THE AMPHORA PROJECT | William Kotzwinkle | Grove Press | In a 1988 essay literary agent Russell Galen had some advice for writers gunning for the big time: “Don’t worry about ‘breaking out of genre.'” Just “make it big, big, very big.” Maybe someone should send a copy to William Kotzwinkle: the man knows how to write, but he’s remained a subcult fixture since Doctor Rat and Fata Morgana were published in the 70s.

His newest tale, The Amphora Project, is not big, but it should be. A consortium of the 12 most powerful people on Planet Immortal is bent on cracking a puzzle left by the long-departed Ancient Aliens, one they believe will lead to immortality. Well, it doesn’t. Soon it turns out that the puzzle is a trap set by some extradimensional predators, who’ve now oozed into this universe to eat our life force. Or something like that. It’s a pretty massive germ of an idea, but Kotzwinkle lets it play out on the cramped stage of space opera through an assortment of stock characters like Upquark the robot and “space pirate” Jockey Oldcastle, out to save the world or make a buck trying.

There’s nothing wrong with this enjoyable Star Wars lite. Kotzwinkle has a way with cranky aliens, neurotic cyborgs, and insecure power mongers. But how is it that navigator Lizardo (from the planet Serpentia, of course) has an Uncle Ophidian who shows up in the final chapters to save the day? What’s his story? Ah, if only the book were big, big, really big. | Patrick Daily

BLUEBIRDS USED TO CROON IN THE CHOIR | Joe Meno | TriQuarterly | I count at least seven children (or pairs thereof) who’ve lost a parent to suicide, disease, accident, or simple abandonment in Joe Meno’s new collection of 17 wacky yet tragic ministories. Most of these cartoonish Tiny Tims bear up cheerfully, managing to either have epiphanies or inspire them before Meno hustles his next victims onstage. In addition to the kids there’s a colon cancer patient who mysteriously starts floating, a refugee worker whose magical singing drives a coworker to try to start a strike, and another guy with a butt problem who has, surprise, an epiphany while watching porn between trips to the loo.

Meno’s prose is entertaining and occasionally pretty (“the lips, the soft petals of flesh that were mine”), but it’s often as inaccurate as it is distractingly precocious, as when, in a piece set at a Greek-myth-themed summer camp, he insists on referring to the Eleusinian mysteries as the “Elysian Mysteries” to no apparent satirical end. I soon quit giving a hoot about his parade of miserables, and I’m pretty sure that wasn’t his plan. If these stories succeeded in being spooky or deeply funny you could compare ’em to Edward Gorey, but as it is the collection is a box of pain bonbons: fun, but so sugarcoated you feel like smirking death when they’re gone. | Ann Sterzinger

Joe Meno

When: Sat 11/12, 8 PM

Where: Quimby’s, 1854 W. North

Info: 773-342-0910

More: See listings in Section 2

THE BRIEF AND FRIGHTENING REIGN OF PHIL | George Saunders | Riverhead | George Saunders may be the most overrated writer working today. Though he’s been frequently fingered as heir to Kurt Vonnegut, Nathanael West, and Thomas Pynchon–and even blurbed by the last, among other luminaries–only the Vonnegut comparison holds water. His blandly refined fiction-workshop voice is like a dried-out Donald Barthelme, that complacent time waster; its ponderous absurdity suggests a pretentious Dr. Seuss.

Saunders’s new novella, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, which sprang from a suggestion that he write a story whose characters were all abstract shapes, is about as compelling as it sounds. Its tale of a psychotic dictator’s rise to power and persecution of a minority certainly functions as an allegory for the depersonalization of conflict, the corruption of power, oppression and enslavement, etc. But beyond the obvious–these things are bad!–it’s got nothing to say and no relevance to any specific real-world scenario. And cutesy details about Phil’s inner life, plus a saccharine, slapped-on ex-machina ending, destroy any claim Saunders might’ve had to structural purity.

