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Ragnarok and roll

Plus, the humor of politics



Now that she's finished writing the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling has time to embark on a second career by opening a Young Adults Fantasy Writing School. I can just see the classified ad: "Earn Big Money! Never Teach a Class or Apply for a Grant Again!" Clearly, many obscure but respectable mainstream writers would sign up.

One of the latest to dabble in the YA Fantasy realm is Joanne Harris, best known for the novel Chocolat, which you may remember from its Oscar-nominated film adaptation from 2001. Harris' first book for young readers, Runemarks begins with an alienated 12-year-old girl with an aptitude for magic and builds to an apocalyptic struggle that puts the fate of the universe in the balance.

In Runemarks, Harris puts a fresh spin on Norse mythology by offering faithful but pointed portrayals of the likes of Thor the thunder god, Loki the trickster and the rest. Clearly, she's done a lot of homework on the subject, giving readers an accessible crash course in magic symbols, or "runes." Young heroine Maddy Smith has one on her body that suspicious townsfolk call a "ruin mark." Set mostly in a pre-Industrial-Revolution village, Runemarks takes place in an alternate history in which the Norse Armageddon, or "Ragnarok," took place 500 years earlier. Maddy finds herself caught up in intrigue between the remnants of the Norse pantheon and a powerful faction called The Order, which resembles the authoritarian church in The Golden Compass.

Runemarks reads like the kind of book that sacrifices too much for the sake of its plot outline. More than 500 pages, it still feels rushed, with characterization swamped by exposition and incident. Virtually everything happens on the fly, and the scale goes from commonplace to cosmic so quickly, it's hard to feel like anything's really at stake. It's a near-miss, though, since Harris also displays obvious talent, imagination and flair for clever dialogue. To master telling fantasy stories for young readers, Harris would only need a few of Rowling's classes before graduating with honors.

I Am America (And So Can You!) extends Stephen Colbert's highly amusing persona as host of The Colbert Report, a parody of conservative pundit programs like The O'Reilly Factor. In the book as on the show, Colbert weighs in on hot-button issues of the current conservative moment, carrying them to logical extremes until they collapse under their own fatuousness.

Written by Colbert and at least a dozen others, I Am America perfectly captures the way the host's confidence becomes more brazen the more he reveals his ignorance. The book features plenty of playful photos and graphics, but its inventive wordplay makes it succeed as prose. Opposing the idea of "science," Colbert argues that physics is nothing more than unnecessary regulations: "Physics is the ultimate Big Government interference -- universal laws meant to constrain us at every turn. Hey, is it wrong that I sometimes want to act without having to deal with an equal and opposite reaction?"

Despite taking on safe targets, Colbert's book proves perfectly attuned to the modern zeitgeist. Another fake journalist, Kazakhstan's Borat Sagdiyev (an alter ego of British comic Sacha Baron Cohen) proves more dated with his new travel book, Touristic Guidings to Minor Nation of U.S. and A. Flip it upside down and it becomes Touristic Guidings to Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.

Despite quality binding and glossy paper, Touristic Guidings is meant to be a crappily published book, riddled with spelling and typesetting errors that evoke Borat's broken English. The American half derives heavily from the jokes in 2005's Borat "moviefilm," but without having the real interviewees to give comedic friction to Borat's clueless behavior. The book has no "straight men" -- unless you happen to be a sexist anti-Semite who hates gypsies and Uzbeks, nodding along in agreement -- and then you won't realize that the joke is on you.

The Kazakh section features fresher jokes, including details about the country's colossal statue of Great Melvin the Redeemer, erected to celebrate Mel Gibson's views on the Jews. Nevertheless, surprise is a crucial element in any kind of comedy, and in Touristic Guidings, the shock value of references to rape or the sex industry wear off quickly, and the faux-happy descriptions of bigotry and abuse become merely depressing.

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