By Will Wiles (New Harvest, 304 pages, $24)

If, like me, you've ever thought that your productivity and creativity would explode if only you could get organized, let this be a (morbidly funny) wakeup call. The narrator, a writer whose main output is public service brochures, jumps at the chance to house-sit for his college chum Oskar, an accomplished pianist in an unnamed East European city. The two, however, are as different in temperament as they are in accomplishments. (A joke among their clique: "What does Oskar drink?" "Vodka. Neat.") In notes regarding every aspect of life in his immaculate, modernist condo, Oskar reveals that he is particularly concerned about its freshly laid wooden floors. The narrator relishes the chance to absorb the bracing order that is Oskar's life -- until the next morning when he realizes that his failure to use a coaster (as suggested in one of Oskar's notes) has left a red wine stain on the precious floor. Like Poe's "Tell-Tale Heart" (which Wiles references), the stain and other disturbingly funny, macabre mishaps remind us that the pursuit of perfection can drive you crazy. This is a precisely written debut from one who knows the value of letting loose.



By Hedrick Smith (Random House, 557 pages, $30)

Why an employment crisis now when there's no shortage of capital? Because, Hedrick Smith writes, middle-class consumers are the real job creators by the demand that they fuel. The deck is stacked against them after 40 years of corporate-driven political decisions, he argues in this well reported and comprehensive analysis of the weakening of middle America.

Smith, a Pulitzer Prize winner, former New York Times correspondent and author of acclaimed books on Washington politics and the Russian people, traces the start of a power shift back to 1971, when corporate attorney (and later U.S. Supreme Court justice) Lewis Powell issued a little-known memo urging business to acquire political power. Wall Street isn't solely to blame, he writes; corporations were handed the reins by politicians of both parties, and he claims that Democrats actually engineered the turning point in 1978 when they oversaw deregulation and lower corporate and capital gains taxes.

Much of this ground has been tilled before, and readers of a more conservative bent undoubtedly will find much here to contest. But it can't be denied, as Smith shows, that the economy grew faster and the middle class shared in more of the rewards when taxes were higher under Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy than with the leaner rates of George W. Bush -- by which time, he says, the fix had been in for years and lower taxes were no longer enough to right the ship.