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Express Reviews

A playwright is murdered, a Japanese factory worker snaps, and the contents of Martin Luther King's fridge.

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Downstream
By J.K. Huysmans, translated by Robert Baldick
Turtle Point, $10.95

This very short, very autobiographical naturalist novel draws its title from the protagonist's wearied conclusion, on its penultimate page, that in life "there was nothing to do but just drift downstream." On the second page he calls life "intolerable." So you can see how far he has come. Parisian records clerk Jean Folantin is, to understate it, a glass-is-half-empty kind of guy, and a model of literary self-absorption. Twenty years into his miserable job, he has no money or status, no interest in "enduring the company of people with whom one [has] nothing in common," and no solace from a city whose culture, he reckons, is decaying oppressively. This tale, first published in 1882, is just a modest quest for security, lasting comfort, and a decent meal (alone, if you please). It is also hilariously cranky, and perfectly realized in an unswerving, finely calibrated style. If the concept annoys or bums you out, make this book a gift -- appreciation guaranteed -- for your favorite misanthrope. -- Jonathan Kiefer

Tamburlaine Must Die
by Louise Welsh
Canongate, $18.95

This enthralling historical novella, in the form of a long, final entry in real-life playwright Christopher Marlowe's diary, re-envisions the circumstances leading up to his "accidental" murder: the subject of much speculation in the four centuries since its occurrence. Portrayed here as a bisexual spy whose existence depends upon the machinations of any number of mysterious power-hungry characters, Marlowe, knowing death is imminent, pens an account of the three days during which a series of events hurtle him inexorably toward his demise. Blasphemous verses threatening the pious have been affixed to the door of a Dutch church in London, and since they are written in a style echoing Marlowe's and signed "Tamburlaine" after his play's bloody hero, the writer is summoned to London's all-powerful Privy Council for the crime, of which he is innocent -- though in private company, he makes no bones about his atheism. Despite his powerful allies, Marlowe resigns himself to what must be -- and in Welsh's vibrantly depicted plague-ridden 1593 London, where death is ubiquitous, it's not hard to imagine what that is. -- Nora Sohnen

Out
By Natsuo Kirino, translated by Stephen Snyder
Vintage International, $12.95

Virtually everyone in this unflinching, gritty winner of Japan's top mystery-fiction award wants to get out of something: out of the country, out of a marriage, out of a fantasy, out of reality. Masako, Yoshie, Yayoi, and Kuniko are four women who work the night shift at a boxed-lunch factory. Each woman's husband or boyfriend is either dead, missing, or emotionally absent, and the women endure financial difficulties that range from frustrating to dire. One night after her husband Kenji comes home late yet again from gambling away their savings, Yayoi quietly snaps -- and strangles him with a belt. She confesses to Masako, the coolest and most badass of the four, and soon the whole quartet is involved in disposing of Kenji's body. Furthermore, the owner of the club where Kenji spent his last evening is not pleased about being considered a suspect, and consequently takes crimebusting measures into his own sinister hands. Somewhat disappointing is Masako's eventual slight decrease in badassness, but otherwise, the detailed psychological portraits that Kirino paints lend a tangible sensitivity and realism to characters whose rather ordinary troubles drive them to extraordinary acts. -- Kim Hedges

Angry Wind: Through Muslim Black Africa by Truck, Bus, Boat and Camel
By Jeffrey Tayler
Houghton Mifflin, $25.95

The best thing about the travel-narrative genre is that good writers sometimes visit bad places: bad in the sense of climate, government, and/or attitude toward Americans. Tayler traveled during the runup to the Iraq war; his travelogue, spiked with pocket histories and political riffs, focuses on the Sahel, a 2,600-mile swath of desert and badlands that stretches from Ethiopia to the Atlantic coast, and is home to some of the world's most impoverished countries and corrupt governments. It's also a quieter stage upon which the battle between Islam and the West is being played out. The Sahelians he met understood America as a Christian nation. That it is, at least for now, a secular democracy simply didn't register. Tayler explained that while he was raised Christian, he no longer practices. He might as well have stamped "Heathen" on his forehead. On two separate occasions, from men of two different faiths, he endured thuggish demands for on-the-spot conversion: "I could see why religion sparked slaughter here," he writes. Most travel narrative hovers between humorous personal essays and outright vacation porn; Angry Wind has depth and relevance. It's a dangerous journey you're glad someone else has taken in a place you might, quite understandably, never want to go. -- John Dicker

Freedom of Expression
By Kembrew McLeod
Doubleday, $24.95

Despite haphazard organization and spotty editing -- and writing that displays markedly less flair than the jacket copy promises -- Iowa University communications professor McLeod effectively makes the case that everyone loses when copyright owners aggressively "protect" their property by either restricting commercial or critical use of it outright or permitting use but charging exorbitant fees. What puzzles the author is that holders of music copyrights, for example, fall into the same trap as their forebears such as phonograph manufacturers who decried radio's advent, which they mistakenly believed would undermine their market. (Today, record companies see file-sharing as an equally apocalyptic threat, though it actually enhances sales.) McLeod, who to prove his point trademarked the title of this book, argues that copyright law must return to its constitutional roots: as a vehicle for encouraging the open exchange of ideas, not a roadblock for preventing use of proprietary product. His modest proposal: Make all owners of copyrighted materials subject to the compulsory-licensing model by which radio stations, for instance, can play any song provided they pay a reasonable fee. Sounds like "fair use" any day. -- Mark Nichol

Dr. King's Refrigerator: And Other Bedtime Stories
By Charles Johnson
Scribner, $20

The greatest pleasure in reading this short-story collection is listening to its narrator's voice: You can picture him as a bumbling, thick-browed English professor with "Chesterfieldian manners," who would rather entrance you with sounds and images than set you up for a grand punch line. Beyond Johnson's big words and philosophical references, these are intellectual shaggy-dog stories. In fact, most of them read like parables or morality tales. Although almost every story here has an epiphany -- usually something about race relations -- most of them proffer lessons you already know (such as the titular food in the great emancipator's fridge: Hawaiian pineapple, Tibetan rice, and Italian ravioli, representing a panoply of cultures). Sometimes, however, the author provides no discernible moral, and instead disorients you with a freak ending, such as a boyfriend turning into a frog in "Cultural Relativity." Granted, that's the nature of folklore: The image of a slovenly, caffeine-addled Dr. King having a revelation as he searches for a snack at midnight is more interesting than the revelation proper. -- Rachel Swan

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