In the end, though, it’s Saunders’s cloying style that’s most dispiriting. His measured self-satisfaction wafts from every element, from his precious faux-representational descriptions of his impossible creatures and transparent world–the region of Far East Distant Outer Horner, for example, is “a lush verdant zone where cows’ heads grew out of the earth shouting sarcastic things at anyone who passed”–to his equally precious, faux-imaginative asides. | Brian Nemtusak

CITIZEN: JANE ADDAMS AND THE STRUGGLE FOR DEMOCRACY | Louise W. Knight | University of Chicago Press | When Jane Addams founded Hull House in 1889, she aimed only to fortify her neighbors’ spirits, not to combat poverty. But she soon learned that her neighbors’ crowded, filthy material conditions needed improving too. For that task, her small-town Illinois ideals–individual benevolence, Christian uplift, and absolute morality–were inadequate; so were those of wealthy patrons of the poor like industrialist George Pullman and ward boss Johnny Powers. Her neighbors didn’t need Christmas turkeys–they needed labor unions.

Addams often disguised her personal growth with abstractions and the doughy pronoun we. But independent scholar Louise Knight has ransacked the archives to undo this Victorian reticence and paint Addams’s first 40 years in precise, loving detail. She makes a convincing case for Addams as a serious thinker, using as evidence everything from Addams’s correspondence with John Dewey on the value of antagonism and conflict to her realization, after her orphaned niece and nephews joined her Halsted Street household, that regular garbage collection might be beneficial to their health. “The identification with the common lot,” she wrote in 1902, “is the essential idea of Democracy.”

For Addams an evolving morality was, by definition, improving over time. Knight’s exemplary scholarship frees us to wonder: What would Addams say if she could see how many of her poverty-stricken neighbors’ great-grandchildren are Bush voters huddling in gated suburbia? | Harold Henderson

Louise W. Knight

When: Sat 11/12, 2:30 PM

Where: DePaul University Student Center, 2250 N. Sheffield

Price: $6

Info: 312-661-1028

More: Part of the Chicago Humanities Festival

THE DIVINERS | Rick Moody | Little, Brown | In his latest novel Rick Moody embraces a spirit of innovation mostly lost in mainstream literary writing. The book chronicles the month or so after the 2000 presidential election in the lives of a vast ensemble of characters connected by their relationship (or lack thereof) to a TV miniseries treatment called “The Diviners,” a wild story about the practice of dowsing that starts with the Huns and ends with the settling of Las Vegas.

Moody has structured the 500-plus-page tome with all the conventions of a TV drama, and for the most part the imitation is effective. Things get off on the wrong foot with “Opening Credits and Theme Music,” an 11-page narration of the sun rising on Los Angeles and proceeding around the world to New York that reads like an undergraduate writing exercise, but from there they come together nicely. The masterful “Epilogue and Scenes From Upcoming Episodes” caps it all off with a winding dinner conversation between two old Harvard chums–one a network executive, the other a U.S. Supreme Court justice–that leaves no doubt about the fate of the miniseries’ production or the outcome of the presidential election recount. There’s space for both obvious juicy plot turns and surprising Shakespearean weight. The world Moody creates with this unique literary mode is a great place to get lost awhile. | Todd Dills

“Look Hear”

When: Fri 11/11, 7:30 PM

Where: Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago

Price: $15 (sold out)

Info: 312-494-9509

More: With Rick Moody and others; part of the Chicago Humanities Festival

DON’T GET TOO COMFORTABLE | David Rakoff | Doubleday | Rarely will you read a collection of “humorous essays” that communicates the melancholy of David Rakoff’s Don’t Get Too Comfortable, a suite loosely grouped around the theme of Western excess. Not that the publisher is out of line marketing it as comedy; there’s buffoonery, sure, but it’s usually preceded by the sort of sober reflection most humorists would save for the end of a passage. In the kickoff essay, for example, where Rakoff describes trading in his Canadian passport for an American one for fear of getting booted out of his beloved NYC in some wartime purge of foreigners, he quotes Barbara Bush on Iraq: “Why should we hear about body bags and deaths? I mean, it’s not relevant. So why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?” He follows the citation right up with the requisite comparison to Marie Antoinette, asking the reader to memorize those shocking words and “remind others of how she lacked even the bare minimum of human decency.” Only then do we get to the payoff–“Stupid fucking cow”–and it’s funnier than it would have been if we weren’t on the verge of tears when it hit. The essays aren’t all so serious; one handily compares the last days of the Concorde to the environment on board Hooters Air. And some, as Rakoff disarmingly admits, betray writerly self-absorption. But none fails the laugh-that-I-do-not-cry test. | Ann Sterzinger

