by Felice Picano

(Alyson Books) $24.95

Ambitious Ross Ohrenstedt is planning his doctoral thesis around a group of gay writers -- a literary salon known as the Purple Circle (Felice Picano's nod to the real-life Violet Quill Club, of which he is a surviving member) -- upon which Ross' academic mentor and many of his heroes have established successful careers. Ross wants in, and he's just about there. Through a series of events, he discovers fragments of an unpublished manuscript intimately associated with this famous circle of writers, and embarks upon a quest as a sort of "literary detective" to obtain the rest of the text and the identity of its author.

Picano skewers the valorization/dehumanization of authors by ambitious academics who canonize them for the sake of self-interest -- and he is kind enough to lure the reader in the process. I wanted Ross to succeed at whatever cost, becoming ambitious with him, greedy for answers. The book is seductive.

It's a lengthy work, held solid by the novelist's descriptive ability and exacting sense of detail. In part, these strengths stem from Picano's own sentimentality and passion for his subject which, unfortunately, turn what could have been a supremely vicious ending into something a bit less indulgent. I wanted my meat well done, and I got medium rare. JEFF DeROCHE


edited by Marcelle Karp and Debbie Stoller

(Penguin) $15.95

BUST magazine -- birthed out of the early '90s by two talented and tough-titty girls who reviled the increasingly anachronistic vapid voice of women's magazines -- is a forum for slumber-party sex stories and post-feminist musings, and the collection out now is one ecstatic read. Never far from humor, essays like "How to Be as Horny as a Guy" nevertheless cover intimate topics with magnifying truth. Like every gathering of smart women, you'll find yourself shocked and annoyed, relieved by self-recognition, and in love with the angry voice of honesty. Who cares how the Establishment wants to define feminism from here on out? As long as women invent forums like BUST, sexy intellectualism is alive and well. Stoller and Karp read at Bailey/Coy Books, 414 Broadway E, 323-8842, on Thurs Sept 23 at 7:30 pm, free. TRACI VOGEL


by Amy Thomson

(Ace) $13.95

Seattle writer Amy Thomson has created a novel in which two tree frog-like aliens and an anthropologist who's gone really native bear most of the narrative burden. The aliens have stingers on their arms with which they disable predators, share empathic chemical links, mutilate livestock, and cure leukemia. They speak by forming pretty patterns on their cool, moist skins. Paranoid militarists fear the aliens' ability to monkey around with folks' bodies, not to mention their brains. But all these aliens -- these "Tendu" -- really want is to reach harmony with us. The older alien, Ukatonen, is an "enkar," a kind of circuit judge-cum-field ecologist. Moki is an immature Tendu: the adopted son of the anthropologist, Dr. Juna Saari, otherwise known as Eerin. Moki was a tinka, but when Eerin became his sitik, he turned into a bami -- Confused? Don't worry. There's a glossary in the back.

If you don't read much science fiction, you may wonder why those of us who do bother wrestling with its neologisms. Well, we think they're fun. Honestly. Not just the words themselves, but the concepts and images surrounding them can be strikingly fresh.

Consider these happy sentences: "Analin crumpled her computer up and tossed it in her knapsack." "He shook his head, deeply purple in his puzzlement." "Soon his forearms were covered with butterflies, eagerly drinking nectar from his spurs."

Science fiction is the literature of the possible. But Thomson doesn't go so far as to show the gentle Tendu reaching harmony with a species who prefers trashing their environment to altering themselves. Through alien eyes, human behavior is endlessly strange. And through science-fiction eyes, strangeness is an endless delight. NISI SHAWL



by Charles Portis

(The Overlook Press) $13.95

A fan described Charles Portis as Garrison Keillor on LSD. The day I read Keillor -- on acid or otherwise -- and find him even half as funny as Portis will be a cold day in hell. Portis' two comic classics, Norwood and The Dog of the South, have a wonderful, subtle humor not found anywhere today. Portis has been called the least-known great writer in America; Overlook Press is betting that '90s readers are ready for his fool characters who never get laid, never do drugs, and are just plain nice.

Norwood follows the title character on a trip through the South, up to New York, and back to his hometown of Ralph, Texas via stolen cars, train hopping, and buses. He meets beatniks, bread delivery men, midgets, and chickens, but somehow never changes his good-old-boy attitude. Whereas Kerouac used the idea of the road trip to describe romantic characters, Norwood's road trip is used by Portis to set up comic scenes, and to meet people who answer their phone, "'KWOT is the lucky bucks station.'" Norwood isn't cosmic -- it's very small, and funny.

And some of the writing is quite evocative; Norwood's home as a young kid: "They later moved to a tin-roof house that was situated in a gas field under a spectacular flare that burned all the time. Big copper-green beetles the size of mice came from all over the Southland to see it and die in it. At night their little toasted corpses pankled down on the tin roof."

Portis is still alive, living in Arkansas, hoping someone will notice him, finally. NOVELLA CARPENTER

Support The Stranger