This week’s book reviews

“William Shakespeare’s The Empire Striketh Back” by Ian Doescher; Quirk Books ($14.95)

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far — well, really about a year ago, William Shakespeare (died 1616) teamed up with Oregon author Ian Doescher to adapt filmmaker George Lucas’ “Star Wars” into a peerless 16th-century play.

Now there’s a sequel, “William Shakespeare’s The Empire Striketh Back,” and it’s just as much fun.

As the original film, “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back” was more darker and romantic than its predecessor, so Doescher’s new version, writing as the Bard, has more depth.

To take it more seriously than probably intended and written, this might be a good way of introducing Shakespearean language to a new generation. The “Star Wars” saga is so well-known to 20th-century audiences that it might catch their interest.

—By Tish Wells, McClatchy Washington Bureau

“Life Is a Wheel: Love, Death, Etc., and a Bike Ride Across America” by Bruce Weber; Scribners ($26)

This is one of the most heartening things about “Life Is a Wheel”: Although Weber had some beer cans, and some belligerence, thrown at him, for the most part the folks he ran into offered only good wishes, good company and the occasional back-of-the-pickup conveyance when he was faced with a dead end, a dangerous directional dilemma. The kindness of strangers, even in a country fiercely divided into red states and blue, is much in evidence.

“Life Is a Wheel” isn’t just journal entries about fields of North Dakota sunflowers, about grinding through baking heat, pouring rain, gusting winds, about the shabby inns and Indian-reservation casino hotels, hitting the summit of Logan Pass, the Continental Divide. Weber loses a best friend to cancer in the early weeks of his ride, parks his bike and takes a plane to L.A. for the memorial service, where he delivers a eulogy.

Weber takes his writing, and his friendships, seriously, and he reprints his final words about Billy Joseph. They are crushingly beautiful. He also shares the eulogy he wrote for his mother, Eileen, who battled with MS (she was sick for so long that he only remembers her that way) and whose increasing frailties placed impossible burdens on his father, too.

—By Steven Rea, The Philadelphia Inquirer

“Bark” by Lorrie Moore; Alfred A. Knopf ($24.95)

If you adore Lorrie Moore, as so many of us do, you’ll find much to enjoy in her new collection of eight stories, “Bark.” All the sparkly balls are in play — puns, politics, pop culture details, sometimes all at once, as when a character confuses an unnamed torture prison with a line from Jabberwocky, “the mome raths outgrabe.” (Abu Ghraib for $500, please.)

Every story delivers the classic Moore club sandwich of melancholia and humor, and if none is the equal of the best stories in “Birds of America,” the book is still a strong recovery from her iffy 2009 novel, “A Gate at the Stairs.”

The Moore-ish obsession with wordplay begins with the title: Nowhere in “Bark” except its epigraphs does a dog appear. The cover image is a tree trunk, covered with bark, natch; the first story is called “Debarking,” and in the last, a gun-toting motorcyclist shows up wearing “a football helmet with some plush puppy ears which had been snipped from a child’s stuffed animal then glued on either side.”

—By Marion Winik, Newsday

“The Way of All Fish” by Martha Grimes; Scribner ($26.99)

Martha Grimes is best known for her novels about British police detective Richard Jury, his aristocratic friend Melrose Plant and other residents of the postcard town of Long Piddleton. Those 22 novels meld the traditional village mystery with the police procedural, giving the plots a hard edge balanced by satire and humor.

Jury and friends are absent in “The Way of All Fish,” Grimes’ 31stnovel, but they won’t be missed in this witty satire on the publishing industry.

“The Way of All Fish” is a sequel, of sorts, to Grimes’ 2003 novel “Foul Matter,” in which the New York publishing industry is seen as a swamp filled with quicksand and inhabited by piranha. Publishing fares a little bit better in “The Way of All Fish,” but not by much.

—By Oline H. Cogdill

“The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000 BC-1492 AD” by Simon Schama; Ecco ($39.99)

Whatever you might say about Simon Schama, one of our most prominent and accomplished narrative historians, you can’t say he’s afraid to tackle broad and challenging subjects. “The Story of the Jews” is the first of a two-volume work aimed at covering 3 millenniums, from 1000 BCE to the present day, with the break coming at 1492 and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella.

That’s a lot of ground to cover, greater geographically if not in chronological terms than Schama’s last multi-volume work, a three-tome “History of Britain” published in 2000-02 that reached all the way back to 3500 BC. Like that work, the scale of “The Story of the Jews” was dictated by the requirement of a television documentary series, scheduled to begin airing on PBS toward the end of this month. Schama might want to select his inspirations more judiciously in future, for the subject at hand comes close to overmatching even his prodigious talents.

The main signs of struggle come at the beginning of the story, set in the deep pre-biblical past. The difficulty — often, the impossibility — of separating fact from myth, legend and archaeological speculation sometimes reduces Schama’s narrative to a muddle. One gets lost tracing the peregrinations of the early Jews between Babylon and Egypt, between the Euphrates and the Nile, or distinguishing between the Jewish communities of Judea (roughly present-day Israel), and Elephantine, an island in the Nile, as distinctive as they were.

Schama resorts to two techniques to work around the muddle. One is to focus on the defining characteristic of the Jewish people, which is their devotion to the book — or more precisely, the words. As he perceives, it can be enormously effective to track the development of the Jews as a community by watching the development of what would coalesce into the Torah.

—By Michael Hiltzik, Los Angeles Times

“Love and Treasure” by Ayelet Waldman; Alfred A. Knopf ($26.95)

A real sense of political engagement runs through “Love and Treasure,” particularly in the form of an Israeli war hero, an American soldier managing the spoils of war found on the Hungarian Gold Train, and women in 20th-century Budapest fighting for the right to vote.

“I don’t believe in political novels — I think they’re bad,” Ayelet Waldman says. “But I can’t help myself. That’s the way my mind works. I dig my teeth into an idea, and it’s an idea that inspires me and excites me, and then I find myself writing about it.”

She continues, “I think the trick is to be driven by character and driven by story, and have the rest feed your narrative the way those things feed your life as a human.” And then she adds, “Unless you’re really an idiot, you have a political identity in the sense that you care about the world around you and you life your eyes occasionally from your own myopic interests.”

It is that merging of art and edge that gives Waldman’s work an extra boost of energy, and she’s no stranger to controversy. In 2005, as the author of some moderately popular detective novels, she leapt into the national consciousness with an essay in which she declared, “I love my husband more than I love my children.”

—By Carolyn Kellogg, Los Angeles Times


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