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Globe Editorial

Season's Readings

November 28, 2008
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BOOKS make great gifts. Well-priced, wide-ranging, and - with their nice square corners - easy to wrap, they belong on everyone's list. Here is a quirky collection of new books that caught the eye and imagination of the Globe's editorial page this year.

In a political year to remember, Roland Merullo has written a memorable political novel. In "American Savior: A Novel of Divine Politics" (Algonquin), Jesus returns to run for president of the United States. In down-at-the-heels corners of Western Massachusetts, Jesus quietly performs a couple of miracles to get things started, and he is quickly running a campaign staff of motley characters, including a would-be TV anchor and a biker tough guy. As in his other novels, Merullo uses his silky style and deft satiric touch to make big questions about fate, ethics, and divinity highly accessible fare.

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If there is one book about the disasters of war in Iraq that President-elect Obama and his foreign policy team ought to read it is Peter Galbraith's "Unintended Consequences: How War in Iraq Strengthened America's Enemies" (Simon & Shuster). Galbraith delivers a tightly reasoned, knowledgeable critique of the damage done to Iraq and to US national security by George Bush's "combination of grand ambition with ignorance and weak leadership."

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Even allowing for a newspaper's sentimental attachment to free speech, the First Amendment to the US Constitution has to be recognized as the foundation stone upon which democracy rests. But how much do Americans really know about their right to free expression, and when libel, obscenity, incitement, and national security can limit that right? In "Freedom for the Thought That We Hate" (Basic Books), journalist Anthony Lewis presents what he calls "a biography of the First Amendment." This slim volume elegantly traces the history of constitutional case law, and is uncompromising in its defense of free speech as the oxygen of liberty.

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Deserving journalists die gruesomely in "Black & White and Dead All Over" (Knopf). But the author John Darnton also chronicles another grisly demise: that of the daily newspaper, more horrifying to ink-stained wretches than any gory, slice-and-dice Hollywood creation. Darnton, who worked as a journalist for The New York Times, knows the language and cadence of the newsroom. He also knows the arrogance and ego of the people who work in them and presents them in delicious caricature.

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Police officer Matty Clark tries to solve the killing of a young bartender in an early-morning mugging on Manhattan's Lower East Side. That's the starting point of Richard Price's "Lush Life" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), but the novel is much more than a detective story. The plot unfolds in vignettes that move from character to character as each one is swept up in the investigation, and the book draws its force from their dialogue - alternately bristling, comic, and poignant. In western Africa, a "griot" is a storyteller who sustains the history of a village through its oral traditions. Price is an American griot of the gritty and the grim.

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Lynda Barry's "What It Is" (Drawn & Quarterly) is equal parts cartoon memoir, collage album, scrapbook, and Zen roadmap. Written and drawn in a chaotic but riveting style, it offers itself as a guide to creative self-ignition. Barry is an iconoclastic cartoonist best known for her unsentimental evocations of childhood dreams and terrors. Based on her writing seminars around the country, the full-color book uses her drawings, musings, and writing exercises to guide readers toward artistic focus and expressive freedom. Betty Edwards's "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain" has long been a staple of art classes; Barry's book might be subtitled, "Drawing All Over the Brain." Not for neatniks or the timid.

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Talk-radio fans have no use for the folksy notion that he who spares his words has true wisdom. In "Burning Up the Air: Jerry Williams, Talk Radio, and the Life In Between" (Commonwealth Editions), radio producers Steve Elman and Alan Tolz show that the goal of the medium is to spare nothing and no one. The authors make skillful use of audio tapes, letters, and news clippings to beam the career of the late "dean" of talk radio, whose in-your-face style would set the standard for Rush Limbaugh and Howie Carr, albeit from a more liberal place on the spectrum. Like the best of talk radio, the book is fast-paced and ferocious when examining Williams's professional and personal triumphs and flops. And unlike too much of talk radio, it places as high a value on accuracy as it does on entertainment.

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In the gallery of Boston's creepiest criminals, Lenny "the Quahog" Paradiso may lack the notoriety of the Boston Strangler. But it wasn't for any lack of odious deeds. In "The Paradiso Files: Boston's Unknown Serial Killer" (Steerforth Press), former prosecutor Timothy Burke makes a case that Paradiso got away with numerous murders and rapes, including the slaying of Joan Webster, the Harvard graduate student who disappeared on Thanksgiving weekend in 1981. Burke doggedly recreates the homicidal shellfish dealer who plied his trade onboard the craft Malafemmena (Italian for "evil woman"), and who died in prison earlier this year, just weeks after publication of this convincing exposé.

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"Every family is unhappy in its own way. So is every rock-and-roll band," musician Dean Wareham writes in his memoir "Black Postcards: A Rock & Roll Romance" (Penguin Press). Wareham should know. As Harvard undergrads, he and two friends founded Galaxie 500, which became a darling of the late-1980s alternative-rock scene in Boston and New York. But amid business disagreements and conflicting egos, Wareham quit that band and founded another. If this blunt and dishy book is any indication, the music industry is built on minor disasters - touring snafus, ill-advised love affairs, and contracts that turn sour.

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Cornelius Eady packs a lot into his poems. There's cancer, racism, and the labor-intensive joy of finding an abandoned white couch on a New York City sidewalk. And there are stabbing insults and luminous moments that all get their due in "Hardheaded Weather: New and Selected Poems" (Putnam). Poems gathered from earlier collections cover Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Charlie Chaplin, and, as the title of one poem explains, "The Cab Driver Who Ripped Me Off." Readers will find that Eady has a keen ear for rhythm and a compassionate eye for daily life.

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Victor Serge, who died in 1947, is best known for the autobiographical "Memoirs of a Revolutionary," an insider's renunciation of Stalinism unmatched for power and lucidity. But Serge was also a respected novelist, and his "Unforgiving Years" (NYRB Classics), published in France in 1971 and translated into English this year, is a visionary literary work rooted in the political tragedy of a Soviet secret agent who tries to take back his existence from the Party. The settings are prewar Paris, the siege of Leningrad, the fall of Berlin, and a postwar refuge in Mexico. This is the ultimate farewell to Communism.

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In "Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood" (Penguin Group), Mark Harris vividly recounts the 1968 Oscar race for Best Picture as a turning point in the film industry - and the country. While the musical disaster "Doctor Dolittle" signified the bombast and bloat of old Hollywood, "The Graduate" and "Bonnie and Clyde" represented a violent break with convention cheered on by a young audience agitated by world events. At the same time, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" and "In the Heat of the Night" (the eventual top film), both starring Sidney Poitier, showed how strides for black actors still had to be made on tiptoe. Forty years later, a greater prize awaited on a different stage.

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