By Holiday Reinhorn (Free Press, $14.95) Exhibit A from the files of Don't Judge a Book by Its Cover: the curvaceous leopard silhouetted along one side of Big Cats, Holiday Reinhorn's debut story collection. Instead of winsome tales of shopping and sex, inside there's suicide in a hot tub, seduction in a bunny suit, and a Lipizzaner stallion that's the hottest lay in the book. Former Seattle resident Reinhorn has spent some time in Denis Johnson–land, as a handful of stories about addicts, alkies, and recent parolees attests. Like Johnson, she employs an off-kilter lyricism to highly original effect. Stories end on notes of giddy surrealism, and some of the images hit like a one-two gut punch—first shock, then nervous laughter. Witness the grieving mother of "By the Time You Get This," who imagines her daughter is still alive at the bottom of the aforementioned hot tub, a knife slicing through the tarp and her daughter's head shooting up: "'Jesus, Mommy,' she'll say, climbing out of the water in her angry black clothes. 'Took you long enough.'" But the mother is really and truly grieving: Just because Reinhorn deals in black comedy doesn't mean she's not sincere. There's so much dazzling surface to admire in Big Cats—the crisp, oddball dialogue, the way the stories suggest rather than convey back story—that it's possible to miss what a tender book it can be. "Golden Pioneers," in which the narrator's youthful parents check into a cheapie motel on the night of her conception, glides cinematically from the standpoint of the soon-to-be-father to that of the motelkeeper to the ultimate wide-angle shot: "In God's point of view, He loves them. He wants to gather them and roll them into a ball, like wool." There's also a 9/11 story, thankfully missing any fanfare, in which the oblivious protagonist sketches a Memphis skyscraper whose inhabitants gape back at him in fear. Later, after he's heard about the planes and the towers, he calls his daughter, and the halting, silence- and digression-filled conversation that ensues is more moving than anything in Jonathan Safran Foer's entire bag of tricks. Most interesting of all is "Last Seen," which chronicles a teenage girl's disappearance using transcribed interviews, diary entries, and other flotsam and jetsam from her short, unexplained life. (A note: I once administered and served as a preliminary reader for the PEN/Amazon.com Short Story Award, for which "Last Seen" was a finalist. Five years later, it's just as weird and compelling as I remembered, though my tolerance for fancy formatting has only diminished since then.) Was this a murder? Suicide? Heavenly ascension? Reinhorn won't wrap things up in a tidy package. While that may frustrate some readers, the story lingers in your head beyond all reason. MARY PARK Holiday Reinhorn will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co., 7:30 p.m. Fri., July 22. The Lady and the Panda
By Vicki Constantine Croke (Random House, $25.95) Somewhere in Hollywood, several actresses must be competing to option this book. Well researched though poorly written, it's got a great story to tell, and the verbose subtitle tells most of it: The True Adventures of the First American Explorer to Bring Back China's Most Exotic Animal. Widowed at age 36 in 1936, her husband having died on a panda-collecting expedition, Ruth Harkness was left with little money, no kids, and a past career as a dress designer. Two months later, having dried her tears and taken her husband's mission as her own, she set out for China to bring back a live specimen of a mysterious animal Americans only knew by its pelt. (Theodore Roosevelt's sons shot one to great fanfare; never mind the famous teddy bear story associated with their father.) Harkness spoke no Chinese, distrusted and eventually fired her late husband's former colleagues, ignored the need for government permits, and was mocked and underestimated at every step since she, a mere woman, was undertaking what no man had accomplished. Yet, as we know from the subtitle, she succeeded. I wish the same were true of author Vicki Constantine Croke, a journalist who writes about pets and wildlife. She pads Harkness' expeditions (another followed in '37) with all kinds of "she might"–type speculations, rather than quoting from Harkness' letters and book (also called The Lady and the Panda). She's prone to language like, "But 'small' wasn't in Ruth Harkness' vocabulary." Someone else's lexicon is in need of expanding. In fact, Harkness was fluent in Scotch and cigarettes; she was a party girl, something of a merry widow, who had an affair with her younger Chinese guide (and probably other men along the way, none of which Croke details very well). And she thrived in the limelight. News of her first panda cub capture knocked King Edward VIII and Mrs. Simpson off the front page. Back in the U.S., little Su-Lin (erroneously thought to be female) drew visitors like Shirley Temple, Helen Keller, and Alexander Woollcott. For a short while, Harkness was treated like Amelia Earhart—a glamorous newsreel queen. After her second successful expedition, however, World War II made further Chinese travel impossible, and she drank herself to death by 1947. (This is the part, like Howard Hughes' future fate in The Aviator, that any movie would likely skip over.) Although the pandas, sadly still endangered, would have to be portrayed by CGI, I vote for Angelina Jolie in the role of Ruth. Think of it: Lara Croft puts down her guns and picks up an adorable panda cub. Awww! And for her Asian lover, maybe that hunky Korean guy on Lost. And give them some Japanese soldiers to fight in order to protect the pandas' habitat. (Hey, it's not like Lucas, Spielberg, and Ford are going to deliver another Indiana Jones adventure anytime soon.) Sometimes a movie can be an improvement on the book. BRIAN MILLER Vicki Constantine Croke will appear at University Book Store, 7 p.m. Tues., July 26.