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March 02, 2008|Susan Salter Reynolds

The Well and the Mine

A Novel

Gin Phillips

Hawthorne Books: 252 pp., $15.95 paper

"AFTER she threw the baby in, nobody believed me for the longest time." So begins this astonishing debut novel, a story told in the five voices of an Alabama family in the 1930s. Tess, the middle child, is 9 on the night she sees the woman throw a baby into their well. When the baby is found, already dead, Tess and her sister devote their lives to figuring out who the unfortunate woman was. Much like "To Kill a Mockingbird," "The Well and the Mine" is about the strange contortions forced on humanity by racism and poverty. The family's hometown, Carbon Hill, is a coal-mining town, run largely by a single company. Tess' father works in the mine. During their search for the "Well Woman," Tess and her sister learn a great deal about desperation and deprivation but also about dignity. Gin Phillips has a remarkable ear for dialogue and a tenderhearted eye for detail; you can hear the pecans and hickory nuts falling from the trees and feel the stillness of a hot summer night. A whisper runs through the novel -- the ghosts of places and people and luscious peach pies, making it a strange combination of dream and nightmare, nightmare and dream.

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Between Panic & Desire

Dinty W. Moore

University of Nebraska Press: 162 pp., $24.95

"DEEP in the scrub hills of Jefferson County, about eight miles north of Punxsutawney, lay two towns, Panic and Desire, separated by farms, trees, and a narrow road." Dinty W. Moore, who teaches English at Ohio University, finds himself on the road between the two, and it occurs to him that "I have been here all my life." Panic distorts the world, prevents us from seeing things as they are. He and his peers, he writes, have lived through events that made them feel "fatherless, cynical, unmoored." Then again, Moore suffers from diplopia, or double vision. Maybe this isn't a memoir, he muses, maybe its "a chronicle of those events most responsible for twisting our collective psyche over the past forty or so years." He's haunted by the number 9, John Lennon, Richard Nixon and his own name ("[W]hy in heaven's name would a woman knowingly name her son after a comic strip character whose chief activity was luring respectable fellows out of their homes to drink beer and play cards?") "Between Panic & Desire" is more autopsy than memoir -- a strange new hybrid. It's a fantasy of letting go of the things that have haunted Moore his entire life. These things do, in fact, float off the pages.

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Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing

Elmore Leonard

William Morrow: 96 pp., $14.95

OH, dear. Why do writers insist on doing this? Does Elmore Leonard really want every new writer to sound just like Elmore Leonard? These 10 rules are unusually opinionated and invasive. Take No. 1: "Never open a book with weather." Why? Because Leonard believes readers will leaf ahead looking for people. No. 3: "Never use a verb other than 'said' to carry dialogue." (No wonder he's so easily translated into French!) No. 8: "Avoid detailed descriptions of characters." Leonard notes some exceptions to these rules (writers he admires). "These are rules I've picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I'm writing a book," he writes by way of a disclaimer. But emphatic statements like these do not help make writers invisible. They help shut writers up. They amount to a very particular style -- Elmore Leonard's style. Extreme caution advised. A book like this could stifle the most intrepid of aspiring writers.

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susan.reynolds@latimes.com

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