THE E-BOMB: HOW AMERICA’S NEW DIRECTED ENERGY WEAPONS WILL CHANGE THE WAY FUTURE WARS WILL BE FOUGHT | Douglas Beason | Da Capo Press | Someday I want to go shootin’ with Doug Beason. The retired air force weapons specialist holds a PhD in laser-technology physics and has been involved with directed-energy research for the last quarter century. But unlike mad munitions experts past, Beason seems immune to Oppenheimerian misgivings; he’s positively full of atomic age zeal for the destructive power of science. His description of the next wave of HPM (high power microwave) and laser weapons is riddled with exuberant references to bomb-target ratios, manpower density, lethality mechanisms, etc, and whatever the specific technology at hand, he seldom fails to remind that it wreaks its particular havoc–like all DE weapons–at the speed of light.

Beason’s inadvertent hilarity is a welcome tonic given the genuinely spooky subject matter. Airborne lasers are on the verge of changing missile warfare; active denial systems (another HPM technology) generate a “nonlethal but human-repelling force field” that seems tailor-made for eliminating pesky crowd control problems, from demonstrations to outright riots. But scariest is the sea change in the balance of power some DE weapons could effect. As the most technologically sophisticated country on the planet–both in terms of military defenses and domestic infrastructure–we’re the most susceptible to a DE attack that would leave everything on the grid paralyzed. Given our current geopolitical popularity, it’s hard not to feel a bit like a sitting duck. | Brian Nemtusak

FAITH FOR BEGINNERS | Aaron Hamburger | Random House | Aaron Hamburger’s Faith for Beginners, about a Jewish family from suburban Detroit searching for their roots in Israel, grew on me like a polyp. It begins as a paint-by-numbers soul-searcher: here’s the middle-aged, middle-class mother unhappy in her marriage to a terminally ill hermit; there’s the spoiled, substance-abusing gay son, Jeremy, whom she’s dragged to the holy land to help him “find himself.” As a kid Jeremy had wanted to be a Jewish prophet, but as a young adult he’s more into lefty politics. Disgusted by the racism and self-obsession of his fellow middle-class tourists, he hastily acquires a Palestinian lover and parades him around, hoping in particular to shock his mother. As she’s not the bigot her son assumes she is–and is having a vacation fling with a rabbi–she couldn’t care less; in fact she nearly gets killed trying to have a nice lunch with the boy who might one day be her son’s husband. Then, just before Jeremy realizes he genuinely loves his pet cause, he manages to ruin the kid’s life. Hamburger is a great crafter of character but isn’t much of a language addict–in the early going redundancies such as “antique Roman coin” hurt my ears. But soon the words serve the plot just fine, as his depiction of Jeremy develops into a beautifully ironic portrait of a fundamentalist preaching against fundamentalism. | Ann Sterzinger

FLEDGLING | Octavia E. Butler | Seven Stories Press | Octavia Butler’s first novel in six years hangs on a risky fictional conceit: a first-person narrator with amnesia. Shori awakens at the start of the book in a cave in the woods, naked and badly beaten; she appears to be about ten years old. Then, in the first three chapters, we’re asked to accept cannibalism, extrasensory powers, and her initiation of a sexual relationship with an adult; the critical disclosure that she is a vampire is the least of the hurdles Butler throws in our path.

The device of amnesia, however, allows the whole novel to be one graceful, gradually unfurling examination of a vampire society, its family structure, life cycles, scientific experiments, and internal politics. Butler, whose last novel, Parable of the Talents, won a Nebula Award in 1999, has a knack for suspense and psychological realism, and as she draws the reader into Shori’s attempts to find out who attacked her and killed her family, she fosters a real emotional investment in her story.

Ultimately the key to the mystery turns out to be melanin. Unlike most other vampires, Shori is black; she also has a bit of human DNA, and both real-world racism and some vampires’ contempt for humans come into play in the prejudice against her. The plot is so tautly wound and full of revelations and reversals before the novel’s conclusion–which seems almost too neat for what has come before. | Monica Kendrick

GONE TOMORROW: THE HIDDEN LIFE OF GARBAGE | Heather Rogers | New Press | Heather Rogers’s analysis of the intricacies of garbage management, which takes off from her 2002 documentary of the same name, offers a pungent reminder that in a consumer society no hands are ever clean. We may deposit our daily newspaper in the blue box, but what of the 300 million computers junked since 1997 by the United States alone?

