Capital Gazette wins special Pulitzer Prize citation for coverage of newsroom shooting that killed five

'Lite' fare to amuse on cold winter nights

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Like prizefighters, novels fall into different weight classifications. This month marks the debut of six featherweights: two comedies about eating, two about the dating habits of thirty-something single people, and two about Hollywood.

Breezy and quick, Cooking for Harry: A Low-Carbohydrate Novel (Shaye Areheart Books, 208 pages, $22) zips along like an infomercial for the Atkins diet. Francie and Harry Kligler, a long-married Pittsburgh couple, are forced to make big changes when Harry's weight tops out at 269 pounds.

Formerly a dedicated gourmand who candied his own ginger and spent weekends in cake-decorating seminars, Harry must now save himself by reducing his carbohydrate intake. As he plunges earnestly into his weight-loss program, he shakes up everything else in his complacent life.

Francie begins to feel neglected when Harry diverts his energy into his dot-com work, finding solace in the company of a handsome family friend. But things wrap up as cheerfully as a cooking show, with only one outstanding mystery: the true identity of the author, a Famous Writer (or so we are led to believe) who wrote the novel under the pseudonym Kay-Marie James.

Kate Christensen has proved herself an expert on the dark side of comic fiction in two previous novels, and her third, The Epicure's Lament (Doubleday, 368 pages, $23.95), is no exception. Here she's managed to create a thoroughly unsympathetic yet compelling anti-hero, a bitter, 40-ish hermit named Hugo Whittier. Squirreled away in his crumbling ancestral mansion on the Hudson River, Hugo is smoking himself to death while reading Montaigne and M.F.K. Fisher, plotting unwise sexual liaisons with local married women, and rehashing the mess he has made of his life.

Meanwhile, the people Hugo least wants to see begin to congregate at the mansion: his older brother, his estranged wife with their young daughter, several misbehaving neighbors, and a very funny hit man named Shlomo.

The action reaches a crescendo when everyone gathers for Christmas dinner, which Hugo cooks while preparing to commit suicide later that night. While some may find Hugo's narcissism wearying -- too many laments and not enough epicurism -- Christensen's book has a mordant, sophisticated charm.

Even more unsympathetic than Hugo Whittier is the narrator of Kyle Smith's first novel, Love Monkey (Morrow, 352 pages, $23.95), a 32-year-old editor at a New York Post-style tabloid named Tom Farrell. Tom is the snarkiest of Manhattan single lads whose chief preoccupation seems to be going around town making witty comments about things. As a sideline, he moons over a vague, beautiful co-worker named Julia, but otherwise precious little happens here.

Even the World Trade Center attacks get reduced to singles-bar chat, becoming, in Tom's callow view, merely a persuading incentive to hook up with one's ex. Nevertheless, I must confess to being a sucker for Smith's brand of cheeky humor. Sushi tasting like "wet uncooked sea rodent"? A stripper introduced as "a tempest in a D cup"? I laughed, I'm ashamed to say, at all of it.

Apparently, one does not have to live in New York to be loveless and sardonic. According to Shannon Olson, the same circumstances may be observed in Chaska, Minn., where the heroine of her second novel, a smart woman in her early 30s who is also named Shannon, happens to live. Children of God Go Bowling (Penguin USA, 304 pages, $24.95) is the sequel to Olson's comic debut, Welcome to My Planet, and features some of the same characters, including Shannon's wisecracking mother and an all-knowing psychotherapist.

Shannon is less brittle and less self-consciously hip than Tom Farrell, but no less amusing. Catholic in a world of Lutherans, single among a group of married friends, she feels increasingly marginalized, and begins to wonder whether she can blame her unsuccessful dating life on a repressed love for Adam, her best friend since college. Before Shannon has a chance to explore the matter, though, the novel takes a solemn turn when Adam develops cancer. The real trick here is that Olson completely avoids maudlin sentimentality, allowing her protagonist to be honest about her grief over Adam's illness without losing her sense of humor.

Comedy takes a more surreal turn with Sean Murphy's new novel, The Finished Man (Delta Paperbacks, 256 pages, $13). Aspiring novelist Frank Matthews arrives in Los Angeles from New Jersey to seek his fortune, and runs into an old pal from his graduate writing program, Max Peterson, whose book City of Breasts has recently become a runaway best-seller. Max lives in a Gatsby-like castle on a Malibu hillside and has married another of their school chums, an elusive beauty named Magee.

It isn't long before Frank is drawn into Max and Magee's hothouse world, punctuated by fancy-dress parties with newly minted celebrities, wild canyon rides in Max's sports car, and near-catastrophic fires and floods. Soon Frank has moved into the couple's garage apartment, where he begins a secret affair with Magee and learns quite a few secrets about Max's glittering life.

The Finished Man suffers from longueurs, and at times its prose, like Max's, goes purple around the edges, but it can also be funny in an offbeat way. What I found most interesting is the fact that, without a trace of irony, Murphy has chosen Hollywood as the setting for a book about people with literary aspirations. Can this mean that Los Angeles, long ridiculed as the bastion of crass illiteracy, is now taken for granted as a literary center?

Not if you ask Hilary de Vries, a journalist who has covered Hollywood for more than 10 years and who has now written an acidic entertainment industry satire, So 5 Minutes Ago (Random House, 304 pages, $21.95).

Alex Davidson has worked as a publicist for three years at a Los Angeles public-relations firm when it is bought out by a bigger company with a sinister new boss. Will Alex succumb to whispered threats and betray her old colleagues, or will she challenge the new boss and sink her career? De Vries gets all the Hollywood details exactly right, from the backstage tedium of awards shows to the "rock-paper-scissors rule": "celebrity beats an executive; an executive beats talent; and everyone beats a publicist or journalist."

Donna Rifkind is a former literary agent and magazine editor whose writing has been published by Commentary, The American Scholar, The New Criterion, The Wall Street Journal, the Times Literary Supplement, The Washington Post and The New York Times.

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