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By Nora Krug
Sunday, January 27, 2008

THE BOOK OF OTHER PEOPLE Edited by Zadie Smith | Penguin. 287 pp. $15

Cindy Stubenstock, Glad Parks-Schultz and Perkus Tooth are as singular as their names. One is a suburban jet-setter with a taste for expensive art, one a "stern district judge despised for her imperviousness to human context," the last an eccentric culture aficionado with a "tendency to veer into ellipsis." They are among the menagerie of individuals who populate The Book of Other People, a collection of 23 vignettes by some of the coolest fiction writers and graphic artists around. The list of contributors, which include Dave Eggers, George Saunders, Colm T¿ib¿n, Chris Ware and Edwidge Danticat, reads like the contents page of a fiction issue of the New Yorker (where several stories were published previously) or the Believer (whose cover artist, Charles Burns, drew the jacket illustration).

The hope, explains novelist Zadie Smith, who edited and contributed to the anthology, is that the book "might be a lively demonstration of the fact that there are as many ways to create 'character' (or deny the possibility of 'character') as there are writers." Variety -- in approach, style and, in some cases, quality -- is certainly on display here. Among the more successful sketches are Jonathan Safran Foer's dead-on impression of a Jewish grandmother, ZZ Packer's affecting tale of a young woman's escape from a bad relationship and cartoonist Daniel Clowes's satire of an online film critic. With proceeds from sales going to Eggers's literacy organization (826 New York), maybe the real hope is that buying the book is itself a character-building experience.

A PERFECT MESS The Hidden Benefits of Disorder -- How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and On-the-Fly Planning Make The World a Better Place By Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman | Back Bay. 288 pp. $14.99

Messiness, the conventional wisdom goes, is a character flaw. Among other evils, it undermines efficiency -- and hence success -- not only in business but in life. Not so, counter Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman in A Perfect Mess, their spirited defense of disorganization. Slobs everywhere will find vindication in the book's premise, "that mess and disorder might be harmless or even beneficial," but the authors advocate something more complex, and maybe even contradictory: disorder in moderation. "In any situation there is a type and level of mess at which effectiveness is maximized," they explain. To demonstrate, Abrahamson, a management professor at Columbia Business School, and Freedman, a business writer, point to examples that run the gamut from the messy lab that led to Alexander Fleming's accidental discovery of penicillin to a Boston-area hardware store where disorganized, overstocked shelves have fueled sales. Their logic may not be foolproof (is messiness the reason for such successes or just one factor of many?), but such questions miss the point of this book; its tone is more conversational than authoritative. Hopping along from anecdote to anecdote, A Perfect Mess is a hodgepodge of cultural history, pop-business wisdom, how-to and polemic -- in other words, a perfect mess. Perhaps the disorganized structure is an unintentional test of the book's argument.

From Our Previous Reviews

* Alondra Nelson praised Medical Apartheid (Harlem Moon, $15.95), Harriet A. Washington's chronicle of the exploitation of black Americans in medical studies, calling it "courageous and poignant." The book, which sheds fresh light on the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, among other cases, has been nominated for a 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award.

* Though Ron Rosenbaum's The Shakespeare Wars (Random House, $18) "might be more aptly subtitled 'Shakespeare and Me,' " Michael Dirda commented, "it is nonetheless a genuinely passionate, insight-filled survey of the serious work being done by many scholars, directors and actors."

* Carl Bernstein "has not lost his reporter's touch," Kevin Phillips said of A Woman in Charge (Vintage, $15.95), Bernstein's biography of Hillary Clinton.

* Persian Girls (Tarcher/Penguin, $14.95), Nahid Rachlin's "sorrowful memoir," Carolyn See explained, "is just a story of how it was, during a certain period of time, for one upper-middle-class family in Iran, destroyed from within and without by forces it couldn't begin to reckon with."

Nora Krug is a writer living in Washington.

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