The Great Escape

VLS Beach Reads: Relax with a pre-Scientology L. Ron Hubbard, other people's notebooks, and a carnivorous plant


A Fictional History of the United States With Huge Chunks Missing
Edited by T Cooper and Adam Mansbach
Akashic, 331 pp., $15.95

A&E Biography big-timers are either absent or ass-out in this short-story collection, a people's history that mixes the reverent and the absurd. Alexander Chee wind-walks with our Chinese discoverers, David Rees gets his Reconstruction on, and Adam Mansbach rips out the roots of pop-cult colonialism—topping a freewheeling first half that evokes the broken souls of manifest destiny. Things get increasingly solemn after the New Deal, when the excavated voices get closer to ones the writers heard growing up (Keith Knight's cartoon on the ruin wrought by a Globetrotters loss is a hilarious exception). Peruvian writer Daniel Alarcón finally flushes us with a future civil war (next year, even) where rebs steal a presidential limb and the missing chunk becomes America itself. Jon Dolan


Horsemen of the Esophagus: Competitive Eating and the Big Fat American Dream
By Jason Fagone
Crown, 256 pp., $24

Of Sonya "the Black Widow" Thomas, the 99-pound, top-ranked competitive eater in America, Fagone wryly notes her "star-shaped barrettes where devil's horns would be." A stylish miniaturist, Fagone doesn't strain his subjects—people named El Wingador and Tim "Eater X" Janus—with undue reverence, as he chronicles a year spent covering 27 contests on the pro noshing circuit. If "In Gorging, Truth" is the International Federation of Competitive Eating's motto, what exactly is Takeru "Koby" Kobayashi, mythic lord of competitive eating, trying to tell us by tucking away 387 bowls of soba noodles in 12 minutes? Nita Rao


Learning to Kill
By Ed McBain
Harcourt, 478 pp., $25

Before he hit it big with his 87th Precinct novels, McBain, who died last year, had a pulp magazine apprenticeship. But this collection of early stories, which he selected and introduced, is more than predictive—it's a minor classic of its kind. He employs Chandlerisms with effective discretion (a woman, passed "from hand to hand like a used wine jug"), and his characters routinely break the bounds of type. The 16-year-old in "On the Sidewalk, Bleeding" isn't just another luckless gang member, but a raw psyche suddenly filled with existential foreboding. Darren Reidy


Phaic Tan
By Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner, and Rob Sitch
Chronicle, 256 pp., $13.95

If you're not planning any exotic trips this summer but crave the feel of card-stock covers and the sort of sans-serif stylings only travel books can deliver, pick up the second installment in the abnormally funny Jetlag series. The outfit that brought you tips on how to survive in the bogus Eastern European backwater known as Molvania now conjures, with a touch both antic and Borgesian, the Southeast Asian archipelago of Phaic Tan, where top attractions include the Museum of Genocide. Remember the motto: "Come with open mind. Stay with open heart. Depart with no more than 1.5 litres of duty free spirits." E.P.


The Poe Shadow
By Matthew Pearl
Random House, 370 pp., $24.95

Pearl's Dante Club follow-up is cut from far less bloody cloth: Edgar Poe's dead and buried, but the truth will out! The details seem maddeningly slight—Did he take a train from Baltimore to Philadelphia? Did he drink? One, or how many? But the odds are stacked for thrills: two rival Dupins in a death match, a sweet American girl thrown over, a sexy French one lurking. The lawyer-hero's quest— to save Poe's reputation as a drunkard and a no-good—is quaint, almost offensive, to modern logic, but the ardor carries its own discomfiting enigma, and the book digs in as an ordeal of the mind in which a fairly decent man must account for his sanity. Phyllis Fong


The Ruins
By Scott Smith
Knopf, 319 pp., $24.95

Amy's the good girl and Stacy's the slut; Eric's the joker and Jeff's the hero. And it's a relief there's not much more to these people before Smith, the author of A Simple Plan, subjects them to his pulp equivalent of a ritual disembowel-ment machine. What starts as a typical Cancún bacchanalia quickly leads these four into a Smith-ian trap designed to exhaust, at great length and with great horror, the limits of their morality as well as mortality. The culprit may or may not be a band of pagan Mexicans, a flesh-eating plant, bacteria, or contagion. More crucially, it's the travelers' carefully deconstructed humanity—spacey Stacy's magical mode of decision making, Jeff's heartless pursuit of the most rational course of action. When the latter suggests they go Donner on one of their party, it's a measure of how effectively Smith's sealed the exits that we're sure he's got the right idea. Carla Blumenkranz


The Sound of No Hands Clapping
By Toby Young
Da Capo, 288 pp., $24.95

After his abortive attempt to take the New York publishing world by storm, "crazed self-publicist" Young returned to London and licked his wounds while writing the memoir How to Lose Friends & Alienate People. In the wake of that book's modest success, Young finds himself fielding calls from Hollywood bigwigs interested in working with him—including one so powerful he's referred to as "________" to avoid possible litigation. Immediately, delusions of a career as a wildly successful screenwriter fill his head before he manages to botch every opportunity presented to him. So begins the next chapter in Young's career as the most successful professional failurist imaginable. Kosiya Shalita

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