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L.A. Times books Sunday rundown

February 22, 2009 |  6:49 pm


In the books pages Sunday, Susan Salter Reynolds talks to Elie Wiesel, whose new book is "A Mad Desire to Dance."

Readers often come away from Wiesel's books questioning their faith, even the existence of God. "I want them to feel that life is worth living," he explains, "but I'm not a policeman. Who am I to be a guardian of faith? It is humanity I believe in. Humanity is so frail."

In "Ablutions," Patrick deWitt immerses the reader in one human frailty: alcohol. His protagonist is a bartender in a dive in L.A. who samples a little too much of the product.

And there is also strength: in Dan Baum's "Nine Lives: Life and Death in New Orleans," which "resembles a vast Victorian novel in its many-sided evocation of an entire world" and "intertwines nine individual stories to fashion a moving collective tale of a flawed yet fabulous city and the inhabitants who love it in the manner of all true lovers: without illusions and without holding back."

In an almost inconceivable city, the Warsaw Ghetto, Emanuel Ringelblum led an organization he called Oyneg Shabes, which chronicled history as it was happening, burying the documents in hopes they'd be discovered later. In his new book "Who Will Write Our History? Rediscovering a Hidden Archive From the Warsaw Ghetto," Samuel D. Kassow "honors the efforts and restores the names of men and women who wrote though they knew their lives and those of their families and even their culture were doomed."

In light of the challenges they faced -- only three of the 40-plus Oyneg Shabes scribes survived the war -- Veronica Charter's travails seem not all that bad. Her book, "Waiting for the Apocalypse: A Memoir of Faith and Family," tells of growing up with a father whose conservative Catholicism dragged his family across continents and into an extreme religious subgroup.

Religion is only one of the many things that lead societies info conflict; how some find their way out while others devolve into chaos is the question at the heart of Andrew Mueller's "I Wouldn't Start From Here." He takes Gaza, Baghdad and Bosnia seriously without giving up 21st century skeptical sarcasm.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times