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Everything you ever wanted to know about escaping from an alligator; Tracy Chevalier tells the "story" behind a mysterious Vermeer masterpiece. 

Points of Reference

You've seen it in the movies a dozen times: Through some unusual convergence of events, a regular Joe suddenly finds himself on top of a speeding train or face-to-face with a killer shark or stuck in a cab with a woman about to give birth. Have you ever wondered what you would do in such a situation? Joshua Piven and David Borgenicht have. They are the authors of "The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook" (Chronicle Books, $14.95, soft cover), a thorough and methodical guide to making it through life's more unusual challenges alive. Even if the greatest danger you face on a daily basis is your computer crashing, you may find this book educational and sometimes hilarious.

The slender volume wastes no words providing precise step-by-step directions for dealing with each scenario. This curtness is sometimes a source of amusement, e.g., step No. 3 of "How to Escape from a Sinking Car": Get Out.

Other times, the use of matter-of-fact language when dealing with extraordinary circumstances is good for a chuckle, e.g., "If [an alligator's] jaws are closed on something you want to remove (for example, a limb), tap or punch it on the snout." Excuse me, tap?

The handbook does not pull any punches, telling skydivers whose parachutes don't open that there is little chance of escaping without at least some injury. But even when the prognosis is not good, there are often fun facts and myth busters embedded in each scenario's survival strategy. In "How to Identify a Bomb," the authors helpfully list the several types of bomb detection devices available. And did you know that people struck by lightning do not hold the charge and so are safe to touch immediately after the strike?

The only issue I would take with the authors is their inclusion of some information that could easily be used irresponsibly, like "How to Hot-wire a Car." These seem more like an invitation than a solution. Otherwise, the "Handbook" is a fun read and a good gift idea. And if you encounter any quicksand on the way home from the bookstore, you'll be prepared.
— D.L. Hintz

Read Tracy Chevalier's newest novel, "Girl With A Pearl Earring" (Dutton, $21.95), and you will never look at a Vermeer painting in quite the same way. Or maybe any painting. In this glowingly written and imaginative book, Chevalier devises "the story" behind one of the Dutch artist's most famous works. She meticulously gives us a portrait of 17th-century Delft, and of the daily life of many of its citizens.

Often called the Dutch Mona Lisa, Vermeer's painting "Girl With a Pearl Earring" depicts a luminous young woman wearing a blue and gold headdress and a dangling pearl earring. Her expression is a puzzle — is she smiling sensually or is she profoundly sad? Who is she? Why did Vermeer paint her this way? Why did he paint her at all? Chevalier, moved to ask the same questions, creates Griet, a 16-year-old girl sent to work as a maid in the Vermeers' wealthy, but troubled, home. The daughter of a disabled (and consequently unemployed) tile painter, Griet exhibits an uncanny eye, an ability to see subtle distinctions in color and composition. The distant and mysterious master of the house notices, and soon gives her a treasured role assisting him with mixing colors and even evaluating some of his compositions. Predictably, Griet's admission into the privileged world of the artist causes problems for her and for the rest of the household. At the same time, Griet is a child on the verge of independence from her own family, still longing for the happy childhood she remembers and struggling with the reality that gradually replaces it.

Chevalier has apparently researched Vermeer's painting and life in Delft in the mid-1600s, and she weaves fascinating facts about both into her story. Much like Vermeer himself, Chevalier has put colors and light on the page and allowed us to see something special.
— Mary Lloyd Parks

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