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Short Takes

By Andrew D. Blechman
Grove, 239 pp., $24

We tend to think of them as a ubiquitous urban nuisance, like animate Dunkin' Donuts litter. But Andrew D. Blechman, bless his quirky heart, looks at pigeons -- more properly rock doves, or "rats with wings," as Woody Allen memorably put it -- and sees a thing of beauty. Accordingly, he has written this energetic brief, subtitled "The Fascinating Saga of the World's Most Revered and Reviled Bird," so we can share the love.

Nor is love too strong a word to describe pigeon fanciers' attachment to their birds. Blechman visits a tenement rooftop under the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway where a fanatic named Orlando Martinez keeps a clutch of racing pigeons in avian high style. The author sets out on a comic-heroic quest to find boxer Mike Tyson, a legendary but elusive pigeon racer, and travels to Sandringham Castle for a chat with the royal pigeon wrangler. He attends a breeders' convention and, less happily but all in the name of research, participates in a pigeon shoot and tours a squab slaughterhouse.

We learn that pigeons come in an intriguing variety of colors and shapes. They are monogamous, loyal, fast as the wind, and extremely tasty. In short, they lead more constructive lives than many humans, and in this entertainingly quixotic study they have been fortunate in their choice of an advocate.

Rescue Missions
By Frederick Busch
Norton, 316 pp., $24.95

When Frederick Busch died in February, one obituarist called him "a writer's writer," a high tribute and a well-deserved one, to judge from the stories in this posthumous collection.

The title establishes the theme that runs throughout these artful short fictions, in which friends, family, even sensitive strangers come to the aid of troubled people who may or may not be in the mood to be redeemed. In "The Rescue Mission," a charitable young man tries to protect a waiflike girl from her abusive boyfriend, a situation from which, it turns out, he had not been able to save his mother. In "Good to Go," a divorced couple find themselves briefly reunited, gingerly coping with their son, a basket case just returned from the war in Iraq. Sweeter and more optimistic are stories such as "The Small Salvation," in which a widower burdened by a number of sorrows has a salutary one-night stand with his grandson's kindergarten teacher.

Whether overcast or only partly cloudy, these fictions depict a range of small human dramas evoked with emotional intelligence and perfect pitch.

Point to Point Navigation
By Gore Vidal
Doubleday, 277 pp., illustrated, $26

The drawback of achieving precocious celebrity is that eventually you outlive all your peers. So it is with the acidic Gore Vidal, prolific author, cameo performer, impolitic politician, and jet-set hobnobber with the great, and increasingly the late. Hail and farewell JFK and Jackie, Tennessee Williams, Eleanor Roosevelt, Johnny Carson, Federico Fellini. De mortuis nil nisi bitchy. Even Howard Auster , Vidal's companion of 50 years, died recently, a passage recorded here with a subtlety more poignant than any vulgar outpouring of sentiment would have been, had this most patrician of provocateurs been, inconceivably, so inclined.

Between trips to the cemetery and the scrapbook, the latter a bountiful source of vintage gossip, the author turns his guns on the familiar banes of his existence, chiefly a literary establishment he resents for never having given him his due and a government (and the supine electorate on which it stands) that routinely reduces him to despair.

Bereaved and creaky of knee at 81, Vidal intimates throughout this shrewdly free-associative memoir that he may be firing his parting shot. Ye gods of glamour, say it isn't so. May the new year bring him better cheer and fresh inspiration for his infamous wit.

Amanda Heller is a critic and editor who lives in Newton.

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