In our "General Index," we give a star to any books that our editors and reviewers deem of especial interest. We list below twelve or so from the first six months of this year, books that are clearly superior to the hundreds that cross our desks every month.

And Other
Unintended Destinations

Eric Dinerstein

    My real change of heart must be attributed to the sheer delight of coming face to face with a cast of unforgettable creatures. We captured charming Honduran white bats with clown-like yellow ears and leaf noses that, within minutes, lay tamed in our hands, chewing contentedly on pieces of banana. I fed sugar water from an eyedropper to docile, long-tongued, nectar-feeding bats, the hummingbirds of the night.

Fortunately for the reader, Dinerstein is not just a batman.

His studies in the wild have taken him to Tibet to seek the fabled Snow Leopard (made famous by Peter Matthiessen's book), to Kathmandu (with its torrential rains) to perform a tiger census, and the Galapagos to see and hear and study "endemic" birds, mammals and terrestrial plants.

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I Golfed Across Mongolia
How an Improbable Adventure
Helped Me Rediscover
The Spirit of Golf (And Life)

André Tolmé
[Thunder's Mouth Press]
He hacks his way with a three-iron across a 200,000,000 yard golf course in Central Asia, losing 510 balls, getting excruciating blisters on his feet and hands, screwing up his knee, walking (or wading) through the tall ground-cover, up to his ass in mosquitoes, wind-storms, maddened yaks, Mongolian cuisine (fat and horse-milk tea), and, of all things, depression.

    That I could break a leg, or get attacked and robbed. Then at least I'd have a reason to quit. I'd have a real, physical, tangible reason to put an end to this idiotic mission. I wouldn't have to anguish over the issue any more, debating whether or not to continue. I'd have clarity.

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Oil on the Brain
Adventures from the Pump
To the Pipeline

Lisa Margonelli
[Nan A. Talese/Doubleday]
After questioning several experts, Margonelli suggests that the main purpose of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve might be to jiggle the price of Sweet Light Crude futures on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Every time the president tinkers with the reserves, oil futures go into orbit. Outside of that, this unused and mostly inaccessible crude takes up a helluva lot of space in salt caverns located far below the surface of the earth, and provides --- aboveground --- a safe nesting place for the alligators and raptors who live and prosper in the vicinity.
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African Intimacies:
Race, Homosexuality,
and Globalization

Neville Hoad
At times one wonders where all this is leading, but the tension that the author creates is considerable, and African Intimacies turns into an even-handed, profoundly insightful study of the colonial legacy, linked with --- or warring with --- a new sexual and political freedom. This in turn creates a home-grown religious/political prejudice against these very freedoms.

Hoad is given to subtle hints and poetic turns, none more profound than at those rare times when he reveals not only what he thinks about such contradictions, but who he is. While on the subject of lesbian and gay rights, half-way through the text, he states, matter-of-factly, "My own complicity in this cannot go without saying, though raising it risks a certain self-aggrandizing chest beating, which I would rather avoid."

    In tracking the complicity of the intersections of my subject positions, I write as a privileged economic migrant to the north, as a gay white (South) African, as displaced not-quite-not-native, informant, and as a professor at a large U. S. university.

To up the intellectual ante, the footnote here states, "Here I am riffing Homi Bhabha's famous formulation in 'Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse.'"

I will resist quoting endlessly from my dog-eared copy of African Intimacies. Suffice it to say it is a finely-balanced study of a paradox presented by the inversion of contemporary sexual norms pitted against the dominant colonial heritage. It is a cunning overview of religious and political prejudice mounted against newly created minorities. It is a persuasive look at the whole question of "transnational sex." And, finally, it is a profoundly witty view of the contradictions of political and religious leaders who are not condemned to repeat the past because they have never studied, much less understood, it.

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The Somme
The Coward

A. D. Gristwood
[South Carolina]
One critic has said that the tragedy of WWI and the 10,000,000 dead, wounded, dispossessed and maddened came about because the crisis arrived during summer season when the royalty were busy with their foxes and the ministers with their mistresses.

World War One became thus the last hurrah of a royalty who had rightfully, and rather well --- considering --- ruled the Old World. The governance of the masses had been in hands of those who were born to the manor.

Thereafter Europe and much of the world become the provenance of an ill-mannered petite bourgeoisie represented by the Weimar Republic, the rabble of the Third Republic, Lloyd George's Labor government in England, and later, the military cliques of Mussolini, Franco, and Salazar, and, more ominously, the lower-class warlords Hitler and Josef Stalin.

