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May 18, 2008|Susan Salter Reynolds

The Cellist of Sarajevo

A Novel

Steven Galloway

Riverhead: 256 pp., $21.95

SURVIVAL by music.

A young cellist watches from his window as 22 neighbors, waiting in a bread line, are killed by a mortar attack during the siege of Sarajevo in the Bosnian war of the 1990s. For 22 days, in an effort to build something new and hopeful, he plays his cello on the spot where they died. A 28-year-old sniper, a woman named Arrow, spends her days killing soldiers on city streets. A man named Dragan struggles to remember Sarajevo before war. "Is the real Sarajevo the one where people were happy, treated each other well, lived without conflict?" he wonders. "Or is the real Sarajevo the one . . . where people are trying to kill each other?" A middle-aged man named Kenan ventures out to get water for his wife and children, ashamed of his fear.

This unforgettable novel weaves these four lives together with that of the besieged city. "The cellist rests his hands, opens his eyes. He doesn't acknowledge the small crowd, and they don't applaud. A few people have laid flowers at his feet, but they are not for him."

The Cactus Eaters

How I Lost My Mind -- and Almost Found Myself --

on the Pacific Crest Trail

Dan White

HarperPerennial: 374 pp., $14.95 paper

"THE WORD Sierra conjures images of mountains, glaciers, rivers, and charming marmots. Scratch those pictures from your mind. Replace them with dust and dirt and sweat, canyon oak, pinon pine, and in the middle distance, blunt-topped crags the shape and color of an old dog's teeth. . . . [F]or the most part the scenery is pale beige, the color of stucco, the color of gefilte fish."

Dan White is not in the habit of romanticizing. He and his girlfriend, Allison, left their jobs in Connecticut to walk the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada. The book opens not quite three weeks into the trip, and both travelers are a little the worse for wear. What with the ticks ("Walkers whip off their clothes to find forty or fifty of them at once, looking like M&M's with legs") and other perils, it's a trail that "extracts a toll for a glimpse of its pretty places. . . . More than 50 percent of the people who walk the trail give up in despair, often within the first week."

On the day the book opens, Dan and Allison have run out of water. "I have a degree in English with honors from Wesleyan," White writes with mock incredulity. "You're the smartest guy in the room," he tells himself -- but he's run out of water, and he can't find any. Still, there's great joy in the couple's escape from the rat race. He and his girlfriend worked for a newspaper that had "a hate/hate relationship with its readers. People in town never said they 'subscribed' to the paper. Instead they said they 'took' the newspaper, as if it were a pill or a suppository."

Through the Angeles Forest, Tehachapi, the high passes on the John Muir Trail, the Range of Light, the Pacific Northwest, the Lois and Clark Expedition, as White calls it, picks up characters and bits of lost history.

The two explorers have strange dreams. They contemplate marriage and careers and compromises. "Every step toward Canada was a step toward manhood," White writes, in that voice you will grow to love. "I feared that the trail, if I never finished it, would leave me stranded in a permanent kindergarten. . . . "

--

susan.reynolds@latimes.com

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