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Championing reviews this week: Magic Johnson and Larry Bird; China and the U.S. economy; J.M. Barrie and more

November 7, 2009 |  9:15 pm


It is, reviewer David Davis writes, nearly impossible to find two opposing superstars whose sports careers became as linked as Larry Bird's and Magic Johnson's. In 1979, when Bird was a college senior and Johnson a junior, they led their teams to the NCAA finals. They both went to the pros that fall, leading dynasties at the Celtics and Lakers, respectively.  

With "When the Game Was Ours," [Jackie] MacMullan has written dual authorized biographies that occasionally intersect. That's the major flaw of the book; the story, told exclusively in the third person, rebounds from L.A. to Boston and back. By contrast, "When March Went Mad," a book written this year by reporter Seth Davis (no relation to this author), focused on the 1979 contest between Michigan State and Indiana State. That approach brought crisp purpose to the narrative.

Zachary Karabell, an occasional L.A. Times contributor, took on another kind of dynamic duo in "Superfusion: How China and America Became One Economy and Why the World's Prosperity Depends on It." Reviewer Lee Drutman writes:

Never before have two nations of such size intermingled their economic fortunes to such a degree.... Karabell excels at weaving in glitzy tales of the brave new China against the larger backdrop of the Middle Kingdom's forceful but cautious economic liberalization and the often tortuous, frequently saber-rattling politics of U.S.-China relations.

It's biographer against author (and the author loses) in Peirs Dudgeon's "Neverland," a tale of J.M. Barrie. For Dudgeon, Barrie, the man behind Peter Pan, was a malevolent manipulator. Give me a break," reviewer Martin Rubin writes.

Despite Dudgeon's fervent efforts, his extreme hostility to Barrie is likely to boomerang and make readers sympathize with the poor man. The motto here is "No good deeds go unpunished." May "Peter Pan" flourish forever, but it's time to let the players in this sad real-life drama rest in peace.

There's a historical trio at the center of Barbara Kingsolver's "The Lacuna": Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Leon Trotsky, with a fictional narrator tying them all together. Reviewer Kai Maristed writes:

The first half of the novel builds to page-turning tension. Fiction based on the lives of the famous has a special kind of suspense: One recalls more or less what has to happen (a Stalinist agent will hack the revolutionary's skull with an ice ax) but not the exact timing, or the details (how the killer weaseled his way past walls and guards into the Riveras' trust), or the motivations, the hopes and fears, the devastation of those touched by the murder. That is the novelist's job.

One man's obsession focused not on others or politics, but on books. Author Allison Hoover Bartlett's "The Man Who Loved Books Too Much" follows the story of John Gilkey, who stole $100,000 of rare books from 1999 to 2003, and the man who chased him down. In our review, Carmela Ciuraru writes:

Tautly written, wry and thoroughly compelling "The Man Who Loved Books Too Much" unfolds like a great mystery. It also offers a look at the history of book collecting, as well as insight into how book dealers assess value. Bartlett is an appealing storyteller who becomes more personally entangled in her narrative than she had wished, which adds to the drama.

— Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in 1984. Credit: Andrew D. Bernstein / NBAE / Getty Images