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Weekly Alibi Speed Reader

By Stephen Ausherman, Mary Golightly, Jennifer L.X. Scharn, Jessica English

AUGUST 17, 1998: 

The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto
by Mario Vargas Llosa (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, cloth, $23)

In this sequel to In Praise of the Stepmother, the love triangle continues between Don Rigoberto, a middle-aged insurance executive; his second wife, Lucrecia, and his son, Alfonso, "a viper with the face of an angel." The mystery this time: Is Alfonso really trying to reunite the family? Or is he just out to seduce his stepmother again? Llosa's choppy narrative ensures that the reader won't figure out what's real until the epilogue. Meanwhile, Rigoberto fills half his notebooks with rants against the world. He despises anything that does not glorify sex: Rotarians, sportsmen, feminists and art that does not give him a "tender new erection." The last is most important, for it seems he cannot enjoy an act of sex without first referencing it to a specific piece of art. Despite the obscurity of the work he cites, Rigoberto manages to fill the other half of his notebooks with some of the finest literary erotica in years. (SA)


The Pianist Who Liked Ayn Rand: A Novella and 13 Stories
by Gene H. Bell-Villada (Amador, paper, $14)

When an author purposefully alienates his readers, he better have damn good reason. If it is by accident, then he ought to look carefully at his juxtaposition of Spanish, Italian, Latin, German and complex mathematical equations and their necessity to his work. This said, any classically educated music enthusiast should enjoy plowing through these witty tales. Bell-Villada's stories are noble in concept: His Hispanic protagonist pops up in a variety of settings where his preconceived notions of the Anglo world are challenged, as he scrutinizes the reality of American stereotypes. Bombarded by car-loving businessmen and enlightened sorority girls, the young man wades his way through post-modern society. Bell-Villada succeeds in creating a world in which the reader, like the protagonist, serves as a voyeur who becomes increasingly disgruntled with his environment. Unfortunately, his wit and humor may not always override the frustrations of reading a text that could well have been written by Niles Crane. The alienation works, but this promising writer's satire is definitely a challenge to his audience. (MG)


Traces
by Ida Fink (Owl Books, paper, $12)

Upon mention of the words "the Holocaust," images brought to mind are that of countless innocent humans being marched to an unthinkable fate. To Ida Fink, each uncounted human has a face and a name. In her series of short stories, she artfully describes the lives that co-existed with death. The characters come to life with such heartbreaking honesty that it seems almost wrong to file this book under "fiction." Picture a girl whose love for her beau eclipses the war raging around her, or a boy who enjoys a fine autumn day despite the SS men standing only a few feet away, or a woman hiding who utters the chilling words, "They're killing people--nothing unusual." It is necessary to pause between each story and absorb the impact. None of the stories are easy to read. If you think everything that can be written about the Holocaust has already been written, you are painfully mistaken. Ida Fink's voice is one that must be heard, for she sings of a people whose spirit never died. (JLXS)


The Fall of a Sparrow
by Robert Hellenga (Scribner, cloth, $25)

On Assumption Day 1980, a bomb explodes in a Bologna, Italy, train station, killing the 22-year-old daughter of a Midwestern professor. The Fall of a Sparrow begins abruptly--and straightforwardly--with this scene. What follows is the story of a family's recovery, focusing on the academic, blues-guitar-playing father. His wife joins a convent; his other two daughters move out of the house. He faces the death of his daughter alone by traveling to Italy for the trial of the bomber that killed his daughter seven years before. Focusing on the emotional healing of this erudite professor, Robert Hellenga's second novel, following the widely acclaimed The Sixteen Pleasures, is often dry, saved only by the narrative voice of the middle daughter of the family, who adds a bit of color and humor. The Fall of a Sparrow is truly a moving story: It will move you to tears half of the time and bore you to tears the rest. (JE)


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