The 9/11 Investigations, edited by Steven Strasser (PublicAffairs, $14.95). Dramatic news emerged last week from the panel investigating the 2001 attacks: revelations about a 10-plane plot, and the denial of any "collaborative relationship" between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. Unfortunately, none of it is in this chunky volume of excerpts. That, I was told, is because the publisher wanted to get the book into stores while the hearings were still going on; future editions would include last week's final round.
Given that limitation, this is a surprisingly lucid and engaging compilation of what investigators have learned, frequently as easy to digest as a novel: "The thirteen remaining hijackers, the 'muscle,' whose role was to overcome pilots and control passengers, began arriving in the United States in April 2001," one segment begins. "Except for one threesome, they arrived in pairs, the last in June. . . . There were two pairs of brothers, the al Hazmis and al Shehris, in addition to networks of friends. A few had higher education. Others had little education. Some had struggled with depression or alcohol abuse."
Sparring between witnesses and commissioners can be both frustrating and enlightening to read. Commissioner James Thompson: "Are you saying to me you were asked to make an untrue case to the press and the public, and that you went ahead and did it?" Former national security adviser Richard A. Clarke: "No sir. Not untrue. Not an untrue case. I was asked to highlight the positive aspects . . . and to minimize the negative aspects . . . I've done it for several presidents." Strasser, a former Newsweek editor, compiled the book from staff reports of the 9/11 Commission, excerpts from the House-Senate Joint Inquiry and testimony from 14 key witnesses. Brief editor's notes provide context and background.
Screeno: Stories and Poems, by Delmore Schwartz (New Directions, $8.95). Schwartz, intellectual star of the postwar Partisan Review, brilliant writer of poems and short stories, lecturer and icon and, eventually, madman, is now little more than a vaguely familiar name to many baby boomers and all but unknown to younger readers. He "is in eclipse. With the acceleration of the generations, his fame is long dimmed; the Wunderkind he once was is unremembered," writes Cynthia Ozick in the introduction to this collection -- which proceeds to take just 128 pages to demonstrate the wrongness of that fate. The works reprinted here reflect what Ozick describes as two poles of his art: the lyrical poetry of the "Delmore" side of his character, with its themes of "awe and abyss," versus the direct, unadorned power of the "Schwartz" prose. Schwartz's best-known short story , "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities," took this first-time reader's breath away. In it, the narrator dreams of his parents' courtship as if seeing it in a silent movie -- his father calling on the family on a Sunday afternoon in 1909, the young couple walking on the Brooklyn boardwalk, visiting a fortune-teller, talking about marriage -- "and it was then that I stood up in the theatre and shouted: 'Don't do it. . . . Nothing good will come of it, only remorse, hatred, scandal, and two children whose characters are monstrous.' " The contrast could not be more extreme between that dread and the pure joy of the beginning of the poem "Far Rockaway": "The radiant soda of the seashore fashions/ Fun, foam, and freedom." A book tiny enough to fit in a back pocket holds enough evidence to sell a new generation on an old hero. This is exactly what paperbacks are for.
The Laying on of Hands, by Brenda Rhodes Miller (Harlem Moon/Broadway, $12.95). The Tyler family of Mississippi had always tended the ills of their neighbors, and aging matriarch Tyler Mama wants her granddaughter to follow that path. Twelve-year-old Charlotte, backed by her father, balks: "Please God, don't let her make me a healer," she prays quietly as her elders argue. "Keep me away from the trouble and worry and responsibility of healing." But Tyler Mama, strong and "fearsome," has her way: "Charlotte has healing hands," she tells Papa, "just like you and me." And so she trains the girl -- nicknamed Muchie, because she has "so much sweetness" -- in the mysteries of herbs, the subtleties of touch. But when her gift fails her at the moment her own family needs it most, Charlotte loses "the heart for healing" and is a long time finding it again. This gentle, personal tale of birth, life and death is a first novel for Miller, a Washington resident who is the executive director of the D.C. Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy and author of a collection of African-American recipes called The Church Ladies' Divine Desserts.
Several other new releases have summer reading appeal. In Single Wife, by Nina Solomon (New American Library, $14 ), Grace Brookman is a Manhattanite married to an unreliable journalist named Laz. She gets used to him vanishing for a night, or a few; but one day Laz simply walks out and doesn't come back, and Grace decides not to admit that her marriage has fallen apart. Instead, she pretends he never left and begins an elaborate campaign of fooling her housekeeper and her friends with small ruses like leaving the toilet seat up and complaining about him staying out late. The funny thing is, she starts to like the new setup.
The Sparkling-Eyed Boy, by Amy Benson (Mariner, $12), is technically not fiction, but it's largely about things that didn't happen. In this memoir of her first teenage love, Benson chooses to dwell mostly on what might have happened -- if she and the boy had had sex, if they'd kept in touch, if they'd gotten married. Did she really love him, or love being in love?
Then there's The Quality of Life Report, by Meghan Daum (Penguin, $14). Lucinda Trout is the "lifestyle correspondent" for an early-morning New York television program, showcasing the latest news about sushi, thong underwear, why no one wears gold anymore and "is thirty-seven the new twenty-six?" Lured out to a large, square, unnamed Midwestern state to investigate methamphetamine use, she falls for a local guy and convinces the station to move her there to file "heartland" segments. What seems like a setup for corny platitudes is unexpectedly fresh -- none of the characters do quite what you expect them to. As Heather Havrilesky said in her review here last year, "Trout's perspectives could either become obnoxiously snobby or cloyingly poignant if the author were less self-aware or less enamored of her characters' ability to unselfconsciously invent themselves and their lives."
-- Nancy Szokan