Whether changing lifestyle or altitude, the characters in these new books find new air to breathe.
BACK WHEN WE WERE GROWNUPS
By Anne Tyler
Knopf, $25


It’s been several years since Anne Tyler has presented us with one of those sprawling, cantankerous Baltimore families she knows so well: the kind of snake’s nest of eccentrics that can drive a character to murder or escape, or to wisdom.

Since her characters are almost always well-meaning, if sorely tried, the result is usually a kind of wis- dom. Here we meet Rebecca Dav-itch, widowed at 26, saddled with her husband’s ungrateful, quarreling clan and with her own self-doubts. Late in life — almost too late — she wonders if she hasn’t made a wrong turn somewhere. Predictably, she attempts to travel back to follow the road not taken, with her high school sweetheart, now an awkward, gawky physics professor who never got over the fact that she left him for an older man.

Tyler’s plots tend to follow a pattern; the pleasures and surprises are in the details, in the marvelously strange people she assembles and the painful, funny, exasperating, and moving ways they interact. Read one of her novels and you’ll swear you know a family exactly like that. Or live in one.


WARRIOR CLASS
By Dale Brown,
Putnam, $25.95


In a dozen previous novels, Dale Brown has made airplanes — bombers, specifically — into something close to characters. In fact, those who do not find technologically marvelous weapons particularly seductive might sniff that airplanes are the only complex, fully drawn characters in a Brown novel. A Brown thriller may not be literary, but millions of readers don’t seem to mind. They like his up-to-date plots involving international nasty guys, and they love the airplanes, which are usually the only things standing in the way of world cataclysm.

In Warrior Class, the nasty guy, one of those Russian gangster capitalists who have taken over since the fall of the Soviet Union, is using a secretly built stealth airplane to advance his designs on the world’s supply of oil. A nice but misguided U.S. president doesn’t think the world requires policing by the American military. The crisis, when it comes, demands the services of Patrick McLanahan, a warrior general, and Rebecca Furness, “one of the first female combat pilots in the Air Force and one of the first to command a combat unit.”

The planes, however, steal the show. In the cockpit, Brown’s prose really takes off.

— G.N.
IT TAKES A VILLAGE IDIOT
By Jim Mullen
Simon & Schuster, $23


The “simple” life is rarely that. People who escape the rat race to chop wood on some rustic acreage usually find they have jumped into another race with a different bunch of rats.

So it is with humor writer Jim Mullen, whose wife drags him out of their apartment in eccentric New York City to look at an old farm in the Catskills. At their weekend home, the city’s gunshots, trolling drag queens, clanging garbage trucks, and roaches are replaced by cows and the smell of manure, by black flies, septic tanks, and the occasional weekend visitor from the city.

Mullen balks at trading brunch at Sazerac House and matinees at the Film Forum for jello salad and barbecue pork at the Big Pig Family Restaurant and weekly auctions at the Grange Hall in Trout Creek. But slowly, like a weathervane atop an old barn, he turns 180 degrees. He and his wife extend their country weekends to Thursdays through Mondays. Finally, they sell their apartment. They sit beneath a tree, watching the neighbor’s cows and eating food they’ve grown themselves.

Apparently, it’s an acquired taste: When a visiting cousin’s child bites into an apple he’s picked up beneath their tree, his panicked mother slaps the fruit away. “You don’t know where it’s been!” she says.


THE KID WHO CLIMBED EVEREST
By Bear Grylls
Lyons Press, $24.95


Many people who climb Everest do so because their lives otherwise lack adventure. This certainly is not true of Bear Grylls, who in 1996 jumped out of an airplane at nearly 16,000 feet and had his parachute malfunction. His broken back required almost a year to mend; it’s during that time that it occurred to Grylls to climb Mount Everest.

It seemed like a good idea at the time — a metaphysical link between climbing and falling. It seemed less inspired on Everest 18 months later, when Grylls fell into a crevasse at 19,000 feet. He could, at this point, have been forgiven for swearing off altitude forever. But he continued, through the predictable storms and the somber experience of climbing past the corpse of Into Thin Air legend Rob Hall, who died in a storm just below the summit of the mountain.

Grylls became, at 23, the youngest Englishman to reach the top of the world. His story of how, and why, he did it is a fine addition to the growing body of mountaineering and Everest literature.

— G.N


By Bill Marvel and Geoffrey Norman
Marvel is a senior features writer for The Dallas Morning News.
Norman is the author of nine novels and several nonfiction books.


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