It doesn't take special skill as a writer to find humor in a gathering of swingers at a Florida hotel. All those body parts, contortions and sex toys are bound to provoke laughs. But Mike Sager doesn't settle for either the excitement or the ridiculousness of recreational sex with multiple partners. Instead, he digs until he uncovers the pathos behind the individual decisions to participate. Everyone is looking for something, and orgasm is only the start. That kind of multi-layered storytelling is what makes Revenge of the Donut Boys: True Stories of Lust, Fame, Survival and Multiple Personality so absorbing. Sager is expert in catching glimpses of the humanity in all of his subjects. He clearly relishes characters who at first glance seem to defy the possibility of sympathy: juvenile car thieves and notoriously offensive Rap stars. But he also has room for the apparently mundane -- for example, 39 people across the country named Mike Sager. Introducing a group of marines, he finds "the varied styles of their expectorations somehow befitting, a metaphor for each personality." Sager got his start at The Washington Post but outgrew the constraints of conventional news reporting. This collection of stories -- reprints of articles for Esquire, Rolling Stone and other magazines -- is a case study for anyone interested in learning the art of literary journalism. But more importantly, it's a masterfully curated collection of that most exquisite of all curios, the human personality. (Gregory Flannery) Grade: A-
REBECCA CURTIS -- TWENTY GRAND & OTHER TALES OF LOVE AND MONEY (HARPERCOLLINS)
The narrators in these stories are damaged, innocent and naive. They move in intentional obscurity or bright light.
Here, ordinary life is every bit as terrifying as the monsters and wolves that lurk outside their doors. Stories set in the New Hampshire of the author's youth feature country that is its own character, moody and brooding with idyllic summers and brutal winters. Some of the pieces are pure hallucination, phobias personified. All share an impressive range of technique -- the concealment and sudden insertion of the empathetic or ironic hook, the disciplined avoidance of a dark psychological center in a shadow play that coaxes readers' imaginations into doing the heavy lifting. Sound masochistic? Some people are into that stuff. But Curtis also has the analytical chilliness of an academic writer strutting her stuff. In the title story, a daughter remembers her young mother's struggle with money and loss, and the moment she discovered cynicism. "Summer with Twins" and "Hungry Self" draw on class and financial disparity as experienced by waitresses. Others are paradoxes as to the nature of the narrator. They're academic in the sense that writing is regarded as a purely intellectual pursuit. You can detect an original emotional impulse sublimated so completely that you're left scant evidence to interpret, and this comes off as either a frustrating remove or worthwhile puzzle. The bonus material on New Hampshire, entertaining in its own right, offers some relief. Curtis, unencumbered by art, lets her personality through, a good balance to these austere, sometimes beautiful stories. (Cedric Rose) Grade: B
GEORGE TENET -- AT THE CENTER OF THE STORM (HARPERCOLLINS)
George Tenet, former director of central intelligence, decided to share his side of the 9/11 story this spring. His highly publicized account covers the CIA's "coulda, shoulda, wouldas," their initial reactions to the attacks, their Afghanistan initiative and a typical day as DCI. Tenet says he's barely been in contact with the White House since his resignation in June 2004. With a style more subliminal than straightforward, he criticizes Condoleezza Rice for being slow on the uptake and criticizes Cheney and Bush for exaggerating CIA speculations. He also describes the moment he knew they'd tossed him overboard. (Google "a scapegoat," and he's the fifth find.) While Tenet tends to be overly defensive at times, he also owns up to mistakes, admitting a DCI should do more than "skim" a State of the Union speech before a president sells disproved findings to the public. The 549-page account is surprisingly readable despite 10-syllable terrorist names and the abundance of acronyms. In tribute: The former DCI would like to be remembered for his efforts against UBL (Usama bin Laden). Unfortunately, he's known for a "slam-dunk" comment concerning WMDs. The comment, whether or not it was taken out of context, ultimately left him SOL. At the Center of the Storm replenishes Tenet's reputation considerably -- especially in the eyes of casual contemporary-issue consumers. Perceptive readers, however, will notice him evade accusations by over-explaining the boring parts. Political news junkies, similarly, might find gaps in the narrative. (Sarah Laubacher) Grade: B-
DREW CURTIS -- IT'S NOT NEWS, IT'S FARK (GOTHAM BOOKS)
This book should be taught in college mass communication courses -- or better yet, to the dudes currently filing copy and packaging nightly newscasts. Though the latter group is no doubt well aware of Drew Curtis' behind-the-scenes look at his news aggregator, fark.com -- it's one of the most popular sites trolled every day for mainstream news material. Hilarious, telling and often sad, It's Not News, It's Fark: How the Mass Media Tries to Pass Off Crap as News delves into the seven mass-media patterns, each with its own chapter, with such insight you'd wonder if the author's some bitter ex-journalist. He's certainly a media expert. Curtis, born, raised and still living in Lexington, Ky., explains in the book that "Fark isn't an acronym. It doesn't mean anything. The idea was to have the word fark come to symbolize news that is really not news." The site developed from two Web ideas he conceived in 1999: One was to create an Indian curry recipe database, the other was to collect and post news stories that shouldn't be. Today Curtis spends each day reading around 2,000 items submitted by readers -- with rewritten, snarky headlines -- picking out post-worthy stories and slapping them up online. Several examples of fark from the site are provided in each chapter: the discovery that high school kids have "friends with benefits," a statewide agriculture terrorism exercise (thanks, Kentucky), the non-event of Thom Yorke and Tony Blair discussing climate change, and the list goes on and on. A good farking read. (Jessica Canterbury) Grade: A