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Goodnight, Texas
William J. Cobb
[Unbridled Books]
Cobb is not only a jeweler of phrasing and plotting, he knows how to give life to our characters. We find ourselves deep in the lives of these people --- sweet Una, shy Falk, the crazy Russian, the sheriff, the old drunk Buzzy, pissy Gabriel, and even the one --- small, funny --- who plays Una's mother ... "The doctors tell me any day I might drop dead. Then you will be happy."

    Then you can leave this godforsaken town and never come to visit my grave. Weeds will cover it and no one will every know I existed. Then you will be happy.

There are storms aplenty in Goodnight, Texas,, and when Hurricane Tanya comes to town, all gets blown away. Una loses the cash, the tips she's been hiding under her trailer, Gusef loses his cafe and motel, Gabriel loses his willingness to stay (Leesha is with child). Two snowbirds die in their RV, Buzzy the one-legged drunk comes down with Nile Fever --- the mosquitoes are everywhere --- and the fishing boats and signs and trailers, all are blown over, end up covered with "croaking frogs."

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Dream Whip
No. 14

Bill Brown
Microcosm Publishing
Bill Brown is endlessly quotable. In Zagreb, he checks into a 3-star hotel. "Hotels are given stars for the number of stains on the carpet."

    A 5-star hotel is really something: a baroque cathedral of stains. The Hotel Astoria isn't world-class, but it's respectable. There are stains on the shag carpet, and since the walls are also carpeted, there are stains on the walls too.

In Toledo (Ohio, not Spain), he sees the "Great Lakes Cold Storage." He decides that's where old hours are kept.

    1 am's like this one. Hours that are useful for just 60 minutes and then become obsolete. They're crated up and stacked in cold storage warehouses in cities that have seen better days.

In Carlsbad (California, not Germany), he sleeps in his car, in the Denny's parking lot. After he gets up and goes in, the waitress, "a surfer girl," asks him if he's the guy "who delivers the newspapers to the boxes out front." "I almost tell her no, I'm the guy who sleeps in the parking lot all night."

    Outside, the sky is just beginning to brighten. At some point, it's hard to say exactly when, Saturday night stops and Sunday morning begins.

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The Bloomsday Dead
Adrian McKinty
Blackstone Audio
McKinty is fond of literary games. A young lady that Forsythe forces to drive him to Belfast reveals that she is studying French literature, even quotes for her kidnapper the famous line from Montaigne, Je veux ... que la mort me trouve plantant mes choux, me nonchalant d'elle, et encore plus de mon jardin imparfait... [I want death to find me planting my cabbages, but caring little for dying, and much more for my imperfect garden].

Several critics have pointed out the ties of the present novel to Ulysses. "Bloomsday" is the now ritual 16 June pilgrimage through Dublin by Joyce fans from all over, retracing the journey of Leopold Bloom. On the plane from New York to Ireland, a school marm sitting next to Forsythe, asks if he is going to join in the festivities, and he naughtily wonders aloud if --- since the word is "bloom" --- it has to do with flowers. Bloomsday Dead even ends with Molly's mythic "Yes," uttered now by Bridget Callahan ... echoing the final surrender on the last pages of Ulysses.

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Cold Skin
Albert Sánchez Piñol
It is the oldest story of them all: how, given the chance, the right time, and the right place, our "civilized" values can be turned upside down, take us over. Despite our veil of religious and social civility, given the chance, the beast that lies nested in all of us will uncoil, undermining the fruits of an uncertain evolution. One is reminded of the thoughts on life and death from Huxley's idealistic Island,

Soles occidere et redire possunt;
nobis cum semel occidit brevis lux,
nox est perpetua una dormienda.

Cold Skin is a hideous, wonderful book. Evidently it is Piñol's first. God save us all from the next onslaught.

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On Retirement
75 Poems
Robin Chapman,
Judith Strasser,

University of Iowa
The poems avoid, mostly, that moist sentiment that we get when people start talking about the Send-Off. Ishmael Reed tells of the closing of a bank branch in his neighborhood and having, instead, to go to the place in town with "latte cafes" and "art cinemas," and the bank "will make phone calls to / See whether I am who I say..."

