Express Reviews 

Hot new books for your delectation.

Pablo Neruda: A Passion for Life
By Adam Feinstein
Bloomsbury, $32.50

This telling of the Chilean poet's life, lived on several continents, through three marriages and more wars, compellingly mingles extraordinary detail and impeccable documentation. But Feinstein's words often lack the earthy vigor that we are meant to feel when thinking of Neruda. The Chilean's passions -- among them women, food, and Stalinism -- are presented somewhat dispassionately, alienating the reader from the poet, whose dearest wish was to understand and be understood by the common man. The result is that Neruda comes off at times as an immature womanizer who happened to have a knack for poetry. And yet a somewhat skeptical view of his life is called for, especially because the accuracy of the poet's own memoirs is somewhat suspect. Neruda has been criticized for his shoddy treatment of the many women in his life and for his failure to denounce Stalinism when its atrocities were amply clear to the rest of the world -- although even his harshest critics concede that his often misguided politics couldn't negate his poetic brilliance. Gabriel García Márquez has said that Neruda was loyal -- rather than faithful -- to his last wife and great love, Matilde Urrutia. Perhaps the opposite is true of Feinstein's book, which captures the details, rather than the spirit, of this passionate life. -- Nora Sohnen

Castle Gripsholm
By Kurt Tucholsky
Overlook, $13.95

Who says it's too late to slip in a little more fluffy summer reading? First published in 1931 but newly reissued, this is a very short novel by German journalist Tucholsky in which a man known variously as Peter, Fritzchen, Poppa, or Kurt (depending on the addresser), and his girlfriend, known as Lydia or "The Princess," take a summer vacation in Sweden. The vacation is almost unbearably carefree, as the two spend most of their time lying on the grass, idly musing about the world, and engaging in general tomfoolery or witty repartee. Casually tucked in between their happy roamings and a briefly and tastefully rendered threesome between Peter, Lydia, and one of their good friends, the couple rescues a sad young girl from a tyrannical schoolmistress at a children's home located not far from their hotel. What more could you ask of a vacation, really: relaxation, good lovin', and heroic child-saving? However, more than one person in history has noted that happy times generally don't make for gripping stories. There often doesn't seem to be a point to Castle Gripsholm, yet the book is so darn good-natured that it's hard to fault. The fate of its author, though, was not so untroubled: Tucholsky committed suicide in Sweden in 1935. -- Kim Hedges

Give Our Regards to the Atomsmashers!
Edited by Sean Howe
Pantheon, $24.95

It's been okay for quite some time to admit that you read comic books: Maus came out in 1986, for chrissake. So why are most of the writers approached to wax rhapsodic about comics in this anthology so sheepish about it? Glen David Gold talks about collecting as though it were flashing preschoolers, and Jonathan Lethem's analysis of childhood friendships through the oeuvre of Jack Kirby is undermined by constant attempts to universalize his experience (hey, some of us liked The Eternals). But it's these personal narratives that provide the bright spots in this odd anthology, whether it's Gary Giddins' confession of a haphazard literary education through Classics Illustrated, Lydia Mullet on how the passivity of Little Nemo in Slumberland informed her own writing, or Brad Meltzer's reminiscence of the Teen Titans storyline that walked him through puberty. Andrew Hultkrans' ode to the way Steve Ditko draws hands is fascinating, but others are straightforward appreciations: Luc Sante loves Tintin; Steve Erickson digs American Flagg. Comic fans won't find much new here, and these writers' usual audience might not care about comics, so these stories are most successful when their hero is the one behind the pen rather than the colorful tights. -- Sam Hurwitt

