Mind Games

True Story
By Michael Finkel
Harper Collins, 312 pp., $25.95
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It's hard not to mistrust a defrocked journalist who expresses his contrition with a handsomely advanced book-length mea culpa, but unlike Stephen Glass's coy roman clef and Jayson Blair's self-pitying tell-all, Michael Finkel's true-crime page-turner is about more than his own dishonesty—it's a lurid, opportunistic scramble for redemption with the gravity of a moral fable.

Finkel was fired by The New York Times for creating a composite character in a 2001 feature on West African child slavery. The day before the paper announced his dismissal, he learned that an Oregon man named Christian Longo, who was under arrest for the murder of his wife and three kids, had been impersonating him while on the run in Mexico. Seizing on this vertiginous irony—the writer who fudged the identity of his subjects finds himself the victim of identity theft—Finkel befriends Longo, a textbook narcissist, lapsed Jehovah's Witness, and evidently a fan of his journalism. What follows is a pact of mutual exploitation, a hall-of-mirrors power game in which two proven liars (and admitted egotists) attempt a relationship premised on candor, or at least say they do. The familiar quandary of the journalist and the murderer gains an unnerving intimacy—and even transparency. By the end of this bizarre, gripping book, Finkel may not be especially likable, but he is—and this must count for something—believable. Dennis Lim


The Task of This Translator
By Todd Hasak-Lowy
Harcourt, 272 pp., $13 (paper)
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Skip, if you must, the first story, in which a fight breaks out at Yad Vashem over a stale pastry: Tales set in a Holocaust memorial aren't everyone's idea of light summer fare. Even without the opener, Todd Hasak-Lowy's debut collection brims with acute observations, incisive moral questions, and dark, caustic wit. His protagonists, neurotic bundles of guilt and inadequacy, ring familiar and true. An inept interpreter gets recruited by a onetime mass murderer who wants to apologize to the survivors. Obese millionaires hire bodyguards to prevent them from overeating. At one point Hasak-Lowy imagines himself going on Nightline to defend the story in which he conflates the loss of a wallet and nuclear war. Koppel isn't convinced, but we are. Jorge Morales


Beyond Black
By Hilary Mantel
Henry Holt, 365 pp., $26
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The dead people in Mantel's latest are tacky and clueless and live in dusty parts of kitchens and bathrooms. They sob in the walls, raid the cabinets, and clump up hair- brushes with their frizz. Alison Hart, one of the best psychics in Britain, has been relaying —and purifying—their nasty little messages for years, but with the help of a new assistant, Colette, her business is soaring.

At home she's haunted by ghouls and slime, but onstage she's a professional saleswoman. She tours the dumpiest parts of England wearing voodoo-cool clothes and dispensing life tips while Colette distributes business cards outside. The lonely, bored duo are always bitching, usually about encounters with the deceased (when Princess Di materializes, it's with a screechy war cry: "Oh, fuckerama!"). Like all good gossips, they relish every detail, entangling themselves in the drama of the "next world" so that this one will be a little more bearable. Rachel Aviv


A Philosophy of Boredom
By Lars Svendsen
Reaktion, 176 pp., $24.95
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Harry G. Frankfurt has given bullshit the academic treatment; now it's boredom's turn. Lars Svendsen treats the affliction as a historical phenomenon, asserting that "Boredom is the 'privilege' of modern man," a concept constructed by 18th- century Romanticists, who first suggested that life should be "interesting." (Such a notion of course implied its own inverse: Life could be uninteresting.) Svendsen then argues that contemporary society is the most bored yet, with TV and other stimuli serving not as evidence of engagement, but of a desperate desire to keep boredom "at arm's length."

For a serious work of philosophy, Boredom exhibits a light touch and impressive pop-cultural range. A typical page synergizes Kierkegaard ("the only thing I see is: emptiness") and Iggy Pop ("I'm bored/I'm bored/I'm the chairman of the bored"); not since Wayne's World confused him with Dick Van Patten has dour Soren been so deftly interposed with a modern cultural icon. This also inoculates the book from its most obvious pitfall. It's not boring Theo Schell-Lambert


Watch Your Back!
By Donald E. Westlake
Mysterious Press, 310 pp., $24.95
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Westlake's 12th novel starring burglar John Dortmunder unfolds in August, when unwanted tourists invade the "pork chop of Manhattan." This time out, our hero assembles a crew to rob the East Side apartment of a portly tycoon who has indefinitely decamped to an offshore Club Med, where he evades legal action from his ex-wives. Meanwhile, a rookie mob leader has taken over a favorite Amsterdam Avenue bar, and Dortmunder's Five work overtime to rescue their hangout while planning their heist. The job looks easy and the payoff is huge—as one crook tense-defyingly puts it, "You're never gonna even thought about a dollar as large as this one." But even pros sometimes forget the adage about mice and men. Benjamin Strong

 
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