Rogers’s “secret history” of rubbish encompasses early reformers like New York’s George Waring, who standardized urban sanitation procedures after linking the filth of poor neighborhoods to Tammany-era corruption. And it lingers in the “golden age of waste”–the 1950s–when the postwar yearning for material goods met the industrial invention of planned obsolescence to create a new model of disposable consumerism that “helped foster widespread acceptance of a refuse-heavy reality.”

In the 60s the Keep America Beautiful campaign shrewdly focused public attention on “litterbugs” rather than on the long-term toxicity of landfills, empowering industry by laying the responsibility for pollution at the feet of the individual. The first Earth Day, in 1970, reflected increasing public concern, but Rogers sees the fundamental conflict as one between our awareness of environmental limitations and a marketplace “hell bent on ever-expanding production.” She also touches on current controversies surrounding recycling, the location of incinerators in poor neighborhoods, and the export of trash to the third world. Her grimly enlightening, if rather Marxian, conclusion? Our epic wastes represent “human labor thrown away.” | Mike Newirth

Heather Rogers

When: Fri 11/11, noon

Where: UIC, 412 S. Peoria, room 110

Info: 312-996-2126

When: Fri 11/11, 8 PM

Where: Mess Hall, 6932 N. Glenwood

Info: 773-465-4033

More: With film screening

INDECISION | Benjamin Kunkel | Random House | In his first novel Benjamin Kunkel (coeditor of ultrahip lit mag n+1) takes up the unsung plight of rich New Yorkers in their 20s. Despite being attractive and upper class, a graduate of the right schools, and a remarkably well-adjusted guy, protagonist Dwight Wilmerding… well, there’s no end to that sentence. Dwight suffers from abulia, or chronic indecision. Now, abulia can have many roots. The sufferer may lack decisive role models or the economic means to allow for trial and error. Maybe he’s a disaffected misanthrope, or maybe he’s gun-shy. Or maybe, indeed, it’s simply chemical. But Kunkel doesn’t concern himself with such garden-variety pathologies. Dwight has no problems beyond a surfeit of options, and Indecision more or less amounts to an account of how he figures that out.

Hoping to conquer his comfy West Village aimlessness, he ingests the experimental drug Abulinix, a supposed cure for indecision; his conversion experience consists of some ecotourism in Ecuador, trading one hottie of a foreign-national girlfriend for another, and emerging really, like, engaged, man. This is all supposed to be comic, but more often than not the silliness seems designed to let Kunkel disavow responsibility for the trite travelogue of entitlement and campus-radical leftism he’s serving up. Kunkel does have a way with words, and he gets his head around some pretty airy concepts. Sometime’s he’s funny enough to elicit a smirk. But all his characters share the same voice, and the who-me erudition of the straining-to-be-sparkling dialogue is ultimately as plausible–and exhausting–as Whit Stillman on crack. | Brian Nemtusak

JOHN CROW’S DEVIL | Marlon James | Akashic | Set in 1957 in post-plantation-era Gibbeah, a fictional village in the author’s native Jamaica, Marlon James’s first novel details a battle between two crazy preachers. Shortly after a vulture (known locally as a “John Crow”) crashes into the Gibbeah church during one of “Rum Preacher” Hector Bligh’s typically laughable services (on a rare sober Ash Wednesday, as it happens), Bligh’s comeuppance arrives in the form of the syphilitic “Apostle” Lucas York, who commandeers the congregation and whips the village into a frenzy of repentant vengeance. Bligh takes refuge with the Widow Greenfield, a fellow outcast, and begins a process of detoxification while plotting his revenge on the Apostle.

