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Books, authors and all things bookish
In Eliot Pattison's moving 'Soul of the Fire,' a mystery in Tibet

Whether set in Southern Californian ethnic communities, Louisiana bayous or a blue-collar neighborhood in Boston, the more interesting mysteries take readers places they would otherwise never go. Foreign mysteries double down on the armchair adventure, mixing in exotic locales with crime-solving techniques and protagonists that won't be on the average tourist's sightseeing itinerary. But while European countries have been the settings for foreign crime series practically since Day One, the vast Asian continent is woefully underrepresented.

Such was the case for Tibet, which had been mostly overlooked until Eliot Pattison's 1999 "Skull Mantra" inaugurated a fascinating series set in a territory chafing under Chinese control, as seen through the eyes of Shan Tao Yun, a former senior inspector in Beijing's Public Security Bureau. Over the years, Shan has been disgraced and imprisoned in a Tibetan gulag, become a disciple to a group of outlawed Buddhist monks, followed the trail of stolen...

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Lindsay Hunter's 'Ugly Girls' plays it safe in the dark

If there was one book I looked forward to this year it was Lindsay Hunter's "Ugly Girls." For one thing, rarely has a title seemed more suited for a time period. Is American freakdom under threat or all the more in vogue when millennials come up with the term "normcore"? Something that could have just remained a New York Magazine buzzword has instead invaded the mainstream, with the Gap using the phrase "Dress Normal" to brand their polite staples. Perhaps a bit of ugly stylism from art could counteract all the anti-style sameness a new generation appears to require.

Another reason I couldn't wait for this: Hunter wrote two exciting short-story collections, "Don't Kiss Me" and "Daddy's." Hunter is a wiz of the shortest shorts; her best flash fiction reminds us of the genre's twin prose poetry, and by helming a flash fiction series in Chicago, she's made a name as an advocate of the form.

The short story is a more difficult form than the novel. As many have noted, the novel historically...

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'McGlue' casts a groggy sailor into a drunken murder tale

When I was in the Navy, I knew a lot of drunken sailors: men who drank for the joy of being drunk, men who drank with the desperation of characters out of a Faulkner novel, and men who drank for a reprieve from the inflexible discipline that dogs those foolish enough to seek their fortune on the high seas.

But I never knew anyone who drank like McGlue, the eponymous hero of Ottessa Moshfegh's debut, "McGlue," a strange and beautiful novella released by Fence Books.

McGlue is a 19th century sailor, a deck seaman of dubious skill, who wants one thing and one thing only: a bottle. "I wake up mornings with my head in a vice. The only solution is to drink again. That makes me almost jolly. It does wonders in the morning to take my mind of the pain and pressure. I can use my eyes after that first drink, I remember how to line up my feet and walk, loosen my jaw, tell someone to get out of my way."

McGlue's pursuit of intoxication is so single-minded that he prefers drink over the company of...

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2014 in Review: David L. Ulin looks at the year in books

What was the upshot of my year in reading — the ideas, the through lines that most stirred or provoked me in 2014? The dominant thread was what we might call that of common experience, work that finds significance in incidental things.

Karl Ove Knausgaard has become the poster child for this sort of work; his six-volume autobiographical opus "My Struggle" is all about a deep dive into the mundane. "Over recent years," he writes toward the end of the second volume, "I had increasingly lost faith in literature. … The only genres I saw value in, which still conferred meaning, were diaries and essays, the type of literature that did not deal with narrative, that were not about anything, but just consisted of a voice, the voice of your own personality, a life, a face, a gaze you could meet."

Knausgaard's project — Volume 3 came out in June — seems to signal something vivid about what books and art can do. His purpose is to slow down and use language to reframe the details of a life.

He...

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David L. Ulin's best books of 2014

Lists are, by their nature, impressionistic: How could they be otherwise? Here then, alphabetically by title, are the most stirring of the books I wrote about this year, my 10 favorites of 2014.

"Can't and Won't: Stories" by Lydia Davis (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 290 pp., $26). Davis is a master of the miniature, a writer who finds meaning at the level of the word, the sentence, and this new collection is as sharp as anything she's done. "A fire does not need to be called warm or red," she writes. "Remove many more adjectives."

"Citizen: An American Lyric" by Claudia Rankine (Graywolf: 170 pp., $20 paper). Blending poetry, narrative and visual imagery, this powerful — and timely — work challenges our preconceptions about form and genre as well as identity and race. "Words encod[e] the bodies they cover," Rankine tells us. "And despite everything the body remains."

"Gabriel: A Poem" by Edward Hirsch (Alfred A. Knopf: 78 pp., $26.95). A book-length poem elegizing the author's son — who...

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'Christ Actually' argues for belief through imitation

Advent is upon us. Just days from now Christ will again be born. Can you believe it? Really, can you believe it?

Christian writers and other authors taking up the figure known as the Christ often find themselves haunted — or, if you'll have no truck with holy ghosts, challenged — by Flannery O'Connor's ambition "to make belief believable." Doing so in America was difficult when O'Connor first presented this notion in 1963, and it sometimes seems impossible now that God's disappearance feels so complete. And yet there are those of us, writers of fiction and nonfiction alike, who continue to try to find and then reveal a Christ someone can really believe in. Often we fail.

I'm convinced, for instance, by recent arguments, notably one by writer Paul Elie, that most contemporary novels fail to "grant belief any explanatory power" and thus refuse one sense of "the fullness of life." Arguably the most popular Christian factual writing in recent years, "Heaven Is for Real," recounts a child's...

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