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Originally published August 3, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 3, 2007 at 2:01 AM

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First Novels

An alternate world and a big fish story

We look to first novels for fresh perspectives on the world. And when we're really lucky, we get books that offer whole new worlds. That's the case with...

Seattle Times book critic

We look to first novels for fresh perspectives on the world. And when we're really lucky, we get books that offer whole new worlds. That's the case with the two comical debuts reviewed below.

"If Minds Had Toes"

by Lucy Eyre

Bloomsbury, 281 pp., $12.95

In this cheerful mind-bender of a book, Greek philosopher Socrates has been president of the limbolike World of Ideas "for a record 2,109 years." And Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein is fed up with it.

Hoping to bump Socrates from his post, Wittgenstein bets the Greek that his brand of philosophy will do nothing to improve the life of an ordinary mortal. If Socrates wins, he stays in power. If Wittgenstein wins, he takes over.

The task of finding "a suitable person from Over There" is delegated to Lila, assistant to the bigwigs in the World of Ideas and a neophyte philosopher herself. Her choice of guinea pig is 15-year-old Ben Warner, whose suburban family practically screams normality.

Ben has just started working part time at the local fish-and-chips shop, Cod Almighty, and Lila, making a brief worldly visit there, has no trouble turning his head. Her challenge to him is to make him think seriously about "the taste of a chip, or what is real about real life." If these are questions he'd like to pursue, she adds, all he has to do is crawl into his family's linen cupboard and she'll meet him on the other side.

And we're off. With a nod to the juvenile fiction of C.S. Lewis, British author Lucy Eyre takes Ben and her readers back and forth between workaday reality and the World of Ideas with an ease and nonchalance that are a constant delight. Her gee-golly prose heightens the comedy. But Ben's attempts to share what he learns add a poignant note to the proceedings. The more he's caught upin philosophical quandaries, the less response he gets from friends and family.

As whimsical and irreverent as she is in handling her subject, Eyre is rigorous in leading her readers through the pivotal philosophical questions and the various schools of philosophical thought. Guest appearances by Machiavelli, Karl Marx and Buddha himself ("Big welcome for Siddhartha Gautama") enliven the debates.

Ben sums it up best: "Philosophers really did have a talent for stating the obvious. And then making it not obvious after all."

"Salmon Fishing in the Yemen"

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by Paul Torday

Harcourt, 333 pp., $24

The world in which Paul Torday's "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen" is set is more recognizably our own — but no less preposterous.

Dr. Alfred Jones is quietly working as a researcher with England's National Centre for Fisheries Excellence when he is contacted by property manager Harriet Chetwolde-Talbot about creating a salmon run for "a very eminent Yemeni citizen" in the mountains of the Yemen. Alfred promptly dismisses the idea as absurd.

But the matter doesn't end there. Soon the Foreign and Commonwealth Office gets involved, arguing that the project could offer a new "template for Anglo-Yemeni cooperation," while one of the prime minister's closest consultants, Peter Maxwell, sees the Yemeni salmon project as being potentially "a big, positive news story that will take front-page space away from less constructive news items coming out of Iraq, Iran and Saudi."

Alfred is offered the choice of cooperating or resigning. His corporate-climber wife, the brutally practical Mary, suggests that he do what his bosses tell him to do. So he does it.

The twist: He gradually becomes more and more fascinated by the possibilities of the project, by the personality of the sheik who dreamed it up, and by Harriet herself.

Torday parcels his story out in the form of documents: e-mails, diaries, newspaper articles, etc. It doesn't take long to realize something will go drastically wrong with the project. But what, exactly?

While there's plenty of laugh-out-loud humor in the book, there's also a sober vein running through it (Harriet has a soldier-fiancé stationed in Iraq) and an unlikely uplift to it, too, as Alfred begins to share the sheik's ardent faith in what the success of the project might mean. The esoterica on salmon are both poetical and precise; the jabs at the travails of a two-career couple (Alfred and Mary) are sharp. The one misstep may be the overly broad swipes at PM consultant Maxwell. Yet in today's spin-heavy atmosphere, they aren't exactly off-target.

Torday's clear talent is in striking such a variety of notes, from soulful to satirical, and making them work as one bracing, bittersweet whole.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com. He has been the Seattle Times book critic since 1998, and has also published four novels.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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