Mary Roach, Amitava Kumar: Book Review Roundup

Astronauts' Bodily Functions, The Derailment Of A Literary Career

Did you miss this weekend's big book reviews? Catch up with the buzz on Mary Roach's latest and more with the highlights below.

"Packing For Mars," Mary Roach
The New York Times

Her fluffily lightweight style is at its most substantial -- and most hilarious -- in the zero-gravity realm that "Packing for Mars" explores. Here's why: The topic of astronauts' bodily functions provides as good an excuse to ask rude questions as you'll find on this planet or any other.

"A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb," Amitava Kumar
The New York Times

At its heart, however, "A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb" -- the excellent title is a riff on the title of Edmond Jabès's 1993 book, "A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Book" -- is about the ordinary men and women, brown-skinned in general and Muslim in particular, who have had their lives upended by America's enraged security apparatus. Mr. Kumar calls them the "small people," and to them he extends his own impressive and trembling moral imagination.

"Mentor: A Memoir," Tom Grimes
The New York Times

What "Mentor" is really about, though, is the slow-motion derailment of Mr. Grimes's own once promising literary career, a process that took his pride before it took his sanity. This is a book about striding up to the brink of success, only to have success disembowel you with a dull steak knife, bow, and then skip away, cackling.

"The Glass Rainbow," James Lee Burke
The Los Angeles Times

"The Glass Rainbow" offers much that is familiar, from the brilliant lyrical wordscapes that capture bayou locations to the incomparably ruthless men and women of low or no conscience who wield power over others and threaten the way of life in Robicheaux's small corner of the world. The detective and his cohort Clete Purcell are as heroic, honorable and flawed as always.

"Death to the Dictator!" Afsaneh Moqadam
The Los Angeles Times

Though flawed nonfiction, "Death to the Dictator!" will shape the image of Iran for the billions who don't live there. Iranian authorities dismiss such tomes at their own peril.

"Overexposed," Susan Shapiro
The San Francisco Chronicle

Shapiro's genius is that she draws characters so unlikable, yet so compelling, that the reader has no choice but to engage with one after another of them, with great hopes for the transformation of each. Once thusly hooked, it's a hop, skip and a handstand to tryouts for Shapiro's cheering squad.

"Three Sisters," Bi Feiyu
The San Francisco Chronicle

Bi's compelling and unsentimental book tackles myriad subjects, such as power and corruption, love and betrayal, civil duty and personal sacrifice, and conflict between the rural and urban worlds. It draws a meticulous picture of a transitioning village in '70s China, and in so doing, Bi has created memorable characters: not just the three sisters, but also the villagers and townspeople.

"The Five-Year Party," Craig Brandon
The Wall Street Journal

If you have a child in college, or are planning to send one there soon, Craig Brandon has a message for you: Be afraid. Be very afraid."The Five-Year Party" provides the most vivid portrait of college life since Tom Wolfe's 2004 novel, "I Am Charlotte Simmons." The difference is that it isn't fiction. The alcohol-soaked, sex-saturated, drug-infested campuses that Mr. Brandon writes about are real.

"Merchants of Doubt," Naomi Oreskes and Erik M Conway
The Guardian

The far right in America, in its quest to ensure the perpetuation of the free market, is now hell-bent on destroying the cause of environmentalism. According to this distorted view of life, environmentalists are watermelons - green on the outside, red on the inside - who want to impose regulation, "the slippery slope to socialism", on the use of tobacco, ozone-destroying chemicals and greenhouse gases.

"Living in the End Times," Slavoj Zizek

Slavoj Žižek may well be the last great thinker of our time. In an era when lighting on one half-formed notion - "the end of history", "the third way", "Islamo-fascism" - is enough to get one hailed as a public intellectual to rival Russell or Sartre, the Slovenian philosopher puts all conceptual comers to shame.

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