Peter Kuper
Eye Press

From his beginnings in the punk agitzine, World War 3, to the editorial pages of the New York Times, Peter Kuper has maintained a political viewpoint unchanged by success in the mainstream: unabashedly leftist, proudly progressive, and downright nasty when he's pissed off.

And funny, too, as shown in this collection of comics culled from such publications as The Nation and the New York Daily News. Using the format of the four-panel gag strip, Kuper takes on such newsworthy idiocies as the Elian melodrama, the Reform Party rumble and Bush Redux. Recurring themes are the hypocrisies of hypercapitalism, and, since he's a New Yorker, Rudy Giuliani, shown in one strip dynamiting the Chrysler Building because "whoever designed it knows damn well it looks like the pope's hat on a you-know-what"

No, it ain't subtle. In his intro, Kuper credits Mad magazine as his inspiration toward becoming a political cartoonist, and one of his regular gigs is the Mad series, "Spy vs. Spy." A few of the strips take the easy route of Mad-style parody, riffing on movie posters, Star Wars and Peanuts. But most present that good ol' Kuper bitterness in nice, bite-size chunks, like "Expanded Profiling" with cops rousting "Suits in the vicinity of Madison Ave. on suspicion of targeting minors with alcohol and tobacco propaganda," or "Ad Nauseum," the NATO campaign against Milosevic recast as a commercial for household products.

Combining his nervous, scratchy style with daily-strip humor, Peter Kuper's Topsy Turvy is a good laugh for both ideologues and apoliticals. Think "stocking stuffer"! -Bill Widener

David Malouf

David Malouf has an eye and an ear for the small things, the small things that make life a little more extraordinary. In this collection of diverse stories, he writes from the perspective of different voices. Women and men. Children and adults.

In "Sally's Story," he addresses the life of a live-in companion for men on leave from the Vietnam War. It's a touchy subject, and he approaches it with just enough sensitivity to make it real. But he's also open to Sally's wild side and her strong tendencies, her refusal to be dragged down by her situation. She has, after all, chosen it for herself; she wanted to experience more of what life had to offer.

Then in "Night Training," Malouf writes of a young soldier, Greg Newsome, naive but sure of himself, who is awakened several times a week by a bitter officer to perform drill naked. The characters are complex, have a lot on their mind, and Malouf is able to avoid the obvious possible cliches, opting instead for a mysterious deeper meaning. Greg learns something of the world and its expectations of him as a young man from the night sessions.

Malouf ends the book with "Great Day," a story heavy with family. As he does several times before, Malouf is able to write with incredible feeling from a child's point of view. But he also proves he is a master with his ability to change points of view throughout the story with no confusion to the reader. He addresses a father's fear of death, a daughter-in-law's attraction to the family, and a son's finest moment. It is an amazing piece of short fiction, capping off an impressive book in both scope and depth.

Here in America, Australian writers draw hardly a nod at all, but Malouf should be recognized as a master of short fiction. -Steven Tweddell

Bill Bryson
Broadway Books

No tape delay here. Bill Bryson provides a real-time account of his walkabout in the outback. From the Pacific to the Indian Ocean, Bryson narrates his Australian journey from Sydney to Canberra, Melbourne, the Great Barrier Reef, Alice Springs and Uluru (formerly Ayers Rock), ending on the east coast of the continent in Perth.

With a self-effacing interplay of hyperbole and understatement, his signature style, he recounts everything along his way - the exciting, the mundane, the beautiful, the grotesque, the frightening (lots of things frighten him) - grading his finds with a scale from "monumentally bad" to "quite astonishing." At turns, Bryson is quite astonishingly funny (for example), at other times, like even the best of traveling companions, he can be tedious in a bet-you-haven't-seen-the-world's-second-largest-ball-of-twine sort of way. Overflowing with interesting historical anecdotes, Bryson has a particular fixation with flora and fauna, especially the deadly ones that pack the vast continent.

To be honest, after thirty years in the business, Bryson isn't really a very good traveler. He arrives when destinations are closed, spends just two short hours at Uluru because he hasn't reserved a hotel room, and gets sunburned to a crisp on a hike through Perth. Much of the action, in fact, consists of down time between interesting destinations, him reading a book at a bar, the perfect time to relate a tidbit of info he happens to be reading.

The good times far outweigh the bad, though, on the road with Bryson. He provides enough great snapshots that his mates want to bond with him during the trip, then reminisce in fond remembrance of it until the next time he heads out. -T.R. Wright