This Week's Reads

Meg Cabot, Asne Seierstad, Todd McEwen, and Brian Howell.


By Meg Cabot (Avon Trade, $13.95) No matter that it's January; file this one under "beach reads." It's the quintessential lazy-day book for a couple of reasons: The 400 pages are breezy enough to read in one sitting (this reader: three hours including daydream breaks); and Cabot's relaxed, highly personal style slips in and out of chatty first-person prose that won't strain your sun-stroked brain. Girl is written entirely in nontraditional formatsdiary and journal entries, office memos, voice mail and instant-message transcripts, e-mails, and scrawls on the backs of take-out menuswith all the juicy bits you would expect from a prolific romance novelist. (Cabot has penned an impressive number of best-selling young-adult novels and more mature historical romances under the pseudonyms Patricia Cabot and Jenny Carroll.) New in paper, this modern-day epistolary novel is an ber-light, digest-it-then-forget-it tale of office politics (read: gossip), public humiliation, and romance. It's certifiable snivel-on-your-fat-free-brownies chick lit. All the vitals are here: the naive, adorably clumsy female protagonist; the best friend; the demonic boss; the Big City; the cubicle job in publishing; the office drama; the ex-boyfriend who's now dating a supermodel; and the hunky new love interest. (The latteryou guessed itis a bighearted, moneyed lawyer with perfect pecs and a penchant for Spider-man ties.) The genre at its finest it's not. But it's a cheap thrill on par with an episode of Sex and the City, with the added benefit of exercising your brain, however minimally. In all, not a bad reason to book a ticket to Florida or the nearest sunny beach. KATIE MILLBAUER Meg Cabot will appear at Third Place Books (17171 Bothell Way N.E., 206-366-3333), 7 p.m. Mon., Jan. 12. THE BOOKSELLER OF KABUL

By Asne Seierstad ($19.95, Little, Brown) Having previously chronicled her experiences in war-torn Bosnia, where better for this multilingual Norwegian author to go in February of '02 than Afghanistan? The Taliban had just been deposed by U.S. forces; the impoverished, barren land was still reeling from over two decades of civil war (revolution, Soviets, mujahideen, whatever); and here was this cute 30-ish Scandinavian journalist with satellite phone and laptop, asking to write about the family of a Kabul book merchantfrom inside the secretive walls of their compound. For some reason, patriarch Sultan Khan agreed, though he would later regret his decision. Over four months, Seierstad donned the burqa and repressed her qualms about the hygiene and dietary habits of Central Asia. She lived with Khan's extended family, confided in by both men and women as a kind of privileged third-sex outsider. As a view into veiled, closed female society, Bookseller is invaluable, strongest in its descriptions of communal bathing, cooking, and housecleaninga constant battle against Kabul's constant dust. What a shock to realize that women living in a sunny, mile-high climate should suffer from vitamin-D deficiency because the burqas and walls keep them so screened from sunlight. Though "liberal" in his opposition to the Taliban regime and the Communists before them (which earned him jail time), in his own home Sultan is a tyrant over his brood. Children are married off against their wishes. ("It's a good sign when the bride is unwilling. That indicates a pure heart.") Unmarried children are treated as servantswith the exception of the No. 1 son, who's spoiled and surly. And there are a lot of children; Bookseller would've benefited from a family tree or appendix to sort them all out. Seierstad does occasionally wander from the family compound to recap recent Afghan history, which will be instructive only for readers who don't get the newspaper or CNN. What's more fascinating about the book are the ordinary details of family lifesometimes foreign, sometimes familiarthat never make the headlines. Despite being a celebrated TV personality, Seierstad can actually write. She has obvious empathy for the powerless Khan women, some of whom are illiterate, while others speak English. And she doesn't depict Sultan as a complete ogre, though he seems to think soafter the book was published, he threatened to sue and staged several vitriolic press conferences against her in Europe. Along with recent films like Baran and Kandahar, and the forthcoming Osama (Feb. 6), Bookseller crucially provides a sort of "you broke it, you bought it critique of post-9/11 U.S. foreign policy in Afghanistan. But instead of geopolitics, it's all domestic: how burqas are so uncomfortably hot and dusty; how dowries are haggled over; how tea is made by women and served by boys for male visitors who must not glimpse the distaff portion of a household. Rebuilding Iraq, in a sense, will be easy by comparison; it's already half-Westernized. But Afghanistan is only half-Islamicized: Tribal custom goes back further than religious practice, with roots deep in the rocky soil. BRIAN MILLER WHO SLEEPS WITH KATZ

