she turned to writing novels, it wasn't surprising that she was good at it. This is just about the biggest page-turner since Sarah Waters' Tipping the Velvet, a literary bodice-ripper of a somewhat similar persuasion. Seen through the eyes of unreliable narrator Barbara Covett (the kind of woman for whom the word "schoolmarm" was invented), we learn about her fellow teacher, sculptress Sheba Hart, and Sheba's reckless affair with doltish fifteen-year-old Steven Connolly. Dippy, privileged Sheba, who's more than a little reminiscent of "I'm as thick as two short planks" Lady Di in her diaphanous skirt and comparatively carefree days, is uproariously funny in her self-absorption and delusion. Yet to Heller's credit, we can still sympathize with the disastrous affair -- it's fleshed out and not just an abstract joke or easy target. Equally well-documented is how the dowdy Covett becomes enraptured with nymphlike Sheba, and thus evolves into first her confidante and then her protector. What doesn't work quite as well are the often-caricaturish colleagues -- surely not all schoolteachers are buffoons -- and Connolly's relentless laddishness. And there's a crisis involving a pet that begins convincingly but ends up dismissed in almost cavalier fashion, and thus reads like a plot device. But these quibbles aside, the book is not just a hoot but a hoot with a heart. -- Susan Compo

Main Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader
Edited by John Morthland
Anchor, $15
Reading Bangs posthumously -- the seminal rock critic died at 33 in 1982 -- is the closest you'll get to knowing how he'd feel about Eminem, the White Stripes, Nirvana, and Tupac. As ex-Creem editor Morthland, coexecutor of Bangs' literary estate, writes in his introduction: "The single factor that strikes me most after months of immersion in Lester's work is that rock critics don't fantasize enough these days." It was this fantasizing, this fantastic mainline to his subject and his audience, that made Bangs worthy of the title "legend." The book's first section, "Drug Punk," collects three previously unpublished writings from Bangs' teenage years, when a muse was furiously struggling for freedom. "I would rather write like a dancer shaking my ass to boogaloo inside my head," he writes, "and perhaps reach only readers who like to use books to shake their asses." As music journalism now moves perilously closer to sheer PR, it's good to know that a new, more approachable Bangs collection is out there for fledgling scribes to grow on. -- Stefanie Kalem

The Martian Child
By David Gerrold
Tor, $12.95
Why write a memoir and call it a novel "based on a true story"? This poignant story of a single man adopting a troubled boy should stand on its own, without raising questions about which part is true and which part is made up -- and what was left out. It's tempting to speculate that perhaps the writer wanted to present himself in the best possible light, and the narrator here certainly seems the stuff of fiction. He wants only to provide a stable, warm, loving home for a boy badly in need of one. He is patient and kind and says all the right things. In short, he's too good to be true. But why write a novel if it's not more interesting than the truth? At first the feel-good saga makes adoption -- and parenting -- sound easy (the way only someone who's never had children might imagine it). Then for a moment it seems about to spin off in an unexpected direction. The adopted boy claims to be a Martian, and warm, loving, supportive new dad finds himself wondering if it could be true. He even does a little research, finds other kids who say they're from Mars, with remarkably similar stories about how and why they came to Earth. Too bad award-winning sci-fi writer Gerrold strays off that path and back onto the main highway, on a crash course with a happy ending. -- Melanie Curry

Night Diving
By Michelene Esposito
Spinsters Ink, $14
A triumph of the "post-gay" movement is the novel with gay or lesbian characters that doesn't center on coming-out drama or homophobia. However, shedding the "For LGBT Only" label means that a book must be judged outside a genre, against all other books. Does the story grip the reader, gay or straight? Unfortunately, the answer here is no. Esposito, a psychologist and first-time novelist, centers the story on the unlikely premise of picking up again with a childhood first love. It's a nonissue that Rose's first love happens to have been her best friend, Jessie. What is an issue, however, are traits assigned to each character that read as if they've been pulled straight from case studies in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: Rose's mother is manic-depressive; Jessie's mom is depressed; as an adolescent, Jessie was suicidal with a fetish for cutting, while Rose has panic disorder around driving. This makes for too many characters drawn with broad brushstrokes, then referred to later with a tone of: "Oh, you know how she is." It's distracting and ultimately dissatisfying, though the novel won a Silver Award for Gay & Lesbian Fiction from Forward magazine. -- Annika Dukes

