Wish You Weren't Here 

This month's East Bay best-sellers evoke hellholes throughout history and around the world.

Burning Books

Our take on this month's best-sellers at East Bay independent bookstores, including Analog Books, Bay Books, Black Oak, Cody's, Diesel, and Pegasus.

Got a yen for discomfort? Horror? Tragedy? A lot of armchair martyrs share your urge, as books about terrible times in awful places are hot. First stop on our nightmare touris a Soviet prison camp. In The House of Meetings (Knopf, $23), Martin Amis continues his merciless examination of Russian communism and its toll on those who experienced it. In this history lesson thinly disguised as a novel, a love triangle between a Russian war criminal, his pacifist brother, and the requisite sensual Jewess plays out against the backdrop of Stalin's postwar purges — political correctness taken to extremes. Both brothers end up in a Siberian slave-labor camp. Unfortunately, his distinctive style is so intense that, as one reviewer has put it, "his characters are all just Amis himself with a fake mustache." Timothy Egan's The Worst Hard Time(Mariner, $14.95) takes us back two decades earlier to another nexus of misery, the Dust Bowl of Depression-era mid-America. Amid tales of babies choking to death on dust and mile-high roiling walls of wind-borne soil inundating towns, Egan explores how the phenomenon happened: Bad farming practices, years of drought, and an economic catastrophe that left the land untended came together in an imperfect storm. He grows conspiratorial in places, blaming greedy land developers and governmental policy, as if somehow folks in the '20s should have known ahead of time that a drought and depression were looming. Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin (Penguin, $15), takes us to the impoverished villages of Pakistan and Afghanistan, where hunger, cold, and social oppression have been a way of life for centuries. Mortenson promised the tribespeople who saved him after a failed climbing trek that he'd return and build them a school. He expanded the concept regionwide, erecting fifty schools — especially ones for girls. What we're supposed to take away from this unapologetic hagiography is that charity beats war as the best route to making people like you. Fair enough. Left out of the discussion is that the very act of educating girls is a form of cultural imperialism. The Taliban rank-and-file sees little difference between American bombs and American-built girls' schools. But the worst imaginable holiday awaits in Scott Smith's horror novel The Ruins (Knopf, $24.95), in which Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula becomes a place of near-Lovecraftian fiendishness. On a misguided jaunt to locate a missing man, two couples find themselves in a Mayan jungle that has turned against them. There's no moral in 300 pages of agonizing suspense punctuated by bloodcurdling violence; the characters are nasty and selfish, and the demonic jungle villain has no origin or purpose other than to kill the pestilential humans. If you like a good dose of nihilism with your dismemberment, it's for you.

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