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Short Takes

July 31, 2011

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KICKING ASS AND SAVING SOULS
By David Matthews
Penguin, 272 pp., $25.99

Stefan Templeton is a real person whose life sounds like one of those beer commercials featuring the most interesting man in the world. As told by his childhood friend, Matthews (who also wrote about Templeton in his memoir, “Ace of Spades’’), the guy’s story is ridiculously rich: born to an African-American philosophy professor/martial-arts expert father and a Norwegian alternative therapist/proto-New Ager mother; childhood divided between Baltimore’s mean streets and various European castles, ricocheting in adulthood between adventure travel and daring criminal escapades. Oh yeah, and beautiful women of all nationalities fall at his feet.

Once you recover from the incredulity (and some of it involves the fact that Matthews devotes much of his final chapter to describing his fact-checking), the book is a lot of fun. Matthews spins a mean narrative, alternating thriller-paced scenes with an almost loopy tone of wonder at his friend’s experiences. “Bouncing belligerent Vikings was a good way to stay sharp’’ he notes of one fallow period in Templeton’s life when he worked at nightclubs, between training at the academy that supplied Jacques Cousteau’s divers and smuggling gemstones to Gibraltar and back. After a series of close scrapes and some serious self-examination, Templeton begins to put his skills to better use, reinventing himself as an expert in disaster management. Watching his friend swashbuckling and sweet-talking his way through Sudan, Matthews finally sees how both sides of Templeton’s family - “[t]he warrior father and the healer mother’’ - come together. Although clearly better for Templeton and society at large, his incarnation as a good guy is much less fun to read about than the book’s grittier sections, which hum with the joy of perfectly executed, nearly victimless crimes.

TURN OF MIND
By Alice LaPlante
Atlantic Monthly, 320 pp., $24

Writing in the voice of a person with serious limitations - whether cognitive, psychological, or linguistic - is a bigger challenge than most novelists should attempt. “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’’ is a literary four-leaf clover in a field of books that aren’t even good enough to be made into TV movies. Alice LaPlante’s “Turn of Mind’’ is similarly rare. Told from the point of view of Jennifer White, a 60-something orthopedic surgeon tumbling through the middle and late states of dementia, LaPlante’s fine novel is both lyrical and shocking.

The book opens with Jennifer’s learning (or relearning) that her best friend, Amanda, has been found murdered. People - her grown children, her caregiver, police detectives - deliver news and ask probing questions, all of which Jennifer responds to with an avid, cantankerous intelligence even as her memory slips and fades, and doubles back into new revelations. Although the investigation stalls upon Jennifer’s obvious mental incapacity, the mystery of Amanda’s death persists, and LaPlante expertly leads readers through a maze of possible scenarios, not to mention motives, leading to Amanda’s death and dismemberment - four of her fingers had been surgically removed. In the end, the whodunit aspects of the book, though nicely done, have nothing on the finely wrought portrait of a woman whose once-strong mind is failing her. As Jennifer’s dementia deepens, it seems as if her mind has more space for contemplation (of guilt, innocence, protection, redemption) and vague connections. Remembering her infant daughter’s colicky crying, she wonders, “How long do I have? How long before things come full circle and I descend to that state of inarticulate rage and suffering. . .?’’

AMERICA WALKS INTO A BAR: A Spirited History
of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops

By Christine Sismondo
Oxford University, 336 pp., $24.95

“Americans have always walked into a bar,’’ Christine Sismondo writes in the introduction to her dazzling new book, and what follows is a wide-ranging, often hilarious, always sharp and thoughtful look at the way our nation’s drinking establishments have shaped and reflected our history. She begins with the earliest Colonial bars, which often served as “a de facto courtroom, the first colonial post office, a library, a news center, the town hall, a community center, and, on days when the meeting-house was too cold, a church.’’ All of which may sound scandalous now, or at least slightly at odds with the current image we hold of the Puritans, but Sismondo points out that our New England forebears drank more than contemporary Americans and thought less about it. As the colonies began chafing against English control, taverns were the place to hash out political ideas and recruit militias; later, they served as the birthplace for learned societies, such as Benjamin Franklin’s American Philosophical Society, which sprang from a monthly tavern-based club.

The book chronicles milestone moments such the uprising at New York’s Stonewall Inn that launched the modern gay rights movement, as well as more protracted experiments like Prohibition, whose illegal speakeasies jumped with vivid characters, such as nightclub hostess Texas Guinan, who nightly “greeted customers with her trademark, ‘Hello, suckers!’ and candidly admitted she’d be nothing without Prohibition.’’ Later battles over who belonged in a bar and who didn’t - including recent skirmishes over whether Park Slope babies can enter with their doting parents - show that barrooms continue to reflect social tensions. “The story of the American bar is a love-hate story,’’ Sismondo concludes, though in this gimlet-eyed account, which she describes as “a pub crawl through American history,’’ the prevailing mood is as bubbly as a champagne cocktail.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.