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Weekly Alibi Speed Reader

By Jeffrey Lee, Noah Masterson, Steven Robert Allen and Aaron Emmel

APRIL 27, 1998: 

History of My Heart
by Robert Pinsky (Noonday, paper, $12)

Pinsky is an exemplary teacher-poet. "The Figured Wheel" and "The Garden" are undeniably fine poems, with admirably clean diction and smart technique. But something about them makes them seem as if they were written to be studied in graduate courses. There's a lot to be learned from reading them; if only they didn't feel that way--as though they were meant to be presented as examples of something. "History of my heart," a virtuoso piece, is very much in the Bishop/Lowell confessional tradition but with a professorial stamp that is never found in the work of those poets; its line-breaks beg the attention of a Ph.D. thesis. Pinsky is best known for his long poem, "An Explanation of America," which made a splash in the 1970s, and now for the present volume, which Noonday has reprinted to coincide with the author's being named Poet Laureate of the United States. (JL)

Nobody Knows the Truffles I've Seen
by George Lang (Knopf, cloth, $28.95)

George Lang is probably the world's most famous restaurateur. He is responsible for the success of the Four Seasons restaurant and the Café des Artistes in New York, as well as five-star eateries in Budapest, Jakarta and beyond. That he is also a Hungarian Jew who spent years in a labor camp during World War II is merely a footnote in his history; the emphasis here is on the food. Reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin's autobiography, Lang often comes across as a pompous windbag who conquered all due to his superior resourcefulness and wit. But Lang's successes are undeniable, and if he chooses to gloss over his failures and tragedies--his second divorce and the death of his daughter receive barely a paragraph each--it is his right. The end result is an engaging tale of the American dream come true and a helpful primer on what rich people like to eat. (NM)

Chopin in Paris
by Tad Szulc (Scribner, cloth, $30)

When I lived alone in Chicago, I spent a ridiculous amount of time absorbing the bluesy, effeminate violence of Chopin's Nocturnes, music that at minimum requires a grey sky as backdrop and won't fully be appreciated 'til rain starts falling and you find yourself stuck indoors with no one but the roaches for company. So, I looked forward to this biography. If I had a little spare cash, I might enroll Szulc in an English Composition class at the local community college--this guy writes like shit--but he's done extensive research, and despite himself, he's compiled an interesting book. Of course, he couldn't really go wrong. During the 18 years Chopin lived in Paris, he mingled with the likes of George Sand, Delacroix, Liszt, Balzac, Victor Hugo, Mendelssohn, Berlioz, Schumann and a host of other 19th-century luminaries. Even Karl Marx lurked around in the shadows. When Szulc describes the lives of these folks--and avoids sharing his obtuse opinions about music, politics or the human psyche--he opens a panoramic window onto an extraordinary time and place in artistic and political history. The view inevitably fascinates. (SRA)

The Club Dumas
by Arturo Pérez-Reverte (Vintage, paper, $13)

The Club Dumas is a riddle of demonology structured around the plot of Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers. The promotional quotes prefacing this international best seller proclaim it to be a thriller, but there is not much here in the way of actual adventure. Instead, people talk a lot about books. But this is an intellectual mystery, and if not always exciting, it is consistently interesting. The front cover quote compares Pérez-Reverte to Umberto Eco. Although the author lacks Eco's love of lists, copious details and amazingly complex plotting (to this book's advantage, I'd say), it is obviously very much inspired by Eco's work. The Club Dumas is peopled with lovers of ancient manuscripts, pursuing puzzles drawn from the obscurest and darkest corners of (usually medieval European) history. Copies of woodcuts, diagrams and Latin texts help turn the reader into a fellow sleuth. If you want a bit of excitement that engages your mind and leaves you with something to ponder after the chase scenes, The Club Dumas deserves a look. (AE)

--Jeffrey Lee, Noah Masterson, Steven Robert Allen and Aaron Emmel

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