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JANUARY 31, 2000: 

Saints & Sinners edited by Greg Tobin (Doubleday), hardcover, $25.95

Ambitiously subtitled "The American Catholic Experience Through Stories, Memoirs, Essays, and Commentary," this volume has a little bit of every thing. Tobin, a lapsed and returned Catholic, mostly just chooses what he likes. The tone is generally, but not without exception, liberal. The particularity of his choices is mostly a strength, although this is somewhat marred by his own limited orientation within the church. Although Rudolfo Anaya makes an appearance, the dominant attitude is urban and Irish.

Tobin also appears to feel that commentary needs to be lengthy and obtuse. A few writers -- not necessarily the best or brightest -- are represented by more than one selection, while the great popularizer Andrew M. Greeley shows up only in a long and confusing piece of academic sociology. The broadness of range is a problem: anyone who could successfully wade through the weighty and densely-written "intellectual" pieces is likely to be impatient with some of the trivial memoir and fiction selections. I would have passed on Eugene Kennedy's pompous, jargon-laden essay and included Greeley's fiction over James Carroll's.

There are some surprises here. Maria Augusta Trapp, of The Sound of Music, weighs in with the poignant (but not specifically Catholic) chapter two in her family's immigration story, and Daniel Berrigan shows why he's better known for his politics than for his poetry. This isn't a collection you'd want to sit down and read from cover to cover, but it is worth browsing through to search out some of the finer pieces. -- Dorothy Cole

Like Shaking Hands With God: A Conversation About Writing by Kurt Vonnegut and Lee Stringer (Seven Stories Press), hardcover, $15

While Kurt Vonnegut is a household name, Lee Stringer is not. This quick read introduces him by means of two conversations between Stringer and Vonnegut. In brief, Lee Stringer once lived on the streets where he began selling Street News. He later contributed to that publication as a writer and editor, and subsequently wrote a book entitled Grand Central Winter: Stories from the Street. Vonnegut compares him to Jack London because, like London, Stringer is a talented writer who began writing under humble circumstances. Stringer tells a Manhattan bookstore audience that he started writing with a pencil that he had been using as a tool to facilitate smoking drugs. When the drugs ran out, he appropriated the pencil for his literary needs.

In addition to pitching Stringer and his book, these conversations also contain a handful of revelations put forth by Vonnegut. For example, Vonnegut offers proof that he was born to write: "In school some people could run a lot faster than I could. I could write better than most people could." He also asserts by way of a quote from painter James McNeil Whistler that novelists are not envious of each other the way painters are but that almost every writer he knows would rather be a musician.

If these disclosures aren't enough to send you running to the nearest bookstore, Vonnegut also discusses his theory of writing that he has taught over the years. It's equally entertaining. -- Mladen Baudrand

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