PASTRIES: A NOVEL OF DESSERTS AND DISCOVERIES
(St. Martin's, $24.95) The owner of a small Seattle bakery learns a giant chain is plopping down in her neighborhood. A WTO-like trade group is coming to town for a big conference. The bakery owner's ex-boyfriend is a leader of the trade-conference protests. That's the familiar premise for the fourth novel (after Darjeeling) by local author Bharti Kirchner. Sunya, the baker, has seemingly lost her touch in the kitchen. At the same time, her mother, who raised Sunya after her father abandoned them just days after her birth, is engaged to a man that Sunya doesn't like. He wants her to sell her bakery to the chain. She wants to fight. Hearing of a bakery in Kyoto, Japan, where a Buddhist master teaches students to heal themselves through baking, she eventually decides to go learn from him. It takes most of the book to set the plot and get Sunya to Kyoto. After that, a mere 50 pages or so resolve all the threads of the story. The author of several cookbooks, Kirchner renders the daily routine of a bakery in a deliciously meandering fashion. In its best passages, Pastries offers Sunya Cake, a closely guarded recipe; various workplace dramas; and loving descriptions of the bakery's early morning rush of coffee and creativity. Kirchner's initial pace of development is just like that of fine bakingif hurried, it's ruined. Then it feels like a mad sprint to retrieve something burning from the oven. The familiar settings can be fun to readvisualizing the scene, weather, traffic, and so forth. Pastries seems a good book to pass on to friends who've moved away from Seattle and are feeling nostalgic. But certain dissonant details can intrude upon its enjoyable tale: Would there really be ducklings at Green Lake in November? Yet the book isn't so shallow as to make all its endings happy. We learn that Sunya's name, given to her by her father, means both emptiness and great potentialand Pastries preserves some of both those qualities. There's a sweetness to the bakery's singular desserts; while in the end, Kirchner's characters receive their just desserts. JOANNE GARRETT Bharti Kirchner will read at Elliott Bay Books (101 S. Main St., 206-624-6600), 7:30 p.m. Wed., July 9. HEY NOSTRADAMUS!
(Bloomsbury, $21.95) I wonder if in 100 yearshell, make that 10there won't be operas and ballets and symphonies about Columbine. Pop culture is already fast out of the blocks with a wave of Columbine art (Michael Moore's Oscar-winning documentary; Gus Van Sant's forthcoming Cannes-prize-winning Elephant), and Canadian zeitgeist chronicler Douglas Coupland's new book falls somewhere in the middle between crass appropriation and thoughtful examination of the subject. Narrated by four characters during four distinct periods, Nostradamus begins in 1988 Vancouver, B.C., where high-school senior Cheryl finds herself cowering in the school cafeteria when the shooting starts. Her serene voice comes from the great beyond, like William Holden's in Sunset Blvd., so we know she'll be killedCoupland isn't interested in the shooters' motives or conventional drama. Instead, once Cheryl is buried and we jump forward to 1999, the continued, constrictive grief of her boyfriend, Jason, emerges as Coupland's real subject. In other words, why do bad things happen to good people, especially people of faith? Cheryl was a believer, while Jason's faith has imploded, to the dismay of his evangelical father, Reg, who takes up the fourth and final section of Nostradamus. It's the same essential dilemma faced by Job in the Old Testament: Cheryl is good, yet she dies unfairly. Jason acts heroically during the shooting, but he's stigmatized by his community and rejected by his father. Later, the third narrator, Heather, will love Jason and bring him some succor, yet she's made to suffer, too. Unfortunately, Coupland is no theologian like C.J. Jung (Answer to Job), nor is he even a decent novelist. Though he raises a few interesting ideas, Coupland is incapable of developing them, and his characters remain even sketchierlike the letters, computer diaries, and e-mails that make up the fabric of this lazy, shoddy book. Eleven years after Generation X, Coupland is still composing by cultural collage and scrapbook imagerylike the other scribblers