"Campy: The Two Lives of Roy Campanella"

By Neil Lanctot

He was a three-time National League most valuable player, an eight-time All-Star, and played in five World Series, but Roy Campanella was something else when the Dodgers began playing in Los Angeles in 1958. He was a quadriplegic, his body broken in a tragic automobile accident after the 1957 season.

Few Dodgers fans in Los Angeles ever had a chance to fully appreciate the Hall of Fame catcher in action, but Neil Lanctot's rich new biography, "Campy: The Two Lives of Roy Campanella," should change that.

As Lanctot thoroughly documents, Campanella was revered for his good-natured demeanor, strong leadership on the field and clutch hitting on the great Brooklyn Dodgers teams of the 1950s.

Lanctot (pronounced Lank-toe), an adjunct history professor at the University of Delaware, is an evenhanded biographer. He delves deeply into the downsides of professional athletics in the 1950s and Campanella's own shortcomings.

Among Lanctot's storytelling strengths are his deep examinations of Campanella's rise through the Negro Leagues, where he eclipsed another legendary power-hitting catcher, Josh Gibson; his complicated and eventually fractured relationship with the more outspoken Jackie Robinson, his onetime mentor and friend; and his resiliency in dealing with life's hard and often unfair knocks.

"The Free World"

By David Bezmozgis

"The Free World," David Bezmozgis' first novel, begins its journey in much the same way as the Krasnansky family it features: with the promise of good things ahead.

We first meet the Krasnanskys in a crowded Vienna train station, where three generations of them are midway in their journey from Latvia to the West.

It is 1978. The refusenik Natan Sharansky is about to be convicted and Brezhnev is in power. Given that all but one of the Krasnanskys is Jewish, starting over elsewhere seems like a good idea.

In a series of short, deftly interwoven chapters, Bezmozgis introduces us to his cast of characters.

We're introduced to minor characters with sketchy back stories that don't add up to a convincing whole. Worst of all, we're treated to a boring subplot featuring Russian gangsters.

But the steady accretion of historical detail eventually works, transforming an old man who can admittedly seem ridiculous into a dignified figure who commands our empathy and even our respect.

"Free World" is sprinkled with sharp aphorisms. Even its flattest characters generate witty and bitterly sardonic dialogue.

Most important, "Free World" embodies the malaise, which would become common after 1989, of people who had finally won the freedom to move, only to learn there was no place to go.

"Periodic Tales: A Cultural History of the Elements, From Arsenic to Zinc"

By Hugh Aldersey-Williams

Some people collect coins or baseball cards. Others collect stamps or Pez dispensers. Hugh Aldersey-Williams collects the building blocks of the universe.

Aldersey-Williams has been trying to collect pure samples of every element known to humankind - from the common to the rare, the inert to the lethal. His quest sprang from a simple desire: to see and feel the elements that otherwise seem to exist only as abbreviations on the periodic table.

The author's scientific sentimentality may be unusual. But he makes it easy to share his passion with his latest book, "Periodic Tales: A Cultural History of the Elements, From Arsenic to Zinc."

Few people give elements a second thought outside chemistry class, but each one has an interesting story. The quest for gold drove some cultures to explore the world, while other cultures dismissed it as useless. Platinum is as plentiful as gold but it's more valuable because of artificially created demand. And chlorine changed the way nations waged war.

In this context, the elements are surprisingly fascinating. Aldersey-Williams writes about how each element was discovered, explains its place in history and describes the cultural changes it wrought.

"Periodic Tales" is a relatively quick read, and Aldersey-Williams writes with simplicity and elegance.

Russ Stanton/Los Angeles Times Mike Fischer/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Dinesh Ramde The Associated Press