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"Cowboy and Octopus"
Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith (Viking, $16.99)

Cowboy likes to bake beans. Octopus likes to dress up as the tooth fairy. They're friends even though sometimes they disagree. Read about their fascinating relationship in "seven stories about friendship, a good joke, truth, beauty and beans."

Scieszka and Smith, co-authors of "The Stinky Cheese Man" and "The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs," have found a brilliant outlet for advocating literacy -- the children's book. Scieszka has written more than 20 books, most of them aimed at children — particularly boys. He's also the creator of the Web-based literacy program for boys, Guys Read.

Parents should only buy books for children that they wouldn't mind reading themselves a few hundred times. Luckily such books exist. The absurdist, bare-bones humor of "Cowboy and Octopus" is such a paradox: a book designed for repetition that resists being redundant. The silliness is subtle and charming; there are no cloying rhymes or catchy phrases that will bounce around your brain, even in your dreams. — Valley Haggard

Scieszka will sign copies of his book at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts' Pauley Center at 200 N. Boulevard Sept. 21 at 4 p.m. 340-1400.

"Learning to Fly: A Writer's Memoir"
Mary Lee Settle, edited by Anne Hobson Freeman (W.W. Norton & Co., $24.95)

If you're not already familiar with the works of Mary Lee Settle, it might be wise to first read the epilogue of this, her final memoir, as the body of work itself somewhat takes for granted the reader's knowledge of the author's exceptional life. In her 87 years, Settle authored 21 books, joined up with the World War II Britain Women's Auxiliary Air Force, won the 1978 National Book Award for "Blood Tie," founded the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, mothered a child and had a three-hour luncheon with T.S. Eliot (though not in that order).

She wrote historical fiction, memoirs, biographies, travel guides and all manner of journalism; her subject matter is endless. She wrote all over the world. Born in West Virginia, she lived in Canada, Turkey and London before moving to Ivy, Va., in the 1970s.

Settle's memoir shines with the unusual light of memory formed by a charmed life garrisoned by hard work and passion. Her encounters with the likes of Roald Dahl, Harpo Marx and two particularly memorable evenings with Somerset Maugham set her in the company of her peers, to be honored in kind. — V.H.

Anne Hobson Freeman will discuss "Learning to Fly" at Book People Wednesday, Sept. 19, 5-7 p.m.

"Season of Gene"
Dallas Hudgens (Scribner, $23)

Leaving the funeral of his friend and teammate, small-time baseball manager and catcher Joe Rice pauses to hear a fellow mourner's suggestion that they dedicate the playing season to the deceased. Joe's confession to the reader: "To trivialize someone's life in that manner seemed more a dishonor than a distinction. More than that, it was a selfish act to use someone else's misfortune to motivate yourself in a meaningless competition."

This is just the sort of morally disingenuous sentiment that makes "Season of Gene" hard to stomach as mystery fiction. It's asking too much of the reader to have us believe that Joe, a Gen X Everyman, would spend 200 pages serving up moral insight, all while dodging gangsters, getting stun-gunned, playing ball, making carefully worded, politically correct racist observations about his immigrant team and questing after a '32 Babe Ruth bat as if it were the Grail.

This sort of genre fiction depends on two things: quicksilver pace, which we have, and naturalistic, unaffected characterization, which we don't. What is supposed to sound like gnarly dialogue comes off as mannered and unfitting. The story, a murder-comedy, falters as comedy because it tries too hard to be funny. The writing does approach occasional heights of interest, though, in those moments when its author steps back, slows down and allows his narrator to toe the line of human feeling with a little less irony, as with some strangely moving reminiscences about his hooker mother. — Kenny Williams

"Books on Trial: Red Scare in the Heartland"
Shirley A. Wiegand and Wayne A. Wiegand (University of Oklahoma Press, $24.95)

The Wiegands' self-described 40th anniversary present to themselves also serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers wartimes pose to civil liberties. This chronicle connects the dots between a case of criminal syndicalism (a law dating from World War I that made it a crime to teach or sell books that advocated the violent overthrow of the government) to how civil liberties can be selectively applied by both victim and judge.

In 1940 the Red Squad unit of the Tulsa police raided the Communist Party-run Progressive Book Store. Officers arrested the owners as well as several loitering customers. All were tried based on the words of the authors they sold, such as Lenin and Stalin, rather than their own testimony. They were imprisoned on the syndicalism charge for two years until petitions by liberals (whom the Communist Party called "facists") and the president and Eleanor Roosevelt got them released.

The Wiegands, both historians, try to end on both a celebratory note and a call to arms in today's war on terror. Those imprisoned still survive and have continued to call our presidents "warmongers." But forgotten in their history lesson is how the Oklahoma Communist Party, bemoaning criminal syndicalism laws in 1940, were championing them in 1943 when they were applied to American Nazis and other enemies of the war effort. "Books on Trial" thus serves as a double warning about war and civil liberties and how victimization doesn't always result in an appreciation of liberty for all. — Ron Capshaw

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