By Todd McEwen (Granta, $18.95) I love a novel that demands you learn how to read it. And then slowly teaches you. I was a good ways into Katz before I fully grasped its particular disjointed grammar, its overlapping voices, its (possibly unprecedented) profusion of em dashes, and most of all its peculiarly confusing way of handling time. Only late in the book did I apprehend that though the narrative wanders forward and back through decades, Katz "takes place" over the course of one particular daywhat the main character, McKenzie (known as McK), just diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, conceives as his "last official day" on this earth, in his beloved burg of Manhattan (and he would spend it nowhere else). Through a miasma of gripes, reflections, and long set pieces, Katz tells the story of McK and (Isidor) Katz, longtime friends, now roughly middle-aged during the Clinton years, who have spent their lives fiercely savoring every remnant of Old New Yorkweathered, beat-up bars with perfect martinis; nondescript fish restaurants with professional (nonactor) waiters and bland food; plus tobacconist shops, kosher delis, Ed Thigpen's brushwork, and the like. Katz, the quintessential argumentative Manhattanite, is an antiquarian specializing in New York books and arcana, while McK spends his days as a disembodied radio announcer in the padded crypt of the RCA building, clinging to what remains of a pre-TV golden age. ("I've been able to preserve the illusion of polish and romance if not exactly meaning," says McK.) Their debates, love affairs, and endless hours of drinking and smoking are recalled in a loose yet meticulously woven tissue of nostalgia. If the two characters do not always remain clearly distinct (and the female characters are hopelessly hazy), nonetheless McEwen's cliché­³laying wit is dazzling at all times and his descriptive language beautiful in evoking the sensual joys of the city. He lauds "the cindery wind of the subway" and "the copper point of balance between the rapidly deepening sky and the wakening street lamps." A working knowledge of New York social geography is fairly essential here, as these guys are obsessed, like classic New Yorkers, with the fine distinctions ("Try to find a cohesive idea on Broadway between 79th and 74ththe bend, the bend f***s everything up!" says McK). McK's hilariously scathing of vegetarian restaurants and "The Crap East Side, spreading nincompoop burgers and teenwear, on a mission from the malevolent gods of Hackensack." And even our own "so-called city" of Seattle and its "fleecy jogging families" comes in for some rather tired bashing during Katz's brief sojourn in the Northwest (the subtlety of the narrator's understanding does not extend beyond the finer points of N.Y.C.). Sure, the fetishizing of New York and relentless cleverness tried my patience at times, but what would a love letter to New York (and to lifelong friendship, for that matter) be if its pleasures didn't also chafe a bit? MARK D. FEFER ONE RING CIRCUS

By Brian Howell (Parallax, $15.95) Why did it take so long for the phenomena of backyard and/or minor-league wrestling to evolve from dumb-and-dumber, witching-hour Girls Gone Wild counterprogramming to legitimate afternoon talk-show grist? Perhaps there was an unspoken assumption that the participants were borderline retarded, Midwestern white trash, failing to meet the "human" criterion in human interest; after all, our standards for trash culture have beenain't this ironicrefined of late. Cops and Springer were wildly popular early-'90s bottom-feeders, but Harmony Korine's freaksploitations never light up the box office, and even the sickest Jackass aficionado was probably repulsed by the Bumfights DVD. Circus is not a cautionary expos鬠but it chronicles the lacerations, lard, and loonies of a Canadian amateur wrasslin' league (the ECCW) with a minimum of easy condescension, artfully flattening the often bloody small-town spectacle via austere black-and-white portraits. The recent, gritty documentary Backyardwhich played at the Little Theatre last Septembermeticulously outlined the motivations of these hick-town heavyweights: obsessive celebrity fandom, limited financial options, reactions to adolescent abuse and neglect; in comparison, Circus could be dismissed as a grody, if purty, picture book. It shouldn't be. Photographer/writer Howell is no traditional lowbrow analyst; he succeeds mostly in leaving the obvious unsaid. His accompanying text provides the bare minimum of context and exposition for the ensuing pageant of crimson-caked foreheads. Howell is content with depicting this circus, not editorializing, although one can sense maybe just the tiniest exhalation of droll glee in the passage "Some of the fans complained about the Good Friday show, which had featured the crucifixion of Moondog Manson as well as the staple-gunning of Wrathchild." Odd. I thought nothing said "appropriate, respectful Easter entertainment" quite like an amateur wrestling match. ANDREW BONAZELLI

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