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June 20, 2004|Susan Salter Reynolds

Stargazing: Memoirs of a Young Lighthouse Keeper

Peter Hill

Canongate: 278 pp., $24

Readers and lighthouses. There's a strange and ancient connection between them. So when a book comes along by a Scotsman remembering his long-haired days as an apprentice lighthouse keeper, reading everything from Vonnegut to Grass (is the distance really so great?), well, we jump. It all starts in the Tav, a bar in Dundee ("Think of the intergalactic bar in 'Star Wars' "). It's 1973, Watergate and Vietnam, the Grateful Dead. What are you going to be when you grow up? asks a friend. A lighthouse keeper, says our 20-year-old. Weeks later, an interview with the commissioners of the Northern Lights in Edinburgh, who seem eager to have him. Peter Hill was first stationed on the island of Pladda, off Arran. His fellow keepers are not only excellent talkers but excellent cooks as well. Hill learns everything about how a lighthouse works and hears some eerie stories about keepers run amok. Rabbie Burns is also on the syllabus, along with how to make haggis. Hill, now 51, went on to become a painter and art critic, but one gets the sense, which infuses the book with a rare sweetness, that this was the best year in his life.

*

On Being Born, and Other Difficulties

F. Gonzalez-Crussi

The Overlook Press:

218 pp., $23.95

Remember the great cultural divide between science and art that C.S. Lewis and others reported so mournfully? F. Gonzalez-Crussi has always written as if such a divide never existed. Quotes from Shakespeare support recent scientific findings on gestation and intelligence. Passages from Rabelais are used to explain the male fear of commitment. In this way, centuries of intellectual effort are collapsed into late-night thoughts and intimate conversations. The same old questions gain new life and new layers: Why do we reproduce sexually? What is the womb really like? Why is virginity such a big deal? Why, finally, are we brought into the world? Reading "On Being Born" is like hearing a really fine lecturer. It's like watching a truly capacious mind reach out for the tiniest facts or for our deepest insecurities as human beings. Gonzalez-Crussi lands heavily on a few points late in the book: that the biological distance between us and most animals is not nearly as great as we think it is; or that we have come to rely too heavily on technologies such as in vitro fertilization and sperm injection to solve our birth-related dilemmas. But mostly it's like flying, at night, through an enormous library.

*

Off Ramp: Adventures and Heartache in the American Elsewhere

Hank Stuever

Henry Holt: 298 pp., $24

"Gradually," says journalist Hank Stuever, who now writes for the Style section of the Washington Post, "the Elsewhere became my beat, my source, my writerly home: the big-box stores, the municipal arenas, the empty lots surrounded by fences ... the futon places, the ten minute lube places, the Slurpees, the billboards offering open-sided MRI scans. ... I wanted exclusive rights to stories about embalming; algebra; bedrooms; breakfast cereal; and pieces of furniture that cost under $500." And he got it. Stuever grew up in Oklahoma City (his essay on the city post-bombing, "Unassigned Lands" is in many ways the spine of this collection). His grandmother used to take him to a French cafe in the mall, which he believed as a young boy was actually France. This little anecdote explains a lot about Stuever's eye for Amerika. Another essay, "Prequel Dreams," describes the year in high school when Stuever's parents divorced and he took refuge in the local comic book store. (Fortunately, Luke Skywalker was also having trouble with his father that year.) Liner notes liken Stuever to David Sedaris and Joan Didion (even going so far as to say he is their brainchild!). But Stuever is a poor man's Sedaris or David Foster Wallace. It's one thing to be assigned a story on Wal-Mart. It's another to really like going there.

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