James’s compelling story is told partly in a country Jamaican vernacular from the point of view of the townspeople, an approach that recalls Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” The small victories, defeats, and dalliances of both sides comprise the action, making this something of a war novel–but with plenty of backcountry superstition to spice up the plot, and overdone sexual descriptions to bog it down. But by the end, with the Widow Greenfield’s yard full of dead John Crows and the Apostle sexually engaged with both male and female members of his flock–all the while preaching hard against fornication–the lines between good and evil in the spiritual struggle are sufficiently blurred, to keep readers on their toes. | Todd Dills

JULIE & JULIA: 365 DAYS, 524 RECIPES, 1 TINY APARTMENT KITCHEN | Julie Powell | Little, Brown | As gimmicks go, this one’s pretty good: in 2002 underemployed New York City temp Julie Powell set herself the task of cooking every one of the 524 recipes in Julia Child’s classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking within one year. She chronicled the “Julie/Julia Project” in intimate, messy detail on a blog and quickly developed an avid fan base of vicarious-thrill seekers eager to find out just what rough going that pate de canard en croute can be. In her new book, Julie & Julia, Powell spins the blog into a larger tale that encompasses her marriage, her dead-end job, her hangovers, and her eventual–if predictable–discovery of the joie de vivre fostered by cooking and hospitality.

It’s a mixed bag: Powell’s tone wanders into chick-lit territory when she muses upon the romantic pickles of her single friends, and the fictional scenes she concocts about the life of Julia and Paul Child are just embarrassing. But when she sticks to the task at hand the book is a marvel of DIY food porn. Gleeful and profane, Powell forces herself to confront such horrors as brains, lobster vivisection, and homemade aspic. She wallows in her failures and exults in her triumphs with the same defiant narcissism with which she frankly acknowledges the ten pounds of “butter fat” the project has added to her frame. Her message is frank and simple: life might give you maggots, but if you can deal with them (or get your husband to) you might learn how to stuff the duck like a pro. | Martha Bayne

THE MODERN DRUNKARD: A HANDBOOK FOR DRINKING IN THE 21ST CENTURY | Frank Kelly Rich | Riverhead | An offshoot of Denver-based Modern Drunkard magazine, of which Frank Kelly Rich is the editor, this fun tome is billed as a “self-help book for the sobriety-impaired and a malted manifesto.” It’s full of honest-to-goodness practical advice (one of the “86 Rules of Boozing” is “Buying a strange woman a drink is still cool. Buying all her drinks is dumb”) as well as dark humor. Two of the “25 Signs You Might Be a Drunkard” are “You only smoke when you drink, and you go through three packs a day” and “Half the bouncers in town know how much you weigh.”

I can’t really do justice to the wealth of knowledge included here, from why smokers are good to have at parties (“They’re risk takers”) to a breakdown of the various species of bartender (“The Machine,” “The Bar God,” “The Grizzled Veteran”) to minor treatises on such topics as “The Zen of Drinking Alone.” Suffice to say, it’s a gold mine. You don’t even have to be drunk while you’re reading to love it, but it probably wouldn’t hurt. | Jerome Ludwig

THE MONSTER AT OUR DOOR: THE GLOBAL THREAT OF AVIAN FLU | Mike Davis | New Press | If you were tied to the railroad tracks with a train coming, Mike Davis could describe the train’s workings so vividly that you’d enjoy the experience. Best known for his crackling Marxist history of Los Angeles, City of Quartz, Davis has here turned his attention to the avian flu story. In his telling the villain isn’t the treacherously mutable virus, it’s human folly.

Third world megaslums and first world megafarms now offer ideal conditions for new strains of flu to evolve, like the one that killed at least 50 million worldwide in 1918. Our defenses against a repeat are flimsy beyond belief. Pharmaceutical giants, run by salesmen who prefer marketing to research, find the flu business unpredictable and unprofitable. Davis recommends that governments and nonprofits take a stronger stance–but Clinton couldn’t come up with an antipandemic plan in eight years, and so far Bush has spent more on abstinence education than on a vaccine.

Davis has a reporter’s appetite for details, but ultimately he’s not just nitpicking CDC policy, he’s taking down a whole civilization. So he doesn’t say much about another set of facts: many countries are better off now than in 1918, with antibiotics (to combat lethal follow-on infections), improved sanitation, and less crowding. Will that help? For answers, look elsewhere–if you can tear your eyes away from that train. | Harold Henderson

NOTHING SERIOUS | Justine Levy | Melville House | Justine Levy’s roman a clef, winner of the 2004 Grand Prix Litteraire de L’Heroine, was a real hot seller in France. Levy is the daughter of celebrated writer-philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy (Who Killed Daniel Pearl?), one of the most well-known (and photographed) people in France, and Nothing Serious has a decidedly scandalous flavor. But Levy’s also a celebrated author in her own right (she published her first novel at age 19), and Nothing Serious, here translated by Charlotte Mandell, is a brilliant, painful story even if you don’t know the principals from Adam.

