Book bites

Posted: Thursday, June 28, 2001

'Five-Finger Discount: A Crooked Family History'

By Helene Stapinski

(Random House, 260 pages, $23.95)

Helene Stapinski's ''Five-Finger Discount,'' about her Polish immigrant family and growing up in Jersey City, N.J., is a combination of memoir, hometown history, and impressive collection of stories about family crime and tragedies. She tells her tales with eyes wide open, a warm heart, a reporter's eye for detail and a sense of humor.

Crime permeates her family history. Her maternal grandfather, Beansie, was ''a well-known neighborhood bully and crook'' with a vicious temper. The Stapinski name popped up quite frequently in the local newspaper -- in the crime news. There is also the case of the author's distant cousin, who was 4 when his father was found dangling from a door frame -- apparently a suicide. Polite but very withdrawn, the boy grew up to lead a life of crime that ended in police gunfire.

When her book ends, the author is living in Brooklyn with her husband and baby son. And her big hope is that her child won't follow in the footsteps of so many in her family.

-- By Prudence Heller, Associated Press Writer

'Frida: A Novel'

By Barbara Mujica

(Overlook, 320 pages, $26.95)

Sex and communism were the two forces around which Frida Kahlo built her carefully constructed life and personality. They were also ''forbidden topics in polite Mexican society,'' her younger sister Cristina explains in ''Frida: A Novel,'' by Barbara Mujica. The tumultuous life of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo is intimately relived through the eyes of the unassuming Cristina in a session with an unidentified psychoanalyst. Frida is dead, but she still haunts Cristina, and the narrative is told with Cristina reminiscing how, from the start, her life was dominated by Frida's feisty nature. Cristina would always remain in her sister's shadow.

Cristina examines Frida from all angles; from the defiant schoolgirl to the devout communist, from the provocative temptress to the barren woman desperate for a child. Frida was a teen when, in a bus crash, a metal bar pierced her pelvis, inflicting enduring pain. She took up painting as an outlet for the physical anguish.

Mujica has blended fact with fiction to weave a painful tale of sibling rivalry, emphasizing a bleak universal truth in the absurdity of how we hurt the people we love most.

-- By Shazna Nessa

'Special Agent: My Life on the Front Lines as a Woman in the FBI'

By Candice DeLong

(Hyperion, 303 pages, $23.95)

Move over, Clarice Starling: Candice DeLong is here to set the record straight. Unlike Starling, the fictitious FBI agent in ''The Silence of the Lambs,'' DeLong was a real-life agent. And her book, is as gripping as any fiction.

DeLong, who retired last year after 20 years with the bureau, recounts some of the best-known cases of recent times, including the Unabomber and the Tylenol Killer. Packed with chilling statistics, opinions and heartfelt comments, the book transports the reader to an unknown, elusive world. At times sarcastic, but always human, DeLong is easy to relate to.

As the book and DeLong remind, the front lines of the FBI are a dangerous place. It's hard work and mostly male dominated. But while women remain a minority in the bureau, they're a ''more significant one -- 15 percent of the total 11,500 agents -- 1,700 strong.''

-- By Maria Coder, Associated Press Writer

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