Express Reviews 

What should be on your nightstand this month.

The Hotel on the Roof of the World
By Alec Le Sueur
RDR, $17.95

The hotel on which this memoir centers might have been the least mundane Holiday Inn that ever was, situated in Lhasa as Tibet creaked toward the 20th century just a decade or so before the 21st began. Le Sueur, a Jersey island native, worked there as sales and marketing manager for five years starting in 1988, and certainly that stint generated its share of incredible stories: chaotic attempts to stimulate occupancy with a Miss Tibet contest; the rep from a nearby Chinese airline agency sentenced to death for embezzling ticket sales, her family billed for the bullet used in the execution; the almost military-like strategy needed for a son to successfully sneak a look at the cremation of his mother, who died while a guest at the hotel. Le Sueur seems most fascinated, however, by the more everyday grisliness of coping with life in a developing region, from the white-knuckle danger of commercial flights into the country to the hundreds of rats infesting the hotel itself -- though, he gleefully adds, if you're grossed out by that, you should see how disgusting the other hotels in town are! He can't leave it at that, and the book feels not so much like an inside look at an exotic country as a few nights cooped up with the kind of perpetual complainer satirized by Monty Python in the travel-agent sketch. Le Sueur's is a smarmy and often disagreeable humor, often looking for the worst in his surroundings and the hotel's guests, and usually finding it. -- Richie Unterberger

Langrishe, Go Down
By Aidan Higgins
Dalkey Archive, $12.95

Long unavailable in America, Higgins' minor classic of aristocratic decline unfolds in the drowsy Irish countryside, in the period between the world wars. Springfield, the ancestral estate of the Langrishe family, sits idle. Its fields go untilled. Workmen fell the trees for lumber. Inside the house, the three middle-aged Langrishe daughters huddle in their beds, brooding on their private griefs. Imogen, the youngest, thinks back on the brief, happy time in her late thirties when, nearly hysterical with virginity, she offered herself to the unscrupulous itinerant scholar Otto Beck. Through fragments of conversation and snatches of interior dialogue, Higgins traces their relationship from its ecstatic beginnings to its inevitable ruin. He sets the affair against a backdrop of universal decay: water-stained ceilings, crumbling tombstones, a frog at the bottom of a grave, its eyes filming over, "as if it had enough." In lesser hands, this might have become the stuff of dime-store gothic romance. But Higgins is a masterful stylist. He sustains even the most lurid conceits with writing that is at once daring and precise, vivid and economical. Sentence by sentence, Langrishe is impeccable -- even to a fault. Its pure negation of life keeps it from greatness, suffocating the characters like specimens in a bell jar. They make exquisite corpses, though. Expertly crafted prose makes this newly reissued novel, originally published in 1966, one of this year's most dazzling discoveries. -- Chris Ulbrich

The Lovers of Algeria
By Anouar Benmalek
Graywolf, $16

In the late 1990s, a bloody civil war erupted in Algeria and more than 150,000 people lost their lives. The government cracked down on fundamentalists -- whom the military had blocked from taking power -- and the fundamentalists responded by abducting or killing Westerners. One can understand how baffled Algerians would be, then, by the spectacle of a 65-year-old Swiss woman meandering through downtown Algiers without a tangible sense of fear. This is how we meet Anna, the heroine of this novel, which was a runaway best-seller in France and perhaps the most significant Algerian novel to move in French literary circles since Albert Camus' early writings. The first thread of Benmalek's story goes back to Anna's romance with her first husband Nassreddine, whom she met in Algeria in the '50s. The second thread begins in 1997, the year she loses her second husband and makes a pilgrimage back to Algiers to look for Nassreddine. Anna finds an unlikely protector in nine-year-old street urchin Jallal, who has run away from home and makes a living selling peanuts and cigarettes. Shuffling between these two narratives, the novelist presents a prismatic, if didactic, view of his native country's history over the last fifty years. Fiction should never be a kind of political wish fulfillment, but when scripted powerfully, it can imagine the impossible. This searing and important tale has done just that. It is now up to Benmalek's countrymen to live up to their part of the bargain. -- John Freeman

The Plot Against America
By Philip Roth Houghton Mifflin, $24.95

The Canadian border has been sealed shut, the opposition arrested. The nation's most strident critic, tabloid columnist Walter Winchell, has been felled by an assassin's bullet, and all of this in the wake of riots that have killed 122 American Jews. It's 1942 and, in the febrile imagination of National Book Award-winner Roth, America is galloping toward fascism -- all because Charles Lindbergh, the national aviation hero and unabashed anti-Semite in both real life and this novel, defeated FDR in the 1940 election. Told through the eyes of nine-year-old "Philip Roth" and set in the author's native Newark, New Jersey, The Plot Against America uses history as a springboard to explore the collision of politics and family life. In this chilling fantasy, fascism is not something murmuring in the hinterlands but a force that corrodes a family's psyche, pitting son against father, sister against sister, and a young boy against much of reality. It's impossible to read The Plot without pondering it as allegory. Linking the current administration with capital-F Fascism is the stuff of a tweaked-out fringe, but the climate of fear that haunts these pages is sadly familiar. Lindbergh's slogan, "Vote for Lindbergh or Vote for War!," bears more than a slight resemblance to Dick Cheney's suggestion that a vote for Kerry is a vote for Osama. Roth does not go in for "it could happen here" aphorisms, but by illustrating what it might have looked like, he scares us as deeply as any Code Orange alert. -- John Dicker


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