Louise Levy has been dumped by her husband for a gorgeous and vain model (Carla Bruni, in reality), who also happens to have been the lover of her husband’s father. Overwhelmed by self-hatred, rage, and fatigue and fueled only by drugs and cigarettes, she sinks into a deep depression, describing herself as “broken into a thousand pieces.” Soon she embarks on a series of meaningless affairs, all the while popping her famous father’s “brain pills” (amphetamines) in an effort to be as worthy, intelligent, and courageous as she perceives him to be.

Of course none of this helps. Ultimately she surrenders and acknowledges that “loving doesn’t mean being the same, acting like two twins, thinking you’re inseparable. . . . To love someone is to accept falling, all alone, and getting back up, all alone.” Writing in a very confessional first-person, Levy masterfully gets across how hard it must be to be a woman sometimes–even one who’s beautiful, talented, privileged, and French. | Jerome Ludwig

ON BEAUTY | Zadie Smith | Penguin | White Teeth, Zadie Smith’s precocious 2000 debut, may have been a trifle, but it sure was a blast–a shaggy, freewheeling romp of a tale. But by the time I got through her latest, On Beauty, the hyperactive maximalist spirit of the former seemed like genius.

Both books concern themselves with the foibles and misadventures of a pair of interlocking families. But while White Teeth unfurled on the raucous multicultural streets of North London, On Beauty is set in the headier confines of Wellington, Massachusetts, the suburban-Boston home of Wellington College, a transparent stand-in for Harvard. Like much of academe, it’s sophisticated but not very much fun.

Smith’s target is the culture wars, and she takes great gulping glee in skewering both the left and the right: I’ve rarely read such bitter academic satire. But while many secondary characters are surprisingly well realized–in particular Carl, a young African-American performance poet adopted as a pet by several of the sillier Wellingtonians–the estranged couple at the center of the book remains an enigma. Theory-sodden Rembrandt scholar Howard Belsey, a transplanted Englishman, and his better half, the pragmatic, 250-pound African-American earth mother Kiki, seem to inhabit different novels. Their joyless partnership displays no hint of the chemistry upon which it was allegedly built, and I never for a moment believed that sensible Kiki would put up with ridiculous Howard as long as she does. As a result, the whole plot seems dangerously jerry-rigged, a complex scaffold from which Smith can hang her sharp and glittering wit. | Martha Bayne

PHONE RINGS | Stephen Dixon | Melville House | Stephen Dixon’s 25th (25th!) work of fiction starts off with a simple phrase: “Phone rings.” Simple, but in typical Dixonian fashion, full of import. It’s not good news. Stu Fine’s nephew is calling to say that Stu’s beloved older brother Dan has died. Some sort of bizarre running accident, maybe a stroke, maybe he tripped, maybe he was mugged, maybe a tree fell on him–no one’s quite sure. From this Dixon weaves a complex, sincere tale of brotherly love.

Nine years older than Stu, Dan has always been there for him. Over the years they’ve kept in touch by phone–about the daily news, about the safety of their college-age daughters, about Stu’s mean cat (a high point of the narrative, actually–very funny). Both brothers are writers–Dan’s a newsman and Stu’s a teacher and novelist–and in effect they narrate each other’s lives here, recounting family tragedies and fleshing out childhood memories. Toward the end, a grieving Stu wonders: “Now what am I going to do without him? Who am I going to speak to?” As in his previous novel, Old Friends (2004), Dixon offers wonderful detail and a telling glimpse into how a writer thinks. | Jerome Ludwig

POPCO | Scarlett Thomas | Harcourt | Reading Scarlett Thomas’s latest novel is like going to church: the music is terrific, but then the preaching starts.

