World of Pies
Karen Stolz

As coming-of-age, nostalgic, small-town southern chick books go, World of Pies is certainly not the worst. It's a novel, told in a series of chronological short stories, augmented by recipes that come up in the narrative (a device that's not especially new - see also, chick doyenne, Nora Ephron's Heartburn - or fresh, here).

The heroine, Roxanne, is 12 when the book starts and a married mom when it ends. Not really giving anything away there. The book tells you she's coming of age, and that's what these books do.

The jacket promises, "Roxanne is 12 years old and wild for baseball in 1962, the year of a pie-baking contest that will change her life forever. Life in the small town of Annette, Texas, has been idyllic, cozy; until this summer." Notwithstanding the misuse of the semicolon there, the book doesn't exactly deliver on such a pregnant promise.

Structuring the "novel" as stories is no more than a cheap device that allows the author to get away with avoiding transitions. The "devastating death" the jacket promises doesn't even happen in the narrative. A vital character just turns up dead and buried in the next story, past tense. If this were a play, everything interesting would occur offstage.

The book takes Roxanne through growing up in the 60s, her first sexual encounters (again, all past tense), college (past tense), a hippie wedding, a pregnancy, and a return to Annette.

It's not a bad book, it's just Lee Smith Lite. Readers looking for this kind of story should just pick up Smith's Live, Bottomless instead. Why settle for the imitation? -RR

What's Not To Love? The Adventures of a Mildly Perverted Young Writer
Jonathan Ames
Crown Publishers

Jonathan Ames is a mess.

And in this collection of essays, Ames plumbs the depths of that condition.

He recounts bizarre sexual encounters, peculiar theories concerning his body functions and a veritable Whitman's sampler of other assorted hang-ups including a low-key Oedipal relationship with his mom.

Sometimes a bunch of these neuroses converge as when Ames recalls the tube of an endoscopy procedure entering his colon:

"I didn't want the nurse to think that I was used to such large objects having their way with me. But in high school I had put my hairbrush handle up my rear after I read about someone doing that in Penthouse. I had enjoyed the hairbrush handle, it struck some unknown nerve, and I had abused it several times. As a curse, I am now balding and soon will have no need of hairbrushes."

Most of the essays are amusing; all of them will make a reader cringe.

Ames belongs to the subset of outrageously confessional writers containing David Sedaris and Howard Stern. Like those writers, Ames doesn't offer flattering depictions of himself. But in their fearless candor, the reader has the opportunity to discreetly identify with some of these flawed people from the safety of the armchair. -ADG

by Charles Baxter

The Feast of Love, indeed. A self-conscious novel, Charles Baxter writes as if the characters are dictating their stories to him. In the beginning, Baxter-a fictional Baxter-opens the novel with a detailed stroll through Ann Arbor, trying to walk off his insomnia. He meets an acquaintance, Bradley, who gives him the idea to write the stories of all the people with whom he comes into contact. "Everybody's got a story," he says, and he starts into his.

The next narration is by Bradley's ex-wife. From here, the book moves from one connection to the next, and we get to know the characters through each chapter's first-person story. They move toward each other, move into and out of one another's lives. These people, who seem unlikely to cross paths, end up becoming friends, good neighbors, helping each other out in times of need. And Baxter, with a keen eye for people's idiosyncrasies, creates a convincing and unique voice for each character.

Each person has a tale of love or failed love-husband and wife, man and dog, father and son. A lawyer, a struggling artist/coffeehouse owner, a philosophy teacher, a punk girl and her boyfriend. Mistresses, soulmates, friends. Each person performs multiple roles in this book, providing readers with a look at the complexities of modern love.

Baxter is a cool cynic with romantic tendencies. He wants to believe in the power of love, but he has seen too many casualties. He notices the small details that mean nothing alone but in context provide powerful commentary for our time. -Steven Tweddell