Grace Paley writes, "Here I am in the garden laughing / an old woman white heavy breasts / and a nicely mapped face." The "old guy" in Wesley McNair's poem is "stunned by the failure of his heart." "Spy with me," writes Klipschutz, "on this train going nowhere,"

    no wonder
    I keep losing
    my desk.

"I know the future, / that iron door, / will be there waiting / no matter what / I have baking in the oven."

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The Yiddish Policemen's Union
Michael Chabon
Harper Audio/Recorded Books
Our bruised, slightly alcoholic, melancholic detective is Meyer Landsman. He elects to solve the mystery of the murder of a Tzaddik Ha-Dor, a man who might be the messiah, if the time were right. It's not, so this one --- Mendele --- becomes a junkie who uses his tefillin for a tourniquet and plays chess for enough money for a fix. I told you it was screwy.

I also want to tell you it is plain, down-home, up-against-the-wall, out-and-out, non-stop overwhelmingly fascinating, crammed with enough tricks to remind you of the best of Nabokov. (And, like Nabokov, chess plays a central role, including an end-game with --- impossible, almost --- three white knights). It is sour, bitter, funny, filled with word- and mind-games.

In the string-maker's jargon --- Zimbalist, the man who makes it possible for the faithful to evade the Sabbath --- their women "are born pregnant." A gun is a sholem, a peacemaker. in Sitka, there is a special frequency on the shoyfer --- the mobile phones --- for Jewish mothers "to call their sons home for lunch."

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John Hersey
Edward Asner, Reader

[Audio Partners]
The writing by Hersey is impeccable and this reading by Edward Asner is equally impeccable. In fact, it is so well-done that after disk two some listeners will have trouble keeping up; or, better, will not want to keep up. The people we have come to know in the early part of the book --- factory workers, priests, doctors, mothers (and their children) --- find themselves and their lives in tatters, trying to survive in their litter of their own homes and neighborhoods --- a world suddenly filled with the deluge of refugees streaming from a flattened city center, refugees --- men, women, children, babes in arms --- skin hideously burned by the blast, flesh hanging off faces and arms and legs --- a pained army streaming out of the city, some blind, many injured, not a few with a new disease --- radiation sickness --- that would ultimately kill many of them.

The six subjects find themselves deluged by their own personal tragedies and the tragedy of thousands trying to distance themselves from a ruined city. And the reader finds himself deluged in the language that is factual, in no way judgmental.

The bombing of Hiroshima was a ruinous act imposed by a war that seemed endless. Hiroshima (the book) is equally ruinous to read, or hear. And that is the dilemma of it. We want to continue, to find out how each of these people survived. But at the same time, we want out. We want to learn, and to see, but we, so many years after the fact, do not want to be so horrified.

I can thus highly recommend this eminent work, and this excellent reading. But I cannot figure out how to listen to the very end.

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The Sanity We Are Born With
A Buddhist
Approach to Psychology

Chögyam Trungpa
Among patients, theoreticians, and therapists alike, there seems to be great concern with the idea of some original mistake which causes later suffering --- a kind of punishment for that mistake. One finds that a sense of guilt or being wounded is quite pervasive. Whether or not such people actually believe in the idea of original sin, or in God for that matter, they seem to feel that they have done something wrong in the past and are now being punished for it.

It seems that this feeling of basic guilt has been passed down from one generation to another and pervades many aspects of Western life ...

The problem with this notion of original sin or mistake is that it acts very much as a hindrance to people. At some point, it is of course necessary to realize one's shortcomings. But if one goes too far with that, it kills any inspiration and can destroy one's vision as well. So in that way, it really is not helpful, and in fact it seems unnecessary. As I mentioned, in Buddhism we do not have any comparable ideas of sin and guilt. Obviously there is the idea that one should avoid mistakes. But there is not anything comparable to the heaviness and inescapability of original sin.

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True Grit
Charles Portis
Donna Tartt,

[Recorded Books]
True Grit charmed the pants off us when we read it back in 1968. It's late 19th Century Americana, a novel about Mattie Ross who journeys into the Choctaw Nation to find, capture, and bring to justice Tom Chaney, the man who shot her father.

Part of the joy of True Grit is the funny, upright, tart, and stilted language from turn-of-the-century Arkansas. The other is the characters: straight-talking, canny Mattie herself; then Mattie seeking out Rooster Cogburn --- she calls him a "one-eyed jasper" --- to find the murderer; and her elaborate, extended, and funny negotiations with those whom she needs for her pursuit.

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