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In books: St. Clair McKelway, John D'Agata, Elif Batuman

February 14, 2010 |  9:13 am


John D'Agata will be in Los Angeles this month, reading at the Hammer Museum and at the L.A. Public Library. In today's paper, David L. Ulin reviews D'Agata's latest book, "About a Mountain":

Ostensibly a story about Yucca Mountain, "About a Mountain" is really a meditation on the nature of fact and fantasy, a riff on Las Vegas that gets beneath the city's layers of cliché. It is also a book that seeks to tell us a little something about time and understanding, even as it admits that these concepts are too big, too amorphous, for us to wrap our minds around.

Another nonfiction book that is something of a meditation is "The Routes of Man: How Roads Are Changing the World and the Way We Live Today'" by Ted Conover. Conover traveled roads in China, India, Kenya, Nigeria, Peru and the West Bank, all with, Taylor Antrim writes:

A clear-eyed understanding that roads confine as much as they liberate, that they make the world more accessible but also infinitely more dangerous and exploitable. Perhaps the only certainty he offers is that these "paths of human endeavor" are inevitable: "They are the infrastructure upon which almost all other infrastructure depends."

St. Clair McKelway was an early but forgotten king of nonfiction. A new collection of his work, "Reporting at Wit's End," introduces his work to a new generation. Marc Weingarten writes:

For 37 years, McKelway was one of the New Yorker's most prolific and inventive nonfiction writers. In his time, he was regarded as a master of the long-form profile, a superior chronicler of rapscallions and low-rent hustlers. Indeed, when he was on his game, McKelway might have been the best nonfiction writer the magazine had....

Stanford professor Elif Batuman is just getting started; her debut book, "The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them" mixes essay, memoir and literary criticism. Richard Rayner writes:

There's something melancholy, as well as beautiful, in using literature not just to illuminate experience but actually to create it. Batuman's writing waltzes in a space in which books and life reflect each other. The effect is dizzying sometimes, and maybe that's one of her points; her roving sensibility deliriously encompasses many styles and moods. If Susan Sontag had coupled with Buster Keaton, their prodigiously gifted love child might have written this book.

Batuman is also coming to Los Angeles; she'll appear at the L.A. Public Library on March 3.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Joe Cavaretta / Associated Press