The Voyage Home
By Jane Rogers
Overlook, $24.95

When Anne Harrington travels to Nigeria to bury her Christian-missionary father, she elects to return to Britain on a slow cargo ship, hoping that the journey will give her time to stare healingly out to sea while meditating on her life. Instead, she encounters two African stowaways, one pregnant and desperately ill. In her eagerness to help, Anne unwittingly puts the pair in grave risk, and as events lurch sickeningly out of control she finds herself unmoored on a sea of violence and deception. But Rogers' novel runs deeper than nautical mystery. As she lies in her cabin, Anne reads her father's journals of his early years in Africa, a hand-wringing account of faith undercut by personal weakness. Rogers' crosscutting between these diaries and the main story is at first stutteringly interruptive, but she eventually interweaves the two to great dramatic effect. In Anne Harrington's life, nothing is as it appears. Instead, everything is far more sinister. Family secrets spill from the diaries, and the civility of shipboard life is revealed to be a sham. When Anne returns home, an old lover takes on new menace and a fresh relationship is far darker than anticipated. The Voyage Home is an unsettling novel about the uneven power dynamics that tie people together, strangers and kin alike. While it is a compelling page-turner, readers won't soon shake the visceral loneliness and desperation that cut through every scene. -- Zac Unger

Barbarians, Marauders, and Infidels
By Antonio Santosuosso
Westview, $27.50

This volume on medieval warfare by a Canadian professor has a hell of a great title. How could any modern drama queen (or king) resist the lure of those barbarian hordes from the north and Islamic raids from the south? Too bad, then, that the most exciting part of the book is its title. That's not to say it isn't filled with interesting factoids about Charlemagne's sword (whose pommel was said to contain the tip of the spear that had pierced Jesus' body) and the voices in Joan of Arc's head. Rather, the book reads like an uneasy marriage between a dry military manual and a swashbuckling piece of narrative nonfiction -- but the swashbuckling bits are all too brief. Amid the general lack of color, readers are thrust into the medieval setting with nary a compass: Santosuosso takes for granted his readers' basic knowledge of the era. The sole exception is his discussion on the advance of the Muslims, which is told in much greater detail than the rest. The final chapter, which sums up the preceding seventeen, would have been a great place to start. -- Elise Proulx

By Penn Jillette
St. Martin's Griffin, $12.95

Who says magicians keep only tricks up their sleeves? Jillette, the strapping, ponytailed, nonsilent member of the Penn & Teller team, has created a haunting little literary gem with his first novel, a randy experiment that attempts to tear the world apart with good writing and an insane narrator. Onstage, Jillette delights in perverting the mythology of "magic," showing an audience the truth behind the illusion. He attempts the same for storytelling here. But while the soaring, delightfully wicked prose sometimes takes your breath away, it doesn't pierce illusions as cleanly as do his stage acts. Sock follows the tale of the Little Fool, a husky NYPD diver who while delving one day in aqueous goo discovers the body of an ex-lover. He sets out to find the killer, along the way flirting with mental illness, homosexuality, and a carb addiction. For the literary fireworks, the whole shebang is narrated by the hero's horny sock monkey. Jillette dives deep, touching on God, sex, and violence, for the most part in a riveting voice. Pop-cultural references, from James Bond to Norman Bates to Kenny G, run thick and fast. The novel falters not in Jillette's driving, delirious incantations, but when he's so swept away with deconstructing the storytelling process that he forgets to tell the story. -- Nicole Ankowski

Facts for Visitors
By Srikanth Reddy
University of California Press, $16.95

This debut collection of poems features an arresting cover photo of Earth credited to NASA. Within its pages is similarly mesmerizing work by a writer who crafted many of the poems while working for a literacy program in India. Writing from the angle of "outsider," Reddy brings a brutally honest perspective to a planet endangered by greed, ignorance, and callousness. Still, he gifts "earthlings" with compassion and a poetic voice that keeps faith with ecstasy in the face of apocalypse. In "Corruption," Reddy writes of India ink: of a tradition (pen to paper) that, in the computer age, "is rapidly coming to an end." He then details the origins of sepia (octopus, squid, cuttlefish), apprising readers that sepia is composed of elements that glow a "few days after death ... you can read this by light." "Fundamentals of Esperanto" traces the history of an artificial international language constructed in 1887 by a Polish oculist whose pen name, as does the name of the language itself, means "He Who Hopes": "As we speak, Esperanto is being corrupted by upstart languages such as Interlingua/Klingon, Java." Reddy beseeches readers to "freeze the mutating patois" of "grandeur and homegrown humility" so that future children "may dwell in this song." "Fame and famine must spring from one root," Reddy observes in "Chariot with Torn Bodice," proving himself a worthy guide for all "visitors" who enter this fine book. -- Evelyn C. White


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