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Short Takes

By Nicholson Baker
Knopf, 115 pp., $15.95

Author of the provocative bestseller "Vox," Nicholson Baker hastens to market in this political season with "Checkpoint," like "Vox" a novel in dialogue form. In a hotel room in Washington, D.C., a tape recorder is running, capturing a bizarre conversation. Ben, a historian, has arrived in response to a distress call from his old friend Jay. Jay lays it on the line right away: Distraught over current events, he intends to kill the president. As the possibility dawns that his flaky friend may be in earnest, Ben must try to talk him out of it.

The dilemma is, in dramatic terms, a false one. Both men, we discover, detest the war in Iraq. Both think that the president is contemptible. Ben doesn't for a minute believe that Jay is capable of carrying out an assassination. His fear, instead, is that Jay is going to get himself killed. Ben keeps on talking to distract him. As the conversation turns desultorily to cameras, sunglasses, a room-service lunch, the unadorned dialogue lies on the page, flat and banal. In the end, pathetic Jay is diverted from his anger and his desperation as readily as a baby. What starts out strutting as edgy political agitprop dwindles into suicide-hot-line melodrama.

Potato City: Nature, History, and

Community in the

Age of Sprawl

By Sue Leaf

Borealis, 224 pp., $22.95

Twenty years ago Sue Leaf moved to North Branch, Minn., a town of such relatively recent vintage that its pioneers arrived by railroad. Though the town was small, Leaf never found it dull, for she treated it as a habitat, a place rich in human and natural history waiting to be discovered. When she planted potatoes in her garden, she realized that she was following the tradition of Swedish immigrant farmers who earned North Branch its nickname, "Potato City," until synthetic fabrics eliminated the demand for starch.

A biologist by training and a naturalist by avocation, Leaf knows better than to see her surroundings as undifferentiated landscape. She rejoices in the sight of oak savanna and Indian grass, bird's-foot violets and pink prairie roses. She makes her peace with pocket gophers and bull snakes, teaches her children to recognize great bald eagles and tiny tree frogs.

As the Twin Cities' urban sprawl began to engulf once-rural North Branch, Leaf became an environmental activist, inspired by her education, her love of family and community, and her religious convictions. Hoping to inspire others, she advises us all to discover our own communities' natural treasures before, through ignorance, we lose them.

A Carnivore's Inquiry

By Sabina Murray

Grove, 294 pp., $23

Katherine Shea has rather unusual tastes, on which she is pleased to discourse continually, with scholarly intensity. In her not too distant childhood, "Dracula" was her favorite bedtime story. Her favorite work of art is Goya's "Saturn Consuming His Offspring." She is fascinated by the legend of the Donner party, and Dante's Count Ugolino. A pattern begins to emerge.

Young and lovely despite her ghoulish obsession, Katherine bounces from New York to Maine to Mexico City and back again, trailed by a string of male admirers. Youthful and middle-aged, callow and sophisticated, writers, businessmen, motel clerks, the men have nothing in common with one another except that they are all smitten by Katherine -- apparently, as their grisly corpses mount up, in the most literal of senses.

Sabina Murray, all literate playfulness, conveys the carnage indirectly, through Katherine's increasingly unhinged monologues on the art, philosophy, and history of cannibalism, on anything and everything but the truth about who she is and what she does. But relying on indirection carries the novel, any novel, only so far. Ultimately, this is a murder mystery with no mystery to the murders, a horror story that horrifies only by reference to other stories.

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

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