whom his scribbling characters notice at Starbucks, like Coupland himself, one suspects, scribbling into his iBook in some posh North Van coffeehouse. He's still got an eye for telling details, as when contractor Jason deplores his yuppie clients "with their double-door refrigerators with non-magnetic surfaces to discourage the use of fridge magnets." Coupland started out in art school, and I'd happily read his writings on design and how it impinges upon our culture. He'd be fine with the occasional New York Times Magazine piece (nothing over 500 words, please). But close the laptop and leave God and Columbine to the real artists and writers. BRIAN MILLER Douglas Coupland will read at University Book Store (4326 University Way N.E., 206-634-3400), 7 p.m. Thurs., July 10. THE HEALING LAND: THE BUSHMEN AND THE KALAHARI DESERT
(Grove Press, $24) Travel memoirs can be both captivating and burdensome. For the armchair adventurer, a great travelogue can be transporting, even while the travelogist is annoyingly self-centered. In Land, Rupert Isaacson nobly avoids this trap by concentrating on what he sees, not how he sees it. He delivers a worthwhile account of the few remaining nomadic Bushmen in southern Africa and their ongoing struggle to reclaim ancestral lands from a still race-obsessed political establishment. Brought up in London by African-born parents, Isaacson's interest in the bush is personal, and his account of his adult travels is intimate. But he merely uses that backgroundalong with his struggles to fund his subsequent travels and the language and culture barriers he encountersto frame his real story. Kicked off their own land, their hunting privileges revoked, the Bushmen battle poverty, rising alcoholism, and cultural fragmentationstruggles that even their renowned "voodoo" magic can't overcome. Land is more than just a travel memoir; it's a powerful sociopolitical study and a tribute to the marginalized indigenous peoples of the Kalahari Desert. By contrast, Tanya Shaffer's Somebody's Heart Is Burning: A Woman Wanderer in Africa (Vintage, $13) tips toward the burdensome. It's not about African politics so much as the author's effort to communicate with Africans, to make peace with her fellow travelers, and to maintain a long-distance relationship with the boyfriend she left home in the Bay Area. We suffer with her through malaria; we are heart-wrenched, as she is, every time a woman or child wants more money, medicine, or attention than she can give. In the end, however, Shaffer provides the reader with little insight about West Africa, where she spent a year traveling and doing volunteer work, or its people. We learn that it's hard to be a white woman traveling solo through Africa. But Isaacson had his hardships, too, and he didn't go and write a book about them. KATIE MILLBAUER Rupert Isaacson will read at Elliott Bay Books (101 S. Main St., 206-624-6600), 7:30 p.m. Thurs., July 10; and at the Traveler Bookstore (287 Winslow Way E., Bainbridge Island, 206-842-4578), 7:30 p.m., Mon., July 14. THE SHELL COLLECTOR
(Penguin, $13) It's easy to see why Anthony Doerr was crowned king of last year's literary debutants, showered with cash and raves by the NEA, the Times of New York, L.A., and Seattle, the O. Henry and New York Public Library Young Lions Awards, and Entertainment Weekly's annual "It List." The eight stories in Collector (new in paper) bust clean free of the clich鳠afflicting most fiction by 29-year-olds: Instead of trendily transgressive coming-of-age-as-a-cool-kid-like-me tales, he gives us a whirlwind tour of the world. A blind septuagenarian conchologist saves a spacy Seattle Buddhist and a native girl on a Kenyan archipelago via a deadly poison shellfish. A Liberian refugee from Charles Taylor's civil war flees to a caretaker's job on the Oregon coast, disgraces himself, and finds redemption by burying the hearts of huge whales that wash up onshore. A stolid Montana hunter falls under the spell of a magician's assistant who can tap into the dreams of all creatures, living or dead. Boise, Idaho, resident Doerr stands hip-wader deep in the Thoreauean steam, reeling in nature imagery with the deft hand of a poet and the eye of a mystic. The authentic influence of Norman Maclean runs through Doerr's