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Books: Leisure reading

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'Lindbergh's Artificial Heart'

By Steve Silverman

Andrews McMeel, $9.95.

"Useless? Useful? I'll leave that for you to decide."

That's what this high school science teacher asks after each story in this sequel to "Einstein's Refrigerator" — a quick-selling compilation of outlandish and bizarre stories.

For example, did you know that PEZ candies started out as breath mints? According to Silverman, a German candymaker named Eduard Haas started selling peppermint-flavored PEZ to help people disguise bad breath. "The German word for peppermint is PfeffErminZ," Silverman writes. "From that was gleaned the acronym PEZ!"

In another story, Silverman describes "the great toilet-paper shortage" — three weeks of chaos after a Johnny Carson monologue. "It's the only time in American history that the consumer actually created a major shortage. I don't think that the 'shortage' of Barbie or Power Ranger dolls at Christmas could be classified as a real shortage."

Another story talks about Flubber — that out-of-control "stuff" in several Disney movies, which is said to have actually been created in 1962. "This particular formulation of Flubber was a mixture of rubber and mineral oil, and had properties similar to that of Silly Putty. In other words, it bounced like a ball and could make comic imprints."

Unfortunately for its creators, that wasn't all it could do.

"Useless? Useful? I'll leave that for you to decide."

'The Seashell on the Mountaintop'

By Alan Cutler

Dutton, $23.95

This book is about a simple question: "How do seashells get on mountaintops?"

With solid storytelling, Cutler answers that question as he details the life and history of Nicolaus Steno — a 17th-century scientist credited as the "founder of geology."

"He showed that the earth had a history, revealed in its own rocks," said Cutler, a writer affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution. "As a result, the static world assumed by both the scientists and the churchmen of his day gave way to an evolutionary one. And with that idea came unlimited possibilities."

Like the Earth, which is formed layer upon layer, Cutler tells Steno's story through short chapters that build upon each other. With a Ph.D. in geology, Cutler demonstrates vast knowledge of his subject, keeping the book interesting and readable as he weaves Steno's story with historical quotes, anecdotes and lessons in geology.

"This revolution triggered by Steno in our understanding of the earth gathered momentum slowly," said Cutler. "Ironically, the man who launched it never publicly challenged the six-thousand-year biblical timescale that his science eventually overturned. Yet, even in his final years, which he devoted entirely to religion, he never renounced his science, either."

'Dragon Bones'

By Lisa See

Random House, $24.95.

Love, murder and a 5,000-year-old missing artifact — a classic combination in See's new novel.

The setting is China. Liu Hulan, an inspector in the Ministry of Public Security, has been called to investigate the murder of a man found floating down the Yangtze River. Although the body is bloated, its features indistinguishable, it is somehow tied to the theft of an ancient Chinese artifact.

David Stark, an American attorney and Hulan's husband, is investigating the artifact's theft. It's an artifact that everyone seemingly wants. "Everyone — from the Chinese government, to a religious cult, to an unscrupulous American art collector." Together with Hulan, Stark travels to Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, investigating the artifact's theft and learning of more murders on the way.

Throughout the book, See describes the Yangtze River in detail, adding commentary about the controversial building of Three Gorges Dam. She says, "Premier Zhu Rongji had startled the country recently when he made public comments critical of the quality of construction, as well as of the graft and corruption connected to the project."

The third in a series, "Dragon Bones" is a well-written novel that uses mystery and actual events to create an intriguing story.