Oakland -- A Photographic Journey
By Bill Caldwell
Momentum, $24.95
Caldwell is in love with Oakland. In this self-published volume, he juxtaposes contemporary photos of the vibrant cityscape with pictures, postcards, and illustrations from the past. Often framed in identical locations, approximately three hundred full-color and black-and-white images -- some of which are separated by more than a century of so-called progress -- depict the ever-changing face of the region's priorities. It's sad to see a recent snapshot of a mundane West Oakland street set against a panoramic view of Idora Park, a funfair complete with roller-coaster and waterslide that brightened the exact same spot in the first quarter of the 1900s. More pathetic yet is an elegant postcard of the turn-of-the-century Piedmont Baths contrasted with a picture of the abandoned parking lot that's there today. Of course, the city still boasts stunning architectural showplaces -- the Paramount, Parkway, Grand Lake, and Fox Oakland, not to mention the Camron-Stanford House and Dunsmuir Estate. While the wheels of change tend to trample the relics of history, Caldwell's work reminds us that there's more to a city than meets the eye. -- Sam Prestianni

Drinking Coffee Elsewhere
By ZZ Packer
Riverhead, $24.95
Comparison to early stories by Alice Walker and Toni Cade Bambara rightly reel off the tongue. But Packer is her own woman, a writer with a stunning debut volume that stands as one of the most impressive story collections released in years. Witness "Brownies," a perfectly pitched saga (with a surprise twist) about a bodacious black Brownie troop convinced a troop of white girls has denigrated them with a racial slur: "By our second day at Camp Crescendo ... [we] had decided to kick the asses of each and every girl in Brownie Troop 909 ... 'Nobody,' Octavia said, 'calls us niggers.'" In the title story, Packer explores the charged relationship between two classmates at Yale. Dina is a black woman raised amid the grit of Baltimore. Heidi is a politically active Canadian who prefers to be called Henrik. Both seeking sanctuary, the women form a complicated alliance. The human need for love and protection also provides the thematic thrust for "Speaking in Tongues," a brave and unsettling story about teenage Tia, who flees the home she shares with a religious aunt and takes an hilariously rendered bus trip to Atlanta. There, she is befriended by a complex street hustler and his female "associate." Gifted with an astounding ear for language, Packer offers dazzling, deeply moving stories that will long linger and uplift. -- Evelyn C. White

Cloud 8
By Grant Bailie
Ig Publications, $8.95
James Broadhurst is killed in a car accident. He steps out of a dark tunnel into "patently glorious light" to find an Abraham Lincoln lookalike who hands him a claim check and drives him to his first stop in the afterlife, an office where he is assigned an apartment in a brownstone with a noncommunicative roommate, and a job doing ... he's never quite sure what. Sound more like life than the afterlife? It is but it isn't. He wanders the streets of this sort-of purgatory, going to work, visiting bars, almost finding love. This vision of life after death is sad and alienating, but it is also human, and realistic, as dreams can be. Bailie's prose is dreamy yet precise. He creates a world that is just slightly askew, always familiar, yet fantastic: What's more difficult than writing about death? Scenes in which James is allowed to watch his family on television are quite moving -- a less talented writer couldn't have pulled it off. Bailie's stories have appeared in various "hip" magazines, including McSweeney's, but his work is deeper and more accomplished than the lowest-common-denominator irony dished out by that crowd. His own sense of irony is more subtle, and he writes with humor and grace. This is an astonishing first novel. -- Owen Hill

... last meal. By Jacquelyn C. Black
Common Courage, $12.95

The last meal is a peculiar institution, a small kindness to the condemned just when it matters least. In this book, New York-based artist Black plays with that absurdity to create a quiet, disturbing indictment of capital punishment as she profiles the final meal requests of 23 Texas death-row inmates. Some, such as an electrician who wanted tacos, enchiladas, tostadas, cheeseburgers, and chocolate milkshakes, demand a gut-busting array of delicacies, one last earthly blowout. Others keep their final requests simple, such as the musician who ordered only a single apple. Each entry is preceded by a small black-and-white mug shot of the condemned, and ends with a starkly contrasting full-color photo of the meal he ordered. Interspersed with the photos are bite-size factoids on both the logistics of the last meal (always served two hours before execution) and facts about the capital-punishment system in general. All by itself, ... last meal. contains far too little hard data to spur any real reforms in the criminal justice system. But while it's tempting to read it as a sop to morbid curiosity, the book does effectively force the reader to consider the morality of the death penalty. The act of eating is so universal, and an individual's choice of food so revealing, that Black's simple photographs go a long way toward humanizing people often dismissed offhand as monsters. -- Mike Rosen-Molina


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