Hiaasen, celebrity, hardship, war

Novels Of January

January 27, 2002|By Michael Shelden | Michael Shelden,Special to the Sun

The most entertaining novel this month is Carl Hiaasen's Basket Case (Knopf, 318 pages, $25.95), a devastatingly funny look at a middle-aged newspaperman's effort to escape a dead-end job. Indeed, there is so little life remaining in the reporter's career that he has been exiled to the Obituary Page, where he struggles to tell the stories of the worthy dead in his Florida town. But just when he's run out of nice things to say about the latest "stiff" -- a hang-gliding septuagenarian -- he gets the chance to make real headlines investigating the suspicious death of a forgotten rock star.

Part thriller, part satire, Hiaasen's novel does not have a dull page. He is wickedly amusing about the modern newspaper business and its corporate culture. The hero of the book, Jake Tagger, enjoys taunting a young editor who has a "grinding ambition" to rise beyond the cubicle prison of the newsroom. "She hopes for an office with a window," he says in his best deadpan.

In Hiaasen's witty portrayal, the trendy, well-heeled journalists who best fit the corporate mould are singularly ill equipped to understand the rowdier world they are supposed to cover. When Jake's taunts push his editor's patience to the breaking point, he relishes the fact that she can't bring herself to scream at him. "She's itching to tell me to go screw myself but that would constitute a serious violation of management policy, a dark entry in an otherwise promising personnel file."

Robert Inman's Captain Saturday (Little, Brown, 464 pages, $24.95) is another good novel that enjoys poking fun at the conglomerate mentality ruling much of the modern media. Set in the bustling suburbs of the New South, the novel tells the story of TV weatherman Will Baggett, an amiable man whose entire sense of himself is based on his status as a local celebrity. As long as he stays close to home, Will can revel in the kind of adulation that big stars encounter everywhere. His face stares back at him from billboards and bus stops. A policeman stops traffic to get his autograph, a minister asks that he bring fair skies on the day of the church picnic.

Then one day a ruthless corporation buys his station and promptly gives him the boot. Denied the only identity he knows, poor Will feels that he is on the verge of a mental collapse and is forced to take a hard look at who he really is. The picture does not please him, and he strives to reinvent himself as a husband, father, and reformed ex-celebrity.

Though the travails of media employees are fascinating, they pale beside those facing Helen Dunmore's characters in The Siege (Grove, 291 pages, $24). A veteran British novelist with seven titles to her credit, Dunmore tackles the vast subject of the Nazi siege of Leningrad in 1941 and vividly describes the many horrors of the long battle for the city. Her story focuses on the life of 22-year-old Anna Levin, whose yearnings for a normal existence are cut short when German soldiers surround her native city.

The war tests Anna's courage and determination, but it also brings her a renewed appreciation for the simple things of life, including romance. The lyrical realism of the novel makes the siege seem as though it happened only yesterday, but the hardships of that time are softened by an intense awareness of the strange beauty that attends even the direst circumstances. As much a poet as a novelist, Dunmore shows that one of the worst winters in Russian history was also a magical time of sacrifice and perseverance in the hazy atmosphere of Leningrad's frozen grandeur.

Two more novels set in World War II bring to life the obscure but noble struggles of ordinary people in the Philippines. Sabina Murray's The Caprices (Houghton Mifflin, 160 pages, $13) is a slender volume of stories that explore the impact of war on different parts of Asia, but the most powerful tale is set in and around Manila during the Japanese occupation. Through a series of family portraits, Murray gives a sense of the toll that war took on an innocent, peaceful people caught between the two empires of America and Japan.

In When the Elephants Dance (Crown, 368 Pages, $24.95), Tess Uriza Holthe follows a group of Filipinos trying to keep one step ahead of the Japanese invaders. To pass the time, her characters entertain each other with stories that celebrate local myths and legends.

With impressive skill, Holthe juggles the stories told by her characters with sometimes frightening tales of the very real atrocities occurring around them. An American writer with roots in the Philippines, Holthe has a strong sense of family and effortlessly draws the reader into a world where the surreal and the real freely mingle.

For a lighter look at war and history, it is difficult to beat Bernard Cornwell's lively series of novels featuring the daring adventures of his British hero in the Napoleonic Wars, Richard Sharpe. The latest installment in the series is Sharpe's Prey (Harper Collins, 262 pages, $24.95), which finds the fearless warrior in Copenhagen on a secret mission. French spies are everywhere and Sharpe must use all his skills to outwit the scheming enemy. If you have a hankering for an escapist novel in which characters shout such things as "God's teeth" before they attack a foe, Cornwell's new novel will not disappoint.

Michael Shelden is the author of biographies of George Orwell, Cyril Connolly and Graham Greene and writes for the Daily Telegraph in London, the Times of London, The Washington Post and others.

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