Here's to the Underdog (or Bird)

Sunday, October 28, 2007

CROSS-XBy Joe Miller Picador. 509 pp. $16

With a subtitle like "The Amazing True Story of How the Most Unlikely Team From the Most Unlikely of Places Overcame Staggering Obstacles at Home and at School to Challenge the Debate Community on Race, Power, and Education," Cross-X sounds ambitious. It is.

Joe Miller was a wide-eyed journalist for an alternative weekly in Kansas City, Mo., when he became intrigued by the plight of Central High School, an urban institution that would look familiar to fans of "The Wire." The one bright spot was the school's winning debate team. Inspired to tell the story of a game "that might well be the ultimate savior for forgotten inner-city teens," Miller followed the group through a season and soon became a character in his own narrative, as an assistant debate coach and advocate for change in the rules of debate. Miller's enthusiasm, though admirable, at times gets the better of him, as when he belabors the minutiae of debate and proclaims the game's redemptive power -- unfortunate distractions from what is at heart a compelling underdog story.

BORN ON A BLUE DAY Inside the Extraordinary Mind of An Autistic SavantBy Daniel Tammet Free Press. 237 pp. $14

For years, Daniel Tammet, who has savant syndrome, the form of autism made famous by Dustin Hoffman's character in "Rain Man," felt like an outsider, even a pariah. Numbers offered a means of connection: When friends say "they feel sad or depressed, I picture myself sitting in the dark hollowness of number 6 to help me experience the same sort of feeling and understand it," he explains in his memoir, Born on a Blue Day. The book garnered a flurry of media attention when it was published last year, turning Tammet -- already the star of the popular British documentary "Brainman" -- into something of a celebrity. Tammet seems comfortable in his new role as unofficial spokesperson and blogger (www.optimnem.co.uk/blog). His book explains, eloquently, his evolution from outcast to envoy. More important, it provides a fascinating tour of the autistic mind and the research being done to understand it.

PIGEONS The Fascinating Saga of the World's Most Revered and Reviled BirdBy Andrew D. Blechman Grove. 244 pp. $14

"Milk-fed veal of the sky" and "athletes of the highest caliber" are hardly descriptions one would associate with pigeons, but Andrew D. Blechman finds much to celebrate about the bird. His playful exploration of what some city-dwellers refer to as "rats with wings" takes him to some surprising places, such as a pigeon pageant much like the esteemed Westminster Kennel Club dog show, a Pennsylvania pigeon shoot and a Brooklyn pigeon-racing club. Along the way, he meets a colorful array of pigeon haters, hobbyists and saviors, most memorably a mysterious character known only as "Bob" who trolls the streets of New York looking for pigeon poachers. Though far from an authoritative study, the book brims with trivia about the importance of pigeons throughout history -- as wartime messengers and news distributors, among other heroic roles. It's almost enough to make you want to go to a park and feed them.

From Our Previous Reviews:

¿ In Among the Righteous: Lost Stories From the Holocaust's Long Reach Into Arab Lands (PublicAffairs, $14.95), Robert Satloff searches the Middle East for evidence that Arabs helped Jews during World War II. His discoveries are more nuanced than his expectations, Deborah Lipstadt explained. Still, she added, "Satloff's efforts to tell the story of Arab behavior -- both complicity and heroism -- during the Holocaust are important."

¿ The mother-daughter relationship in Edna O'Brien's The Light of Evening (Mariner, $13.95) is familiar territory for the prolific novelist, Louise Bernard observed. The novel encapsulates "everything that makes her previous work so satisfying, in its contrite, worldly prose and its refusal of easy redemption."

¿ The Syringa Tree (Random House, $13.95), Pamela Gien's novel based on her award-winning play about a white South African girl's awakening to racial tensions, "is beautifully written," noted Wendy Kann. "Gien has authentically recreated the unexpected terrors and confusion that once came with growing up white in South Africa."

Nora Krug is a writer in Washington.


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