This Week's Reads

Jennifer Cox, Peter Fenton, and Alicia Erian.

Around the World in 80 Dates: What if Mr. Right Isn't Mr. Right Here?

By Jennifer Cox (Downtown Press, $13) I know that I'm not the only woman convinced that each city breeds its own brand of man. Which means that to actually experience and date a variety of men, one might as well get a passport and start traveling. This is the strange yet hopeful logic that leads travel journalist Jennifer Cox to drag herself away from the usual bars and boys of London and into the world beyond. Using her pals around the globe (the "Date Wranglers") and fueled by the wrath of her last bitter breakup, Cox takes Internet/blind dating to the extreme during a tumultuous eight-month international dating itinerary. Things start slowly, too slowly, in Amsterdam, with paragraph after paragraph of small talk, flirting, and only a few PG-rated-style make-out scenes. Some characters, however undatable, do stand out. There's the brother of a friend from home who turns out to be a smelly, underage Metallica fan who misinterprets Cox's mission as "around the world in 80 lays." In Italy, a socially awkward poet is so busy obsessing over a dead woman, he hardly pays attention to the live woman (Cox) sitting across from him. So maybe the men in other cities aren't any better than back home? But as soon as Cox hits Black Rock City, Nev., for Burning Man, she meets Date No. 55 (a Seattle resident). Since one of her first dates was with a Swedish "Love Professor" who lays out the biochemical nature of attraction, we know immediately that she's a goner for Garry. The rest of Around the World documents her struggle between completing her dating project—and hence her book—and just bagging it to be with Garry. (She's a woman who lets no ocean come between her and Mr. Right.) Sure, you're happy for her, but all the soul-searching and use of the term "soul mate" gets on your nerves. Her up-close scrutiny of one mating dance can be compelling, but 400 pages' worth on the subject takes up too many time zones. HEATHER LOGUE Eyeing the Flash: The Education of a Carnival Con Artist

By Peter Fenton (Simon & Schuster, $23) Carnies are cool. Yes, most may smell like stale food and are probably committed to a life of petty crime, but somewhere in their practiced slouch they seem impossibly wise—like a street-smart version of Yoda, but not as handsome. Peter Fenton's coming-of-age memoir describes the seedy mystique of the sideshow, reflecting his real-life experience as a carnival con man. In small-town Michigan during the summer of 1963, Fenton meets high-school classmate and carnival lifer Jackie Barron. A Mensa member at 15, with Rain Man–like counting ability, the author is soon ditching school to drive semitrailers packed with elephants and giraffes across the state while learning the art of the con. Fenton gives a compelling look at his world—the rigid carnival hierarchy, the sucker public, and the paranoia that every carnie succumbs to when they're always "on." Adept at romanticizing the hustle, Fenton largely neglects to mention his own opinions on his amoral upbringing. While he makes the insular carnival atmosphere exhilarating, he doesn't offer the context we need to balance out the characters. The places he and his carnies visit also tend to bleed together the farther along the book goes. Eyeing the Flash's best segments describe the science of assessing a person's gullibility in an instant while doling out a wry, bar-stool philosophy of human nature. Fenton writes, "Dummies, I forced myself to remember, all marks are dummies, who'd stare in drop-jawed fascination at a spinning hubcap if admission were free. Marks were drawn to the midway by cheap thrills and danger. I was just giving them what they came for." Readers may not feel the same way. Fenton's carnival tale is an uneven, haphazardly alluring portrayal of the seemingly down-and-out who are often exactly where they want to be: taking you for everything they can. MIKE MAISEN Towelhead

By Alicia Erian (Simon & Schuster, $22) In her debut novel, Alicia Erian's whistle-clean prose illuminates the ugly undercurrents of political correctness and the harrowing path of adolescence like a floodlight on Astroturf. The time, setting, and plot couldn't be more conducive: In 1991, as Saddam's invasion of Kuwait plays on CNN, a precocious 13-year-old, Jasira, is sent from upstate New York to live in suburban Houston with her conservative Lebanese father. (Her parents are divorced.) Though her father is Christian and hates Saddam, such subtleties hardly matter to Jasira's neighbors, like the muscle-bound Army reservist, Mr. Vuoso. She baby-sits for his son, Zack, who calls her "towelhead," even as they rifle through Vuoso's stack of Playboys together. Not surprisingly, American Beauty writer Alan Ball has already optioned Towelhead, which will fit nicely in his oeuvre of middle-class suburban angst. The novel, a quick read, is a standard coming-of-age story, not unlike The Slums of Beverly Hills or any other saga with the requisite masturbation scene. But Erian has Jasira absorb more than just the familiar humiliations of her age; she must also confront the political tensions of a whole era. This intelligent but insecure teenager suffers the usual indignities from her classmates, along with abuse, sexual and otherwise, from adults in her life. Thankfully, Erian doesn't portray her as a pitiable victim. Sometimes Towelhead's simple, unadorned prose feels a little too easy, without enough force to brook some of its heavier themes, but the consistency of Jasira's first-person voice is so remarkable that you don't mind. Whether the same generosity can be extended to the ending is debatable. After building a work from brutal honesty and anxiety-inducing circumstances, Erian slackens Towelhead's taut, no-holds-barred aesthetic into a sitcom-ready dream sequence. It reads uncomfortably like some sort of minority wish- fulfillment fantasy about joining the white suburban majority that once despised you. The novel goes down pleasantly at first, but it just doesn't sit right. MARGARET WAPPLER

 
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