fishing yarnsany smart young thing can be published in The Paris Review, but hey, one of these stories came from Fly Rod & Reel! Doerr's characters are firmly located in nature, but they live in their dreams. After discovering a malaria cure in a toxic cone fish, the titular shell collector has strange dreams "of miniature glassblowers making cone teeth like tiny snow needles, like the thinnest bones of fish, vanes on the arms of a snowflake. He dreamed of the ocean glassed over with a thick sheet and him skating out on it, peering down at the reef, its changing, perilous sculpture." Doerr is finally a better naturalist than mystic; he can be too pat, and his plotting sucks. But his fiction is an exotic specimen well worth collecting. TIM APPELO Anthony Doerr will read at Barnes & Noble (2700 N.E. University Village, 206-517-4107), 7 p.m. Thurs., July 10. RED ANT HOUSE
(Mariner, $12) Though she's part of the McSweeney's crowd and has the active backing of Dave Eggers, Ann Cummins has no time for ironyat least not in the current, dominant sense of smarmy, winky self-consciousness. She does offer plenty of surprise, strangeness, and incongruity, though. In Cummins' debut collection of 12 stories, a pithy directness is the source of her power. It's appropriate to a rugged, stark Southwestern landscape where the mountainous horizon only tortures her humble characters with useless aspirations. "Her father was a small muscular man whose body was made of rock," she writes in "Shiprock Fair." "He looked like he had drawn his own face." Cummins' sentences are spare and faintly conversational, a style we've come to associate with the literature of jaded urban ennuithe bastard children of Raymond Carver with their pretentious laconism that's supposed to connote depth. But the plainness of her language is in the perfect service of Cummins' unsentimental depiction of hardscrabble lives, and that sparseness is no measure of the mystery she can convey with her superbly crafted sentences: "At her feet, the little dog was begging with pretty eyes. Willa scratched her head, tore some meat from the hamburger, tossed it in the air, and watched the fat little thing try to jump." Though her stories are full of vivid sensory detail, there is, as well, a kind of allegorical resonance to much of the action, as in "Shiprock," where the young girl mischievously strands her father in the middle of a river; or in "Headhunter," in which a young woman (the same girl, grown up?) inadvertently rams the drunk motorist who's been harassing her off a cliff, then wrenches the dead man's gold tooth out as a prize, before placidly driving on to meet her family. Charming but unreachable men, absent or might-as-well-be-absent fathers, and diseased mothers all recur throughout these stories, which are largely told from the point of view of children and childlike adults who feel isolated and powerless yet are tentatively pushing the grim limits of the society around them. A fired roadie lets the air out of everyone's tires in the club parking lot; a cop learns from his wife the illicit thrill of stealing; a Navajo girl pockets a ring at a trading post. In one of my favorites, "Crazy Yellow," 8-year-old Peter ignores his hospitalized mother's instructions for contacting a baby-sitter and instead spends the night on his own. He then warily meets a vagrant a man with "no feeling in my extremities," he tells Peterwho's squatting in the vacant apartment downstairs. As Peter watches the man grill up a fish, Cummins beautifully, stirringly depicts the boy's fear and attraction, his awe at the dirty man's primal ease and self-reliance, his connection to a scary, succulent world of the senses, which the boy, living alone with his mother, is just beginning to explore. A few of the pieces left me disappointed, like "Starburst," about the cop's klepto wife, which seems like low-grade Cheever, straining too hard to wring mystery from mundane material. (Then again, it appeared first in The New Yorker, so what do I know.) But the balance of these stories makes the exact opposite impressiondepicting, without irony or condescension, flawed small-timers and rural loners within whom Cummins finds a deep storehouse of flaws, longing, and complexity. MARK D. FEFER email@example.com