Barbara Smit: “Sneaker Wars” (Harper Perennial)
Two great sneaker companies, Adidas and Puma, were created by two brothers who began as partners and later turned into fierce rivals. Who knew? Smit limns out the story of Adi and Rudi Dassler, who started a shoe business in their mother’s laundry room, achieved international success almost immediately and then went to war. This business tale has David Beckham, Steve Prefontaine and Joe Namath, not to mention a background involving the Nazis. The book’s deeper narrative, of course, is how sport ceased to be sport and became strictly business. It’s juicy, hubristic stuff.
Mark Harris: “Pictures at a Revolution” (Penguin)
Harris sifts through the background to five movies -- “Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Graduate,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” “In the Heat of the Night” and “Doctor Dolittle” -- to show both Hollywood and American culture at a moment of upheaval. The Warren Beatty part of this tale feels familiar from earlier books, notably those by Peter Biskind and David Thomson, but there’s plenty that’s new. “I dated Annie a little bit, long before this,” Mike Nichols remembers, talking about casting Anne Bancroft in “The Graduate.” “She was certainly a beautiful, exciting, wonderful, angry young woman. Which I happened to like. But it took us a long time to think of her.” Harris gets inside a paradox, the sometimes random way in which great movie art somehow inevitably happens.
Imre Kertész: “Detective Story” (Vintage)
“I wish to tell a story. A simple story. You may ultimately call it a sickening one, but that does not change its simpleness. I wish therefore to tell a simple and sickening story,” announces the narrator at the beginning of this short, subtle and powerful parable of torture and degradation set in an unnamed Latin American country at a moment of dictatorial transformation. Nobel Laureate Kertész tells us how easily evil is rationalized, and how simple the path to moral compromise can be. The tale feels both timely, and timeless.
Joinville and Villehardouin: “Chronicles of the Crusades” (Penguin)
Here are two eyewitness accounts -- “The Conquest of Constantinople” by Geoffrey of Villehardouin and “The Life of Saint Louis” by John of Joinville -- that tell of going to war in the service of God. “Know that there was no man so bold that his flesh did not tremble, which should come as no surprise for never was such a great project undertaken by as many men since the creation of the world,” writes Geoffrey, contemplating the Christian attempt to wrest Constantinople back from Islam. “The Saracens came into the camp while I was pleading with the sailors to leave, and I saw by the light of the fires that they were killing the sick people on the bank,” writes John of Joinville. Medieval history comes to life, informing present-day attitudes. Newly translated by the young scholar Caroline Smith.
Jeffrey Eugenides: “My Mistress’s Sparrow Is Dead” (Harper Perennial)
“At the behest of the energetic, unstoppable Dave Eggers (the Bono of Lit), I’ve been reading almost nothing but love stories for the last year,” notes Eugenides in his introduction to this collection that includes great love stories from Chekhov to Munro. The selection is great here. Eugenides gives us Carver, Ford, Brodkey (twice), Nabokov, Dybek, Babel and Milan Kundera’s marvelous “The Hitch-hiking Game,” a narrative crackling with so much tension it could have been filmed by Roman Polanski. Proceeds go to a Chicago literacy project.
Thom Gunn: “Selected Poems” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
“I wake up cold, I who / Prospered through dreams of heat / Wake to their residue, / Sweat, and a clinging sheet. / My flesh was its own shield: / Where it was gashed, it healed,” wrote Thom Gunn in his late, great poem about AIDS, “The Man With Night Sweats": “I cannot but be sorry / The given shield was cracked / My mind reduced to hurry, / My flesh reduced and wrecked.” August Kleinzahler’s selection leans toward the American in Gunn, or perhaps the Elizabethan: formal, playful, daring, always inventive and rhythmic. We see a great poet, and one far removed from “the motorcycle boy,” as Philip Larkin called him. “I am the eye / that cut the life / you stand you lie / I am the knife,” Gunn wrote in his poem for Robert Mapplethorpe. Such wit and elegance.
Randall Mann: “Breakfast With Thom Gunn” ( University of Chicago Press)
“I want to say that once, / I saw him dressed in leather, / leaning on a fence / inside a bar. Rather, / walking to the N / I gush about his books; / he gives his change to men / who’ve lost their homes and looks: / how like him, I’ve been told. / Our day together done, / I hug him in the cold, / And then the train is gone,” writes the young poet Randall Mann in the title poem of this, his second collection. Craft and bravura mix well here, as they do in Gunn, and Mann shows himself his mentor’s apt pupil. “Anxious pigeons wait / for crumbs to fall. It’s late. / The weather starts to shift: / all fog, all love, will lift,” he writes in another poem, “The Long View.” The clarity startles.
Jonathan Trigell: “Cham” (Serpent’s Tail)
Trigell’s first novel, " Boy A,” told the story of a 24-year-old trying to build a new life after coming out of jail for a crime committed when he was a kid; it won prizes in Britain, and was acclaimed for its attack on tabloid justice. His second, “Cham” (short for Chamonix) features a ski bum hero and perhaps aims to replicate for skiing what Kem Nunn has done for surfing. “Itchy knows, not just from photographs, but by memories of his treatment that he was a beautiful boy, way back when Snickers were Marathons and Michael Jackson was black,” writes Trigell, making humor from the age-old mystery that the same candy bars have different names in the U.S. and England. There’s wit here, and a serial rapist, and a noir plot that does get going.
Thomas Hine: “The Great Funk” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Anyone under 20 will laugh at the hilarious flared pants and platform shoes, coo at the original “Star Wars” poster, feel that those pictures of Kiss and the Ramones are somehow already part of their lives, and be most amazed of all by what a personal computer looked like in 1977: boxy, midget-screened, and huge. “The Commodore PET was one of the earliest personal computers,” writes Thomas Hine in his delicious study, subtitled “Styles of the Shaggy, Sexy, Shameless 1970s.” “People still feared the computer as Big Brother, so Commodore decided to market it as a harmless companion.” Maybe those weren’t the days.
Frances Richey: “The Warrior” (Penguin)
"[W]ith his hands, all the lines / in his palms deeply creased. / When he makes his right / a gun, it is a gun; / the third and index fingers / fused, extended; / the thumb bent sharp / at the knuckle. Sometimes / his left hand hovers / over his chest, / as if he still wears armor, / as if his heart must be / protected from the touch,” writes Richey in a poem titled “He Tells Each Story,” one of a sequence in which a poet-mother keeps in touch with the overwhelming idea of her warrior son’s experiences in Iraq. “My son is always leaving. / Sometimes he looks back / and waves goodbye. Sometimes / he just disappears.” Richey writes with grace, and restraint.
Rayner’s Paperback Writers column appears monthly at www.latimes.com/books.