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Short takes

By Barbara Fisher
Globe Correspondent / May 23, 2010

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AMERICAN SUBVERSIVE
By David Goodwillie
Scribner, 320 pp., $25

Aidan Cole by his own description is living an “alluring, glamorous and utterly vapid” life. He writes a New York City blog called Roorback .com and is media savvy and downtown smart. He moves from dinner parties in Boerum Hill to barhopping in Alphabet City dives to lounging on plush couches in parlors “lost in a haze of hipster nights.” By what seems like an accident, he finds himself caught up in radical politics. Paige Roderick, having lost her beloved brother to the war in Iraq, arrives at political action from counterculture dreams and idealism, having moved through “countless cycles of hope and disappointment.” In alternating chapters, these two tell their overlapping stories of progress from naiveté through disgust to desperation.

The action of the novel begins with a bomb exploding in the Barney’s building on Madison Avenue and is followed by a later bombing at a New York City news network. There is some suspense here, but it is the motivation of the characters that is most compelling — how Aidan and Paige (and an older ex-Weatherman) arrived at extreme political positions. They were “two kids from disparate backgrounds, sifting through the rubble of our culture for hints on how to live, how to survive, what to give in to, and what to fight for.” Goodwillie perfectly captures the hip disengaged life that could as easily slip into bourgeois success and satisfaction as into terrorist plotting.

TAKE GOOD CARE OF THE GARDEN AND THE DOGS:
Family, Friendships, and Faith in Small-Town Alaska

By Heather Lende
Algonquin, 304 pp., $22.95

Take a hike, Sarah Palin. Here is the real thing — good old-fashioned American values coming from small-town Alaska. In a cozy, chatty voice, Heather Lende tells stories of life in Haines, Alaska, where, as the title of her first book claims, “If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name.” In fact, she knows not only the names but also the stories of all her neighbors — the protective owner of the vicious dog that preys on her chickens, the men who hunt and cook bear with her husband, the women who can salmon, sing in the church choir, and survive or succumb to cancer, and the young man who carelessly runs her over with his truck and shatters her pelvis, as well as the volunteer fireman and ambulance crew who save her life.

This accident, which nearly killed her and took her a year to recover from, made her more responsive, kind, and compassionate to her family, her friends, and her world. It also made her reclassify people into two types: “the ones who have had something bad happen to them and the ones who will.” Big-hearted as she is, she has trouble forgiving the killer dog and the inattentive truck driver. But accepting life and rejoicing in the world are her preferred modes of thinking and feeling. She quotes with approval from Emerson, “the proper response to the world is applause.”

HUMOR ME: An Anthology of Funny Contemporary Writing
(Plus Some Great Old Stuff Too)

Edited by Ian Frazier, Ecco, 336 pp., $25.99

For me, the funniest piece in this collection was Steve Martin’s “The Third Millennium: So Far, So Good,” but for others, different pieces may tickle them more. I also liked the long, cat digression in Roy Blount Jr.’s “Salute to John Wayne,” and Frank Gannon’s advice on how to be a Hun — desire, pleasure in mayhem and carnage, not being squeamish, a good throwing arm, and no fear of horses.

The dialogue excerpt from David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross’’ was brutal and scary. Grace Paley’s “Six Days: Some Rememberings,” about her days in the women’s jail in Greenwich Village for sitting down in front of a horse during a peace demonstration, was gently nostalgic. Susan Shapiro’s “The Wrong Shapiro at the Right Time,” about being mistakenly given a book review assignment, was sweetly self-mocking. And David Sedaris’s “A Plague of Tics,” his description of overcoming an obsessive-compulsive disorder by discovering smoking, is horrible and hilarious at once.

The collection includes “Some Great Old Stuff” by the likes of Bret Harte and Mark Twain, and features as much writing from the ’70s as from the 21st century. Old or new, much of it is worth a laugh.

Barbara Fisher, a freelance writer who lives in New York, can be reached at bfishershorttakes@gmail.com.