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Austin Chronicle Off the Bookshelf

APRIL 12, 1999: 

The Last Lovely City
by Alice Adams
Knopf, $22 hard

Peppered with story titles like "His Women" and "Great Sex" and "Old Love Affairs," it is easy to see the focus of Alice Adams's latest collection of shorts. With The Last Lovely City: Stories, Adams paints a nostalgic, if indirect, portrait of San Francisco by delving into the realm of broken and failed and miserable relationships. Though at times formulaic (Adams has the tendency to take one person of an intellectual profession -- professor, journalist, artist -- and then tell anecdotes about his or her sex life to convey an impression of dissatisfaction), Adams' stories are easy to read and her characters speak in familiar, if similar, voices. --Meredith Phillips

by Joyce Tyldesley
Viking Penguin, $27.95 hard

Nefertiti: Egypt's Sun Queen is less a biography than a mystery with no solution. Facts about ancient Egypt's beloved queen are scarce; her parentage, role as queen, and death can only be guessed at through inconclusive archaelogical remains, artwork, and historical documents. Tyldesley, a highly credentialed Egyptologist, does a valiant job of tying these artifacts together to present various theories about Nefertiti's life and influence. It's an accessible, fun read, with details on royal succession and politics balanced by descriptions of the religion, clothing, sexual practices, and recreation of the time. At this point, no book can tell the definitive tale of Nefertiti, but no matter: Tyldesley makes speculation just as interesting as truth. --Jessica Berthold

About This Life
by Barry Lopez
Knopf, $24 hard

In these 17 essays, Barry Lopez repeatedly returns to what is perhaps the foundation of all of his writing -- the complex, and dwindling, relationship between man and nature and its repercussions. Lopez, a contributing editor at Harper's, is the author of a dozen works of nonfiction and fiction and writes like a more verbose, compassionate, and scientific Hemingway. About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory pulls together his powerful magazine essays like "Flight," an account and interpretation of flying across the world with penguins, cars and other products of consumerism. Every item and animal (lions, wolves, horses) on the plane is there for one reason: to be sold. Lopez relies heavily on detail which occasionally makes for tedious reading, but About This Life ultimately offers insightful and well-crafted essays about journeys and our shifting place in the natural world. --Tyler D. Johnson

Aliens of Affection
by Padgett Powell
Henry Holt & Co., $14 paper

Padgett Powell's collection of nine short stories delves into the wilder reaches of Southern life. This is Harry Crews territory, deveined of Crews' trademark meanness. There's Rod in "Scarliotti and the Sinkhole," who has had the great good fortune to be sideswiped by an Ohioan, which means monetary compensation for injury. He dreams about renaming himself after something distinguished. "Triage," or "Numchucks," for example. In "Wayne," a Texas roofer worries about his teeth decaying, his ex-wife's boyfriends, and what that groove in his old army bayonet is for. The longest piece, "All Along the Watchtower," is narrated by some aberrant descendant of one of Shakespeare's fools, and is itself worth the price of a ticket. The man, recently released from a mental institute, skips his mental health checkup to go to Mexico in search of a 50-pound Chihuahua. Powell's people, children of an older, poorer South, lurk on the edges of a life more abundant, but they just can't give up fun for a spiritually impoverished normality. -- Roger Gathman

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