Sun, Mar 12, 2006 - Page 18 News List

Anne Stephenson's New and Notable

Cliffs of Despair

By Tom Hunt

Random House

Despite its title, this book will surprise you with funny moments, thanks to the appealing self-mockery of its author. Tom Hunt, a Connecticut teacher, says that he has "always been drawn to darkness -- to Dostoyevsky, Hopper, desolate landscapes, the double lives of crooked CEOs, pedophiliac priests and treasonous CIA agents." After his brother-in-law took his own life, Hunt decided to research suicide by visiting the high cliffs of England's Beachy Head, the world's third most popular suicide spot (after the Golden Gate Bridge and Japan's Aokigahara Woods). The act is so common there that a suicide-prevention group has installed a phone booth, and waiters in a local pub are told to watch for solitary drinkers. Over several visits, Hunt gets nowhere as an investigative journalist (the area's residents won't talk about its morbid fame), but succeeds as an earnest and compassionate listener when he visits a man who jumped but survived, views a body with a local mortician and befriends the family of a suicide. The book that grew out of his quirky curiosity is a kind and thought-provoking look at the act of self-destruction and the mysteries it leaves behind.


Nightlife

By Thomas Perry

Random House

This suspense novel features an unconventional villain, a serial killer who follows no discernible pattern and learns the finer points of murder as she goes along. Within the first 95 pages she stabs a woman to death, shoots two men and pushes another from an eighth-floor balcony. Perry's storytelling is also unpredictable. His characters come and go. A man who plays a big role in one chapter will all but disappear in the next. When we finally figure out who the main players will be, we're surprised that there are only two: The villain, who changes her name no fewer than eight times and leaves a grisly trail throughout the West; and Portland homicide detective Catherine Hobbes, the only investigator who doesn't under-estimate the killer because of her gender. The good news is that this mystery has more substance than melodrama.


A Handful of Dust:

Disappearing America

By David Plowden

Norton

"Photography is straight poker," Plowden says. "You play the hand you were dealt, or fold." He does not like to "disturb the light," so he works with what the day brings and does not resort to artificial means. This gives the photographs in his new book an appropriate look of stark reality, for the places in them are obsolete and have been left to suffer the cruelties of weather and time. These scenes seem familiar when we look at them: abandoned farms, churches, schoolhouses, banks and other businesses. A few of the images were taken in New Mexico and New England, but most were made in the Midwest, an area Plowden knows well. In Illinois, he found the deteriorating doors of an empty drugstore -- above them are the names of six pharmacists from several generations of the same family. And in Iowa he photographed a room in a deserted farmhouse. Dirt and dry grass had blown in and scattered across the floor, yet the air still hinted at the small human dramas that took place there.


Animals in Translation

By Temple Grandin

Harcourt

Grandin is autistic, which has made her life difficult and yet she believes it has given her a special understanding of animals. New in paperback is her engaging discussion of why she says "animals saved me" when she was a girl, of the many things she has learned about them and of her long-held belief that animals and autistic people are "visual thinkers." The result, she writes, is that autistic people can think the way animals think. "Autism is a kind of way station on the road from animals to humans, which puts autistic people like me in a perfect position to translate `animal talk' into English," she writes. "I can tell people why their animals are doing the things they do." Her book is anecdotal, provocative and appealingly chatty, whether she's talking about dogs, horses, cattle, pigs or cats. One book critic called it "hilarious, fascinating, and just plain weird." And Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, author of The Hidden Life of Dogs noted that Grandin "has a Ph.D., but the autism has probably served her better."

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