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"The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay," by Michael Chabon; "Shadow of the Sun," by Ryszard Kapuscinski

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Escape Artists

The 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay" by Michael Chabon (Random House, $26.95) marks a departure from Chabon's previous novels. Set in pre-World War II New York, the novel follows the lives of two cousins, Joe Kavalier and Sammy Clay, and their careers as co-creators of the comic book hero the Escapist.

The theme of escape is one that is repeated throughout the book, bringing all the characters together. Both Joe and Sammy desperately desire to escape the problems that threaten each of them — for Joe, the guilt of his own escape while his family suffers imprisonment by the Nazis, and for Sammy the guilt of his homosexuality. In each case, the reader is able to view the problems facing each character but is kept at a distance. This may be due to the private nature of Joe and Sammy, but it becomes something that separates "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay" from Chabon's other books.

This is not to say that there are not some beautiful scenes and lyrical writing. Again and again, Chabon delivers wonderful prose, but by the end of the book, he lacks the one aspect that usually makes his writing so touching — the ability to create empathetic characters. The reader is left with little interest in the comic book industry, much less in the characters themselves.

Joe, impotent to change the life he leads due to the demise of his family in the Holocaust, leaves his cousin and fiancé behind and casts himself into a self-imposed exile. His eventual return is one that is empty of emotion, as is the departure of Sammy who, finally coming to terms with his sexuality, sacrifices the safety of his marriage for the love of his cousin. In the end, I found that the characters escaped from my mind more quickly, Pulitzer Prizewinner or not, than Chabon's previous work. — Francis Decker



Out of Africa

If Africa interests you — or even it doesn't — you should read Ryszard Kapuscinski's "The Shadow of the Sun" (Knopf, $25). Kapuscinski, a journalist, started writing about Africa in 1957, and his reports, translated from Polish by Klara Glowczewska, are a far cry from the descriptions we get from diplomats and many other journalists who visit the cities and fly over the rest of the area.

He describes trips to the interior where travel is almost impossible. When he tries to visit Onitsha, Nigeria, to experience the largest market in Africa, he encounters a line of trucks that are waiting for days to be pulled by hand one-by-one through an impassable muddy hole. As he tells us: "The street was so narrow here that you couldn't go around the hole, and everyone who wanted to drive into town had to descend first into this abyss, plunge into its swampy waters, and then hope that someone, somehow, would pull them out."

Kapuscinski's wonderful ability to look beneath the surface results in descriptions that compel you to put the book down with a feeling of sorrow about the tribal conflicts and corruption that are destroying Africa. He describes the wars we read about every day. Of one of these, that of Charles Taylor of Liberia, he says:

"I haven't gone a hundred meters and I'm already surrounded by small boys with swollen faces and bleary eyes, sometimes missing an arm or a leg. They beg. These are the former soldiers from Charles Taylor's Small Boys Units, his most frightful divisions. Taylor recruits small children and gives them weapons. He also gives them drugs, and when they are under the influence, he makes them attack. ...When they become addicted to the point of uselessness, Taylor throws them out..."

Reading "Shadow" should give you a picture of the peoples who live with little material comfort, often suffer horrendous heat from a glaring sun, and, indeed, who often die from hunger and thirst.

A quibble: The essays are arranged in a way that makes it difficult for the reader to follow sequences in time or location. They are, moreover, a metaphorical mixture of fact and fiction, somewhat like Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood." The tenses,also, in the articles are sometimes confusing, but the most important omission is a map. If you read this book, and I hope you will, be sure to have a map close by. — Rozanne Epps

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