Alice Butler is a 29-year-old “creative” at the titular toy company, sequestered at a “thought camp” with a couple dozen other hip young things to come up with a new product and/or marketing stratagem for teen girls. They attend all the usual and ridiculous bonding and brainstorming seminars and while away the rest of their time with portentous chitchat that plays up their arch cleverness while also casting a genuinely suspenseful shadow over the proceedings. Alice, an amateur cryptographer and math whiz, is receiving anonymous coded messages, and each new friend she makes seems to be guarding a secret: maybe it takes more than flexible hours and no dress code to make the perfect job.

Meanwhile, a twin narrative of Alice’s childhood reveals the book’s most real and heartbreaking character, and it’s the child’s tale, not the young woman’s, that hammers home the cynicism and cruelty of “coolness.” It’d be unfair to dilute the novel’s suspense by revealing the plan afoot, but by the end this thoroughly enjoyable page-turner has become stiffly didactic, as though Naomi Klein had taken a stab at fiction. Ironically or not, the novel itself inures one to its message. The hip marketers at Harcourt included a flyer titled “How to Become a Counterculture Revolutionary (in Twelve Easy Steps)” with the book’s publicity material. I’ll take my cue from adolescent Alice, thanks: “I am weird and I am mean and if they do try to pick on me I give it back to them worse.” | Patrick Daily

PRINCES AMONGST MEN: JOURNEYS WITH GYPSY MUSICIANS | Garth Cartwright | Serpent’s Tail | New Zealand’s Garth Cartwright is a passionate devotee of Balkan Gypsy music: “I chose the Taraf over techno, Esma over Oasis,” he writes in Prince Amongst Thieves, his new book profiling more than 20 of its greatest musicians and bands, including Taraf de Haidouks, Esma Redzepova, Saban Bajramovic, and Boban Markovich. It’s a feverish travelogue in which Cartwright eats, smokes, and, especially, drinks with his subjects. His writing favors bluster over analysis, but the enthusiasm is completely infectious, even if his white-nigger tendencies–he goes so far as to write, “In some crazy mixed-up way, these are my people”–are hard to take.

Cartwright is a purist in his interests (though just about everyone in the book has relied on a western European producer), but he’s able to appreciate new developments, like the freakish, androgynous Bulgarian chalga singer Azis, who incorporates bhangra and electronic production. He details the ongoing exploitation and abuse of the Gypsies–from Goran Bregovic stealing songs for Emir Kusturica films to politicians keeping the Rom population isolated in filthy ghettos. But when it comes to contextualizing the institutionalized political mistreatment of the Rom, Cartwright doesn’t have a sure enough historical grip to add anything new; Prince has nothing on Isabel Fonseca’s masterful Bury Me Standing. Still, it’s the first nonacademic English-language book to make sense of the panoply of sounds produced in Romania, Bulgaria, and the former Yugoslavia, and its colorful characters make it a hoot to read. | Peter Margasak

THE 13 1/2 LIVES OF CAPTIAN BLUEBEAR | Walter Moers | Overlook | All hail Captain Bluebear, the blue-furred bear raised by minipirates until he grew too big for their little pirate boat, educated by Professor Abdullah Nightingale at the Nocturnal Academy deep in the Gloomberg Mountains. It was he who trekked with the Muggs through the Demarara Desert until trapping the mythical city of Anagrom Ataf. Thereafter he dwelt in Paradise, the city inside the Eternal Tornado. Did he not reign for a year as the King of Lies? Was he not then thrown into the bowels of the S.S. Moloch, stoking its vast furnaces until. . .

And so it goes in this sprawling yet simple tale set in the imaginary land of Zamonia. Each chapter is one of Bluebear’s lives, this volume covering the first 13 1/2. (“A bluebear,” you know, “has twenty-seven lives.”) It isn’t so much any particular episode, as sparklingly imaginative as each one is, or Walter Moers’s many evocative illustrations, but the momentum of its 700 pages, one damn thing after another with no ebbing of invention, that makes such a marvelous read. Holding it all together is the character of Bluebear: self-effacing and polite, prone to diplomacy and ingenuity in the face of certain disaster. His head contains, after all, a full copy of Professor Nightingale’s The Encyclopedia of Marvels, Life Forms and Other Phenomena of Zamonia and Its Environs–a handy resource for any situation in which a young bluebear may find himself.

