Critic’s Picks: January

Assistant book editor Jason Kehe reviews his four must-reads of the month—his favorite L.A. release, one pick from the wide-open West, another from our friends back East, and a recommendation for more adventurous readers


The Spy Who Jumped Off the Screen
Thomas Caplan
(Viking, 384 pages, $27)

Yes, it says “With an Introduction by President Bill Clinton” on the terrifically designed, Old Hollywood-style cover. Clinton and Caplan met at Georgetown and have been close ever since. You can trust the former president when he tells you to read this diverting spy thriller, which stars Bond-Bourne love child Ty Hunter. He’s a triple hyphenate—actor-soldier-spy—and he’ll need all three of those personas. Some will dismiss the WMD plot as old hat, but there’s really nothing more menacing than the threat of nuclear annihilation. You’ll believe Caplan’s well-constructed, globe-trotting story—and that his hero has the goods to save the day.



Hannibal and Me: What History’s Greatest Military Strategist Can Teach Us About Success and Failure
Andreas Kluth
(Riverhead, 298 pages, $27)

No, for the 40th time, no—it’s not Hannibal as in Lecter. Didn’t you take European history in the 10th grade? This is the guy who stampeded through Rome on elephants some 2,200 years ago. His story—of spectacular success and just as spectacular failure—guides Kluth’s study of what it takes to conquer life and die happy. Hannibal’s just the beginning. Kluth, the West Coast correspondent for The Economist, mines a veritable who’s who of history’s winners and losers for life lessons, from Einstein to Steve Jobs, Cleopatra to Eleanor Roosevelt. Booksellers will have an interesting time shelving this one. What is it? Memoir? Bio? Self-help? Pop psych? Here’s a better question: Who cares? It’s fascinating.



Hope: A Tragedy
Shalom Auslander
(Riverhead, 292 pages, $27)

This is one of those books you’ll enjoy gabbing about more than reading. That’s because its premise is just so endlessly amusing—and sort of weird. Solomon Kugel and his New York family need a change, so they light out for an old farmhouse in the burbs. One night Kugel hears a tap-tap-tapping in the attic. When he goes to investigate, he discovers it’s a person. Guess who? It’s none other than Anne Frank. Yes, as in “The Diary of.” She’s still alive—and she smells awful. What follows is an absurd, irreverent, potentially deep, increasingly maddening meditation on past and future told through the eyes of an impotent man and a now disillusioned, cantankerous old woman. It all means something, surely. But you never quite get over the Anne Frank joke long enough to pay much attention to anything else.



Baby Geisha
Trinie Dalton
(Two Dollar Radio, 144 pages, $16)

The irony is that this “collection of thirteen sexually-charged stories” is at its best when the sex isn’t so obviously charged. “Pura Vida,” about an emotionally unavailable journalist on assignment to cover a sloth clinic in Costa Rica, is a standout, its final moment between woman and sloth arriving with breathtaking lightness, like the first flower of spring. Other memorable outings include trips to the Missouri Ozarks (“Wet Look”), the Alps (“Shrub of Emotion”), and the Painted Desert (“Baby Geisha”), with men and women on the verge of, but never quite reaching, psycho-sexual breakthroughs. Drugs show up a lot. As with most things, this stuff’s not for everyone. But it can’t hurt to try. You might be surprised.