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The Independent Bookshelf

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The Vintage Book of War Fiction
edited by Sebastian Faulks and JÖrg HensgenVintage Press, 416 pp., $14
Tim O'Brien's searing "How to Tell a True War Story" reminds us, "A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done... As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil." The Vintage Book of War Fiction, which includes O'Brien's essay, is a collection of short stories and excerpts from longer works set in the wars of the 20th century. The writers range from the familiar--Hemingway, James Jones, Norman Mailer, Joseph Heller--to less well-known European writers such as Nobel laureate Isaac Babel, Heinrich Böll, Lous-Ferdinand Céline, and Italo Calvino. Many of the pieces are documentary in instinct, doing the work of memory for us. Some, such as the selection from Ondaatje's The English Patient appear drawn to the setting because of its narrative potential. The best are those like the excerpt from David Malouf's Fly Away Peter, which begins, "Often, as Jim later discovered, you entered war through an ordinary looking gap in a hedge." --David Need

A Guide to the End of the World: Everything You Never Wanted to Know
by Bill McGuireOxford University Press, 224 pp., $25
It's a scary world. While we're busy mulling over ways in which we might meet our demise at the hands of our fellow humans, let's not forget the can of whupass the earth has in store if we don't mend our overpopulating, overconsumptive ways. In A Guide to the End of the World: Everything You Never Wanted to Know, volcanologist Bill McGuire provides a few "facts to fret over" as he ponders actual and potential geophysical events that threaten to end the world as we know it. Here on earth, volcanic super-eruptions, giant tsunamis, and major earthquakes are poised to wreak havoc of global proportions. Meanwhile, out in space, comets and asteroids hurtle toward us, packing enough punch to take us out in droves. While it's kind of hard to dodge a comet, we would do well to consider how our lush lifestyles provoke the planet in the short run by fueling global warming, resulting in rising sea levels, melting permafrost, more and bigger storms, floods, and landslides. McGuire doesn't pronounce our imminent extinction, but he does warn--in a disconcertingly cheerful way--of a grim future for our descendants and earth's non-human inhabitants. Recommended reading, while awaiting construction of those first space colonies. --Lisa Robinson Bailey

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall--Women Writers Explore their Favorite Fairy Tales
edited by Kate BernheimerAnchor Books, 320 pp., $14
Women know firsthand that we process our lives by telling our stories. The neglect of a child by a troubled parent, the dream of a life beyond a working girl's prospects, the charisma of an unsuitable lover, the rise and fall of a barren kingdom: all have the makings of good storytelling. Out of centuries of girl talk and gossip, salons and soirees arose a powerful source of story, and a distinctively feminine form of expression--the fairy tale.

The Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen and Walt Disney all knew this. They based their life's work on collecting and re-envisioning oral tales told by women in households throughout Europe.

Move over, boys, the girls are back in town.

Kate Bernheimer has assembled twenty-eight women writers (three more in this second edition than in the first one in 1998) to celebrate the influence of fairy tales on their work. Julia Alvarez, bell hooks, Joyce Carol Oates, A.S. Byatt, Margaret Atwood, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Lucy Grealy, Ursula K. LeGuin, Carole Maso, Midori Snyder, Deborah Eisenberg, Fay Weldon and others contribute essays, poetry, prose, criticism, experimental fiction and personal narrative as they reflect on favorite fairy tales.

Anne Sexton's daughter contemplates swapping family recipes with the murderous mom of "The Juniper Tree." Fern Kupfer contrasts her father's steadfast presence with the actions of a henpecked husband leading his children astray in "Hansel and Gretel." Connie Porter sees Rapunzel's resilience when she's banished to the wilderness reflected in the face of a child with dark eyes and nappy hair on the eve of emancipation.

In the final essay, Terri Windling speaks of the saving grace of story:

As a child, I only cared that these girls were desperate, scarred, and scared like me. Their tales assured me that with perseverance I could find my way to my own happy ending -- provided I did not sit weeping in the cinders awaiting rescue. I'd have to earn a happy ending, and this was the 'magic' that I would need: courage, compassion, determination, quick wits, clear sight, and luck.

This compelling collection reminds us that "once upon a time" is now. --Milbre Burch

Vampire Legends in Contemporary American Culture
by William Patrick DayUniversity Press of Kentucky, 256 pp., $29.95
Feminist vampires, yuppie vampires, Vegas vampires, patriotic vampires, humane vampires, and vampire-slaying-vampires: William Patrick Day's Vampire Legends in Contemporary American Culture shows that vampires aren't just for Halloween--they are truly monsters for all seasons. Day's book examines the proliferation of American vampire stories in the last third of the twentieth century, ranging from homages to and variations on Stoker's Dracula, to a variety of vampire mavericks. Day discusses three modes of vampire narrative--the utopian, liberated vampire protagonist, the feral, alienated post-human vampire, and the vampire slayer--and concludes that both vampires and slayers touch a nerve in us because they mirror our fractured identities and moral ambivalence, questioning what it means to be human and ethical in the face of our own violent nature. While academic, Vampire Legends is a light, enjoyable read, despite a few facile deductions, and the popular novels and films it explores provide easy access to the conversation. --Lisa Robinson Bailey

The Breast Bookby Maura Spiegel and Lithe SebestaWorkman Publishing, 480 pp., $13.95I

n 1975, three women were arrested for indecent exposure in a Miami park while nursing their infants. Hard to believe this occurred in the U.S., where cleavage is king, and revealing clothing commonplace. But perhaps it is this "predominately sexualized view of the breast" that continues to blur the line between what is "appropriate" exposure and what is not. In The Breast Book, Maura Spiegal and Lithe Sebesta have filled 441 pages with timelines, facts and photographs in an attempt to unravel our culture's obsession with this aspect of the female form. Its twelve chapters educate through example, summarizing the subject's aesthetic, erotic, ornamental and biological functions. From Madonna to The Madonna, puberty to pasties, nursing to nipple rings, Spiegal and Sebesta have thoroughly done their research. Those of a more modest persuasion will probably prefer to adorn their coffee tables with the mountainous landscapes of Ansel Adams rather than this titillating little conversation piece. But if you have breasts, love them, or a experience a combination of the two, The Breast Book is sure to please. --Ruth Gierisch

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