Short Takes

By Amanda Heller
Globe Correspondent / August 22, 2010

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FOUR FISH: The Future of the Last Wild Food
By Paul Greenberg
Penguin, 304 pp., $25.95

As a boy in Connecticut, Paul Greenberg used to pilot his little boat into Long Island Sound, where he’d catch enough fish to stock an impromptu market he set up in his junior high school parking lot. A career in journalism took him away from home. But he remained fascinated by fish and fishing. When he returned some years later to places where he once caught “bucketfuls,” now “people spoke of a two-fish outing as a banner day”: the global predicament writ small.

In this thorough and very personal investigation, Greenberg examines that predicament as reflected in the vanishing populations of four iconic species of ocean fish: salmon, virtually gone from the North Atlantic; sea bass, a farmed simulacrum of its former wild self; cod, once the pride of New England; and the majestic bluefin tuna, loved to near-extinction by sushi fanciers. From Georges Bank to Vietnam, Greenberg tracks the villains of this fish story — dams, pollution, global warming, overexploitation — meets some of its heroes, and explores the tricky concept of sustainability.

Early in the book he asks a thought-provoking question — Are fish merely “expendable seafood or wildlife desperately in need of our compassion?’’ — then goes on to provide an informed and persuasive answer.

By Karin Fossum
Translated from Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 272 pp., $25

A woman drifting off to sleep snaps awake, realizing that a man has entered her bedroom. We can relax. This is not a thriller about to lurch into action. The woman is a writer and the man a figment of her professional imagination who has jumped the queue of potential characters she envisions lined up outside her door. Intrigued, she turns her attention to creating a story for him.

He is Alvar Eide, she decrees, a timid middle-aged man who works at an art gallery. But no sooner does she give Alvar an identity than he develops an identity crisis, dropping in unannounced to complain to her about the plot we see unfolding or to lobby for a more flattering characterization. He is particularly disturbed by two sinister elements she introduces into his story: a painting with which he is obsessed but can’t summon the courage to buy, and a manipulative young woman who insinuates herself into his life.

Karin Fossum, a Norwegian author best known for her detective fiction, builds tension with practiced skill and a sardonic bent, while offering a practitioner’s-eye view of the pleasures and pressures of being a novelist.

PROUST’S OVERCOAT: The True Story of
One Man’s Passion for All Things Proust

By Lorenza Foschini
Translated from Italian by Eric Karpeles
Ecco, 144 pp., illustrated, $19.99

When Marcel Proust died in 1922, his possessions went to his physician brother, Robert. On his own death, Robert left them to his wife, Marthe, a bitterly respectable bourgeoise. Having had her fill of the Proust clan by this point, Marthe quickly disposed of her (by her standards) scandalous brother-in-law’s belongings. She would even have burned his manuscripts had it not occurred to her that they might be worth something.

Someone to whom they were worth a great deal was the bibliophile Jacques Guérin, that most Parisian of tycoons, a perfume magnate. Befriending both Marthe and the dealer to whom she had consigned Proust’s leavings, Guérin assiduously cornered the market in Proust memorabilia, including the most intimate memento of all, the fur-lined overcoat familiar from the novelist’s writings and the reminiscences of the literary and artistic luminaries who were his friends.

This sparkling, elegant piece of reportage addresses not only these particular facts and their historical ambience but also, more indirectly, larger questions of our fascination with celebrity and our passion for relics, however humble, gilded by the charisma of fame.

Amanda Heller, a critic and editor who lives in Newton, can be reached at