April 08, 2002 12:00 PM

Spiritual Genius

The Mastery of Life’s Meaning

by Winifred Gallagher

Reviewed by Michelle Tauber

How’s that for an ambitious subtitle? In place of facile Chicken Soup for the Soul-style thoughts on the meaning of it all, Gallagher instead travels the world to visit 10 diverse, deeply religious individuals who “compassionately teach us…to develop our own special roles in the great sacred scheme of things.” Among them: an ultra-Orthodox Israeli rabbi, a Baptist preacher who serves Philadelphia’s poor and a Tibetan Buddhist nun. Journalist Gallagher brings a lucid writing style to a subject that would otherwise be maddeningly obtuse. (Random House, $24.95)

Bottom Line: Boost your spiritual IQ

Slave to Fashion

by Rebecca Campbell

Reviewed by Lori Gottlieb

Wacky British fashion assistant Katie Castle has really done it this time. “I’m a stock character from fiction,” she muses after she commits a sin that seems borrowed from a Danielle Steel novel: cheating on her sweet-but-humdrum fiancé, Ludo, who is also her boss’s son. Before she can bat her mascara’d eyelashes, gone are loyal Ludo, the keys to their swanky flat, her cool job and—horrors, darling!—access to London’s parties. Katie gets hired by a sweatshop and becomes a Mother Teresa in Manolos, improving the lot of immigrant machinists.

That inexplicable twist and a dopey protagonist—the mannequins in the Juniors department have more insight than Katie—make Slave to Fashion as irrelevant as last season’s hemlines. (Villard, $11.95)

Bottom Line: Absolutely fatuous

Report from Ground Zero

by Dennis Smith

Reviewed by Patrick Rogers

Catching his first glimpse of the World Trade Center attack on Sept. 11, one New York City firefighter gulped, “This is going to be the worst day of my life.” Body parts rained from the sky, landing on chairs set out in the plaza for a concert. Yet this fireman and thousands of others, fighting every human instinct, didn’t run for safety.

Why? Report, Smith’s raw and compelling account of the terror strike and two months of its aftermath, blasts past the steel-and-cinders exterior of the rescue and into its soft heart. Relying on first-person accounts, Smith, a former fireman and author of the 1972 classic Report from Engine Co. 82—whose reputation served as an all-access pass to the WTC site from day one—coaxes rescuers into talking about tears, guilt, their whispered Hail Marys and time spent searching for lost sons and nephews when other duties called. They emerge even more heroic: a clan in crisis with spouses to calm, funerals to attend and a sense of family honor that trumps even fear of death. (Viking, $24.95)

Bottom Line: A stirring tribute

Hannah’s Gift

Lessons from a Life Fully Lived

by Maria Housden

Reviewed by Christina Cheakalos

Sick in a hospital before her third birthday, Hannah refused to allow doctors to operate unless she could wear her red patent leather Mary Janes during surgery. Score: Hannah, 1, doctors, 0. When three residents came to examine her, Hannah yelled, “Stop!” Then she asked her mother to tell the doctors to go. “They aren’t my friends; they didn’t even tell me their names!” The word spread: No doctors touched Hannah without first introducing themselves Hannah, 2, doctors, 0.

Hannah lost her battle against cancer in 1994 when she was just 4. But her mother shares her memory in a lyrical valentine that recounts Hannah’s final year. Housden, a grief lecturer, knows firsthand that the death of a child is dramatic enough; there’s no need for gooey prose. Except for an occasional passage, Housden doesn’t try to be a poet. The result is a heartbreaking and heartwarming tale of a fearless and feisty little girl who, writes her mother, taught those around her “that the truest measure of a life is not its length, but the fullness in which it is lived.” (Bantam, $17.95)

Bottom Line: A gift in itself

Page-turner of the week

The Stone Monkey

by Jeffery Deaver

Reviewed by Peter Hyman

Quadriplegic forensic detective Lincoln Rhyme of The Bone Collector (1997) and three other novels is back on the job with his able-bodied partner and lover, Amelia Sachs. This time the unlikely sleuths are taking on a Chinese baddie behind a shipment of human cargo that explodes off the coast of Long Island. Two families of illegal immigrants survive, along with the ruthless human smuggler (nicknamed the Ghost) who set up the dangerous trip and is wanted around the world for murder. As Rhyme scours a trail of clues, the Ghost disappears in New York City’s Chinatown and methodically sets about tracking and murdering the surviving aliens so they can’t reveal his secrets.

The Stone Monkey performs all the gymnastic plot twists typical of Deaver, with a hero who is nimble of wit if not body: When an FBI man asks whether the Chinese vessel was a boat or a ship, the bedridden Rhyme replies, “I don’t know. I don’t do much sailing.” Deaver’s chin-stroking ideas about larger political overtones should be sent back to whatever issue of Foreign Affairs they came from, but few thriller writers can set up and knock down a line of dominoes with such aplomb. (Simon & Schuster, $25)

Bottom Line: Rock-solid suspense

Crow Lake

by Mary Lawson

Reviewed by Francine Prose

This restrained and intense first novel takes its name from the Ontario farming community in which its narrator, Kate Morrison, spends her childhood. After her parents are killed in an automobile accident, her two older brothers take responsibility for raising 7-year-old Kate and her sister—a task that involves considerable danger given the family’s run-ins with the violent folks next door. It also entails a significant personal sacrifice for one of her brothers. Kate grows up to become a scientist and teacher. Yet despite her sharp intellect and sensitivity, ghosts from her past continue to disrupt her relationships with her boyfriend and her siblings back in Crow Lake.

Lawson mercifully steers clear of sentimentality and melodrama. This is a touching meditation on the power of loyalty and loss, on the ways in which we pay our debts and settle old scores and on what it means to love, to accept, to succeed—and to negotiate fate’s obstacle courses. (Dial, $23.95)

Bottom Line: Go jump in this Lake

You Got Nothing Coming

by Jimmy A. Lerner

Reviewed by Daniel Radosh

Apollo astronaut Michael Collins once said that we will never hear a truly accurate description of what it’s like in space because we’re not sending poets up there. Something similar can be said about prison.

Lerner is no poet but he is an affable guide to life inside. A former Pacific Bell manager who once worked with Dilbert creator Scott Adams, he’s the ultimate “fish,” doing three years in a Nevada prison after a fight led to a manslaughter rap. Nothing Coming (the con’s mantra about the perks of prison life) is frightening—cine fight ends with a sharpened pen in an inmate’s neck—but also funny. Lerner notes that everyone claims to have joined the Attica riot, making it “the convict equivalent of Woodstock,” and kisses up to superiors—the wardens—like a good office drone. The book Deters out, though, in the final third, when Lerner explains his crime is result of drunken bad choices. (Broadway, $24.95)

Bottom Line: Worth doing time with

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