Achilles, by Elizabeth Cook (Picador, $11). At 107 pages, this retelling of the Greek hero's origins, life, death and afterlife has the intense brevity of a poem; every line carries passion and weight. That's not surprising: Cook, who lives in London, is also a poet (and a scholar of Renaissance literature). Freud hovers like a shade of Hades in her imagining of the Trojan War. Here is a description of Neoptolemus, Achilles' son, as he slaughters his way through Priam's stronghold: "Of all the destroyers who move through the palace that day it is Neoptolemus who excels; who is the most unremitting. He makes his way through the rooms, eliminating life, thinking to emulate the father he's never met, whose armour he now wears. He wants someone to say, 'It's as if Achilles were living and moving again.' But not one person does."
The Shell Collector: Stories, by Anthony Doerr (Penguin, $13). The power of nature sweeps through this debut collection, a power that Doerr's human characters feel keenly. In the title story, a blind man, an expert on shells, has removed himself in late middle-age to "a thatch-roofed kibanda just north of Lamu, Kenya, one hundred kilometers south of the equator in a small marine park in the remotest elbow of the Lamu Archipelago. . . . He had never comprehended the endless variations of design: Why this lattice ornament? Why these fluted scales, these lumpy nodes? Ignorance was, in the end, and in so many ways, a privilege: to find a shell, to feel it, to understand only on some unspeakable level why it bothered to be so lovely. What joy he found in that, what utter mystery." Loveliness, however, as the shell collector knows, can carry a fatal sting.
The Anatomy of Insects and Spiders: Over 600 Exquisite Forms, by Claire Beverley and David Ponsonby (Chronicle, $16.95). In the spirit of that arachnophile Jonathan Edwards (see review on page 3), two English entomologists celebrate things that flit, crawl and weave webs. Not exactly a field guide, The Anatomy of Insects and Spiders uses old line engravings -- many dating to the Victorian era -- and an abundance of natural lore to celebrate thrips, beetles, sawflies, moths, butterflies and more, with a final section on the noble spider. (Beverly and Ponsonby note, with a certain sternness, classical accounts that "warn against the unjust murder of spiders, [which is] thought to bring the guilty one bad luck.") It's enough to make you want to apply for membership in the Royal Entomological Society -- or at least spare the next dust spider that crosses your path.
Restless Nation: Starting Over in America, by James M. Jasper (Univ. of Chicago, $18). Is the idea of national character making a comeback? James Jasper certainly has no qualms about using it to frame a historical, cultural and literary examination of the American propensity to be always in motion. We like to think that having a second act -- a fresh start -- is a national birthright, no matter what F. Scott Fitzgerald said; but are we right? "This book is about the peculiarity [in that character] that encourages us to see moving as a solution to most of our problems," Jasper writes. "Loyalty to place . . . feels like a trap. [Yet] restlessness can also be a trap, distorting our sense of the world around us and the possibilities it holds for us, raising expectations that cannot always be filled." (Note Jasper's confession that he didn't move when he lost his job; instead he became a writer, the most placeless of professions.)
The Browser's Ecstasy: A Meditation on Reading, by Geoffrey O'Brien (Counterpoint, $16.95). Despite the subtitle, this little book feels more like a Borgesian labyrinth of fables than a meditation -- fitting for the author of Dream Time and The Phantom Empire. (O'Brien is also editor in chief of the Modern Library.) One entry, "Prisoners," begins with a reader's nightmare: "The horror would be to have read all that was written, to have come to the end of books: a horror that prisoners and soldiers know, parceling out their few available books page by page, a page a day so as to last out the year. The American taken prisoner by the Germans was told that he would be given one book a week, selected at random by his jailers: the world would be heaven or hell depending on whether the book was a novel by John Galsworthy or a manual of chemical elements, the life of Julian the Apostate or a directory of the Shriners of Luzerne County, Pennsylvania."
-- Jennifer Howard