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December 23, 2001|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

THE MOUSE DRIVER CHRONICLES: The True Life Adventures of Two First-Time Entrepreneurs, By John Lusk and Kyle Harrison, Perseus: 244 pp., $24

John Lusk and Kyle Harrison, roommates in B-school at Wharton, are entrepreneurs in a different arena: Silicon Valley. Lusk spends most of his time trying to figure out how not to get a job when he graduates. Harrison, the idea man, can't quite work the projector in his Power Point presentation for marketing class, which threatens his final grade. It's a match made in heaven. Together they form Platinum Products. Lusk will be vice president in charge of marketing; Harrison will be chief executive. The product? A computer mouse that looks like the head of a golf club: Mouse Drivers. Money is borrowed. There will be no salary until one year later, when they are able to pay themselves $7,500 each. They figure three years until they are bought by a big computer company looking to expand its "product line."

It's a fun and hopeful book, written in an "aw shucks" press release tone: Just two guys with expensive degrees wanting to start small and make millions. Lusk and Harrison are willing to take risks (friends and family). They are light on their feet. They can break into the big leagues by pretending to be naive. Actually, they are very smart, so this is a bit of an act. "We didn't," writes Lusk, "do anything you couldn't do. That's the point." There's another point. You have to want the money. Badly.

*

THE SIEGE, By Helen Dunmore, Grove Press: 304 pp., $24

In the winter of 1941, Leningrad was cut off from the rest of the world by the German army. The already brutal Russian winter was made more brutal by severe rationing and no heat. "The Siege," set in that winter, is written in the third person. Anna, whose mother died in childbirth, must raise the surviving infant and care for her famous writer father, whose income and spirit suffer when he fails to capitulate to the whims of the new government by writing propaganda. Burning books for fuel, sleeping four to a bed to keep warm: These are sudden changes for the refugees from Russia's intelligentsia. Helen Dunmore's writing moves like a powerful river. Her storytelling is strangely simple and ego-free; it has the force and warmth of William Trevor without the fancy footwork. The story provides the out-of-body experience of, say, "Doctor Zhivago," without the sentimental swampiness. She has an image in mind when she writes this novel: a cold snowy forest, with humans surviving and foraging.

*

BUFFALO FOR THE BROKEN HEART, Restoring Life to a

Black Hills Ranch, By Dan O'Brien, Random House: 254 pp., $22.95

In the 1950s, on a car trip from Ohio to the Great Plains with his parents, Dan O'Brien, just a kid, got hooked by the dream of the West. Decades later, he took the bait, buying 1,080 acres and leasing 760 more at the foot of the Black Hills in South Dakota. Even when you're fourth-generation, cattle ranching in this part of the country is hard. O'Brien's land has its very own archeology of misery: A former owner hanged himself in the barn, acres of Budweiser cans littered the property and the house, once grand, built 100 years earlier by a hopeful man for his terrified wife, is a pile of rubble. Why, the ranch is even called the Broken Heart Ranch, derived from its cattle brand, the Lazy 3-V (place the three on its face above the V, leave a little space between them, et voila, a broken heart). O'Brien is a wildlife biologist by training. He teaches a bit and works for the Fish and Game to meet his mortgage payments. His wife leaves him, he loses his hair, but he's not the self-destructive type. He never warms up to the cattle and sees instead what damage they do to the ecosystem; he learns the hard way how volatile and dependent the economics of cattle raising really is.

One day, a neighbor asks him to help herd buffalo. O'Brien comes home with a baker's dozen of buffalo calves. They roam and eat more in sync with the cycle of grass and they eat a greater variety of vegetation than the cattle. O'Brien's land comes back to life; the birds come back; the grass is healthier than his cattle-raising neighbor's. You can feel the healing taking place as he "jiggles debt" and learns how different buffalo are from cattle in every way. He writes about the legacy of the "Dirty Thirties" (the Dust Bowl years), the eradication of the buffalo for their skins and the new market for buffalo meat. Sometimes it seems that the land doesn't want us anymore after all we've done to it. O'Brien and his buffalo-raising friends, pioneers for the new future, Jedi of redemption, may win a place in that ecosystem by not trying to wrestle top dollar from it. A romantic idea from a concrete jungle, but I'm rooting for them.

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