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Books to check out.

Things I Like About America
by Poe BallantineHawthorne Books,
224 pp., $12.95

"When I got bored with myself in Kansas, I decided I would move to a place that ended with the letter O." With those words, Poe Ballantine eases into the title piece of his collection of eleven personal narratives that describe, in Kerouacian detail, his wanderings across America. These stories take him from age 18 to the present (somewhere in his forties), and from places as odd and disparate as Eureka, Calif., to Fond du Luc, Ohio.

At each stop he's one pink slip away from a homeless shelter, a perpetual state of destitution he seems to find both frightening and exhilarating. Yet his unerring eye describes the America of this age, and his unfailing honesty engenders him to us. "I have always had an inclination toward despair," he writes. "Combine this with living in a culture where money, actuarial tables, and TV-watching are the primary human bonds" and where "everyone around me dressed up like pirates, bikers, gangsters, or ghouls ... and you have the formula for depression."

Some of the pieces are nearly as exhausting to read as the labor they describe: We feel what he feels at the end of the day working in a sheet metal factory, or handling the late shift at the Shimmy Joy nightclub in a dank, dreary, poisoned Love Canal, N.Y.

Ballantine never shrinks from taking us along for the drunken, drug-infested ride he braves in most of his travels. The payoff--and there is one--lies in his self-deprecating humor and acerbic social commentary, which he leaves us with before heading further "up the dark highway." –Jordan Adair

The Best American Sports Writing 2002
edited by Rick ReillyHoughton Mifflin,
320 pp., $27.50

The subjects in this collection of 28 stories vary from conventional aspects of traditional sports to significantly more dramatic events. Michael Jordan's comeback with the Washington Wizards and the Seattle Mariners' incomparable Ichiro Suzuki are chronicled here--as are the boorish behavior of golfer John Daly and the murder trial of Charlotte Panthers wide receiver Rae Carruth.

Though Sports Illustrated's Rick Reilly has selected a number of stories that adhere to his "Reilly Rules"--a list of "simple strategies that ... will work no matter the subject, length, or deadline"--they pale when compared to the more off-beat accounts included.

Elizabeth Gilbert's "Near Death in the Afternoon" tells the harrowing story of 18-year old Julian Lopez, El Juli, "the best living bullfighter on the planet," while Steve Friedman's "'It's Gonna Suck to Be You'" explores the extreme sport of endurance running.

"Big Night in Bithlo," by Independent contributor Dan Neil, describes the biannual "Crash-O-Rama Night of Destruction," Orlando Speedworld's school bus demolition derby. Bob Norman's "Backyard Bloodbath" takes on the equally violent sport of backyard wrestling, where teenagers with ring names of "Kid Suicide" and "Psycho" bloody each other for fun. The stark and at times terrifying images in these pieces represent the best of this collection, but in truth, you won't go wrong with any of them. –Jordan Adair

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