Bluebear was originally published in 1999 in Germany, where it was a cult hit selling more than 200,000 copies. All hail too, then, Overlook Press and John Brownjohn, who translated every backward title, nonsense term, and silly scientific theory into a bright and clear English that never fails to delight. | Patrick Daily

VERONICA | Mary Gaitskill | Pantheon | As in Mrs. Dalloway–or even Ulysses for that matter–not much happens outwardly in Veronica. A woman, Alison, wakes after too little sleep, drinks a cup of coffee, then walks to the office she cleans; later she takes a long mountain hike. Throughout she reflects on her past–a former model, she had glory days in Paris and New York–and on her unlikely friendship with Veronica, a big, raucous, bleached-blond proofreader who’s died of AIDS. Alison herself has hepatitis C and a bad arm that keeps her gobbling down codeine.

The similarities to Gaitskill’s Two Girls, Fat and Thin are obvious: unhappy women with thwarted lives, a charged friendship between opposites. “It is a credit to Ms. Gaitskill’s prose . . . that we are drawn along, loath to abandon this grim story,” New York Times critic Ginger Danto wrote of the earlier work, and that too is the case here. Bitter, narcissistic Alison, with her sad tales of self, tempts you to throw the book aside, but Gaitskill’s prose is tantalizing: “Her rage was like gentleness trapped and driven crazy with sticks,” she writes of another sad-sack character. Still, genuine characters get you a lot farther than sharp similes, and there are no memorable ones here (though someone disagrees with me, as the novel’s shortlisted for the National Book Award in fiction). Even Veronica is left unrealized, a lumpy woman in an ugly sweater who irritatingly calls everybody “hon.” | Kate Schmidt

THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING | Joan Didion | Knopf | Joan Didion’s new memoir, nominated for a National Book Award, is among her finest work. Continuing in the autobiographical vein of her last book, Where I Was From, she lifts the curtain and exposes the raw workings of the year in which her life came undone. At the end of 2003 her husband of 40 years, writer John Gregory Dunne, died suddenly of a heart attack. Their adult daughter, Quintana Roo, at the time hospitalized with septic shock, listed in and out of a coma and life-threatening illness for the following year (she died in August).

Didion employs her economical prose and scalpel-sharp reporting skills to attempt to understand a grief that is beyond her understanding, a mourning so great it blurs the contours of her life. Like all her best work it’s a brave and straightforward examination of–as in the line from Yeats she famously once appropriated–what happens when the center refuses to hold. But while much of the book is on death and what it leaves in its wake, it’s also a passionate account of her marriage to Dunne, their family, and their partnership as writers. | Jessica Hopper

Joan Didion

When: 11/12, 2:30 PM

Where: Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State

Info: 312-661-1028

Price: $6 (sold out)

More: Interview with Mara Tapp, part of the Chicago Humanities Festival

ZIONCHECK FOR PRESIDENT: A TRUE STORY OF IDEALISM AND MADNESS IN AMERICAN POLITICS | Phil Campbell | Nation Books | Phil Campbell’s satirical memoir is three stories for the price of one. On its face it’s the story of his personal odyssey into the underpaid, understaffed world of local politics, when–after being fired from his job as a reporter at the Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger–he signs on to manage the campaign of Grant Cogswell, a thirtysomething punk rocker and public-transportation activist making a quixotic run for city council.

Campbell’s mordantly funny account of the erosion of his youthful ideals plays out against a reluctant power struggle with one of his housemates, a paranoid, gun-happy drunk who breeds piranhas in his room. But Campbell sweetens the pot by returning repeatedly to the cautionary tale of legendary Seattle congressman Marion Zioncheck, a Depression-era leftist whose brief political trajectory took him from starry-eyed radical to insane, suicidal alcoholic.

Running underneath it all is the story of Seattle itself. Campbell nails the peculiar pathology of my hometown, a place whose liberal politesse masks a neurotic fear of conflict. Seattle may have been the media darling of the 90s, but Zioncheck for President offers a peek at its shell-shocked citizenry after grunge and the new economy moved on. Campbell and Cogswell weren’t alone in 2001: an entire can-do city was left coping with the sting of failed promises and unfulfilled potential. | Martha Bayne