This Week's Reads

George Saunders, Lori Hinton, and Marc Romano.

The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil

By George Saunders (Riverhead, $13) Well, brief, certainly. Surrealist satirist George Saunders (Pastoralia, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline) is a fairly regular contributor to The New Yorker, and this pamphlet would've worked just fine as 1,000 words in "Shouts & Murmurs." Incredibly, the illustrated allegory, 129 pages in total, took more than five years to complete and at one point during its composition had ballooned to twice that length. It's short. It's funny. It's got a political point. But it would've been shorter, funnier, and more pointed had an editor whittled away further at the essential obviousness of this totalitarian Dr. Seuss fable. Neither animal nor vegetable nor mineral, but some kind of amalgam of all three, the inhabitants of Inner Horner and Outer Horner are at odds. When some of the former accidentally stumble into Outer Horner, like so many refugees, despotic Phil seizes power and puts them in a Gitmo-style gulag. Then he begins enacting genocide. Since these aren't flesh-and-blood creatures (they're more like air-conditioning units with slightly more personality), the horror isn't treated like Bosnia, Rwanda, or the Holocaust. We're supposed to laugh at the absurdity, stupidity, and brutality, then reflect on our laughter—at the universality of murderous buffoons like Stalin, Milosevic, and Saddam. But, 60 years after Animal Farm, how many readers really need such an old, simple message translated into this idiom? A real breakthrough—think of Art Spiegelman and Maus—would've required a bigger subject of Saunders. Or a smaller book. BRIAN MILLER George Saunders will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co., 7:30 p.m. Sat., Dec. 3. West Seattle 101: An Insider's Guide to Recreation, Dining, Entertainment & Enrichment

By Lori Hinton (Adventure Press, $17.95) The three Seattle neighborhoods that inspire the most passionate and outspoken residents are Ballard, Fremont, and West Seattle. Capitol Hill is too much of a transitory station: Many stay, but most come and go. People who reside in, say, Green Lake or the U District are more modestly content simply to live there. Generally speaking, they don't seem possessed by the need to tell you how it's the only place worth being. The far-flung hoods seem like their own little towns, so Ballardites and West Seattleites form clubs (there's one on MySpace called the Ballard Young Sophisticates) and make bumper stickers and buttons for themselves (there's a faction with WSHC pins: West Seattle Hard Core). And now, West Seattle even has its own guidebook. Lori Hinton's West Seattle 101 is sort of like a Lonely Planet guide for her beloved neighborhood. Her tips for recreation, dining, arts and entertainment, and "enrichment" (glass blowing, tai chi, striptease aerobics) first appeared in the West Seattle Herald. Like most guidebooks and freshman courses, 101 isn't comprehensive and consists mostly of general, wide-appeal goods and services (weekend brunch at Salty's, bonfires on Alki, Easy Street Records), but Hinton tosses in some curveballs as well. In the enrichment section (the best place for curved and otherwise odd balls), she writes about Rose De Dan's Wild Reiki and Shamanic Healing. Of a practice called Acutonics®, Hinton writes, "[It] combines music theory with the knowledge of acupuncture to stimulate energy points via specially calibrated tuning folks. And it works!" Really? Among the recreation recommendations is "Scoot Along on a Segway." According to Hinton, Allstar Entertainment on Southwest Frontenac Street ushered pseudo-sumo wrestling into the Northwest scene, and it was the first establishment in town to rent those creepy battery-powered scooters as well. If that doesn't get you across the bridge, what will? Hinton gets in a few real discoveries, too. The Walker Rock Garden, for instance, in the backyard of the former home of Milton Walker, a Boeing employee and obsessive pebble collector, sounds like it'd be fun to check out on a Sunday afternoon. She also makes some questionable judgments. West Seattle Cellars is, hands down, the best wine shop in the hood (not Jardin, as she suggests), and how could she not mention the Alki Crab and Fish Company? So who is 101 for? Old-timers will already have their favorite neighborhood naturopath or karate studio, but newcomers and visitors might make good use of Hinton's word that no cover charge and DJ Kirk Dubb make the Rocksport on Southwest Alaska Street "an affordable spot to dance your Friday night away." (Or, they might not.) As far as I've been able to discern, no other Seattle neighborhood has its own backpacker-esque guide (though some have published histories), and since guides that attempt to outline an entire city inevitably end up falling short, Hinton's book might usher in a new wave of local publishing. Can West Edge 101 be far behind? LAURA CASSIDY Crossworld: One Man's Journey Into America's Crossword Obsession

By Marc Romano (Broadway Books, $24.95) How did America become so obsessed with word games? Here's a quick timeline: In 2001, novelist Myla Goldberg collided Jewish mysticism and spelling bees in Bee Season; soon after, Stefan Fatsis turned Scrabble players into epic heroes in Word Freak. Then the spelling-bee documentary Spellbound won beaucoup acclaim, the Scrabble doc Word Wars became a minor cult hit, and a vital question emerged: What about crossword puzzles? With the movie version of Season now in theaters, Brooklyn journalist Marc Romano's study of crosswords—their history, their lasting appeal, their potential to make you smarter—couldn't come at a more synergistic moment for word-game nuts, for whom it's finally safe to come out of the closet (where they've likely been holed up doing puzzles). For me (and probably most casual solvers), crossword puzzles are an excellent way to kill time without getting the greasy psychic feeling that comes from watching too much TV. For Romano, who looks more like a Calvin Klein model than the four-eyed nerd everyone pushed around in junior high, crosswords are more than an intellectual exercise. "The real topic of any book about crosswords is all the information in the world," he writes; puzzles, after all, give you a reason to pay attention to things instead of slouching, zombielike, through each day. An eloquent pop theorist, the author possesses a monster vocabulary that seeps into his prose; précis, phylogeny, and heterodox are just three of the words I learned while reading Crossworld. (Eventually, I began to suspect he was putting me through a not-so- subliminal crossword training program.) Yet it's Romano's reportage, not his theorizing, that most winningly captures the mystique of crosswording. His lively account of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, Conn., spotlights precocious puzzle constructor (and solver) Brendan Emmett Quigley, whose name "sounds like a character in a Raymond Chandler novel," and New York Times puzzle editor Will Shortz, who owns a crossword-themed pinball machine. From a journalistic standpoint, Crossworld's profiles of Quigley and Shortz—the former surprisingly grounded, the latter endearingly puzzle-obsessed—reveal how candor and admiration can coexist in a character study. For average readers (and word freaks), Romano's devotion to getting inside the heads of these puzzle masters makes for an unexpectedly compelling read. NEAL SCHINDLER

 
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