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This week: Elmore Leonard brings back three beloved characters, a spy thriller inspired by Stalin, and David Foster Wallace’s only commencement speech.

05.12.09 6:56 AM ET

The Stalin Epigram
by Robert Littell

A harrowing spy thriller inspired by Stalin.

The 16-line death sentence has been turned into a 384-page novel. Robert Littell got his start as a Newsweek editor for Soviet affairs in the 1960s and has written several bestselling espionage thrillers since. In his latest project, which is already a bestseller in France, he explores the imprisonment, exile and death of Osip Mandelstam, the Russian poet who inspired the ire of Joseph Stalin when he wrote the very short but influential epigram about the Soviet leader. “His fingers are fat as grubs. And the words, final as lead weights, fall from his lips, His cockroach whiskers leer” was not a description the dictator appreciated. Nevertheless, he did not order an execution, but Mandelstam and his wife, Nadezhda, were exiled. Littell met with Nadezhda in 1979, a year before her death, and recorded the whole, sad tale through her eyes. Makes for a harrowing novel.


Bottom of the Ninth: Branch Rickey, Caset Stengel, and the Daring Scheme to Save Baseball from Itself. By Michael Shapiro. 320 pages. Times Books. $26.

Bottom of the Ninth
by Michael Shapiro

Did football become the national pastime because baseball got greedy?

Football may not have been as popular today had baseball followed the lead of legendary executive Branch Rickey and created a third major league. Rickey is best known for integrating baseball in the late 1940s, but had his other revolutionary plan to establish the Continental League in the late 1950s not been thwarted by greedy owners, Americans would not have given their hearts to football. At least that’s what author Michael Shapiro argues in his new book. Breaking the monopoly in baseball and creating a system where more teams could win would have enticed sports fans to stay with their so-called favorite pastime. Alas, money talks. “They wanted to make a buck, that’s all they cared about,” Shapiro said in a short documentary based on the book . 

Road Dogs. 272 pages. William Morrow. $27. Elmore Leonard.

Road Dogs
by Elmore Leonard

Three beloved characters make a comeback in Leonard’s latest.

The 83-year-old crime-fiction, suspense thriller veteran is at it again. This time he brought three of his characters back to life. Cundo Ray from LaBrava, Dawn Navarro from Riding the Rap, and Jack Foley, otherwise known as the man played by George Clooney in Out of Sight, come together as Road Dogs, which are “inmates who watch each other’s back.” In fact, Leonard says he had Clooney in mind when he wrote this one. In a New York Times review, Janet Maslin writes, “Ordinarily the writer who turns to his own pages for inspiration risks looking lazy. But Mr. Leonard’s crime stories are packed with players who deserve curtain calls.” Far from lazy, Leonard is already planning his next novel, Djibouti, about a documentary filmmaker who worked with Somali pirates. Leonard told Goodreads he started the project before pirates made huge headlines recently, but feels the need to pick up the pace now. “I have no idea how it ends, but I've got to get this book out, or else too much time will expire.”

How to Really Stink at Work: A Guide to Making Yourself Fire-Proof While Having the Most Fun Possible. By Jeff Foxworthy and Brian Hartt and Layron DeJarnette 160 pages. Villard. $16.

How to Really Stink at Work
by Jeff Foxworthy, Brian Hartt and Layron DeJarnette

The comedian’s secrets to not getting ahead at the office.

The man who found fame and fortune through redneck jokes has written yet another book (he’s already written 11 bestsellers, in addition to his Grammy award-winning comedy recordings and myriad shows). In this sequel to How to Stink at Golf, Foxworthy lays out a few handy tips about how to do as little as possible without getting fired. Surprisingly, The New York Times has yet to review the book, but if ratings from Goodread members are an indication, Foxworthy should have stuck to redneck jokes. 




This is Water. By David Foster Wallace. 144 pages. Little, Brown and Company. $15.

This Is Water
by David Foster Wallace

The late novelist's only commencement address was unforgettable.

It’s that time of year when celebrities and politicians make their way to college campuses and give wide-eyed graduates inspirational speeches before they make their way into the real world. Well, David Foster Wallace really told the Kenyon College class of 2005 what to expect in the only commencement speech he would ever give. “There happen to be whole large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I’m talking about.” He then launched into a mind-numbing description of commuting home from work, tired and hungry, only to find no food in the fridge and all the “stupid and infuriating” series of events that follow. Things start to look up by the end of the speech though. “The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.”

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