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Leaving Van Gogh

A Novel

Carol Wallace

Spiegel & Grau: 268 pp., $25

"Vincent wrote once in a letter that a man who commits suicide turns his friends into murderers. What does that make me?" writes Dr. Paul Gachet in Carol Wallace's riveting fictional memoir of his very real relationship with Vincent van Gogh. It is with this tone of fondness and regret that Gachet tells how Vincent first came to his house in Auvers on the banks of the Oise, after the ear episode, after his tumultuous summer with Cézanne and after leaving the asylums at Remy and Arles. It was 1890, and Gachet had been the physician at an insane asylum in Paris for many decades. On the weekends he returned to Auvers, where his two children and his housekeeper lived after the death of his wife. Gachet, himself an amateur painter and collector, treats Vincent with herbs and tinctures from his garden. Vincent's vitality and unique intelligence wash over the reader — much as they do when looking at his paintings. Wallace deepens our thinking about the painter by imagining the conversations he had with Gachet and his family and in the gentle way that she imagines his demeanor between manic episodes. Gachet's compassion is rewarded in many ways — Vincent is able to describe what it feels like when he is in the grip of mania. The book is truly delightful — not cute or flowery or simplistic in its effort to illuminate the life of the luminous man.

The Free World

A Novel

David Bezmozgis

Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 368 pp., $26

David Bezmozgis' first book, "Natasha and Other Stories" (2004) established the wide appeal of his style and his subject: the lives of Russian émigré families in Canada. The wackiness and nostalgia of his characters was endearing and unforgettable. In 2010, The New Yorker named him one of its "20 Under 40" writers to watch. "The Free World," with its darkly ironic title, takes these lives deeper; they are treated with more respect, but no less love, than they were in "Natasha." After all, these are the author's people — he was born in Riga, Latvia, in 1973, and, like many of the characters in "The Free World," lived in Italy on his way to Canada. (Many others waited in Italy until they could relocate to Israel or the United States to rebuild their lives.)

Samuil, a Red Army veteran in his 60s, leaves Russia in the summer of 1978 with his two sons, their wives and his son Karl's two children. While Karl finds work in an auto body shop outside Rome, Alec, the prodigal son, spends his time lusting after Mediterranean women. Samuil spends his waiting days remembering home and writing his autobiography. Alec's wife, Polina, is the most sympathetic voice in a novel full of compelling voices: through her and Samuil we feel the flatness of things that are not home: the language, the landscape, the bureaucracies that are all so rigidly unfamiliar. Bezmozgis is very good at channeling these characters. He lets them speak. He listens to them. He watches where their thoughts wander. Soon he will have followed these characters from his past to the end of their roads; it will be fascinating to see whom he follows next.

Horoscopes for the Dead

Poems

Billy Collins

Random House: 112 pp., $24

One of the things readers love about former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins' poetry is that it often makes them laugh. In this ninth collection, Collins recalls different phases of his life; a boy with his ear to the ground over the joint graves of his parents asks them what they think of his glasses. "In "The Straightener," the boy arranges his possessions and grows into a man who arranges his shoes by chronology and shirts by color in the closet. The young man takes on personas: "The Flâneur," the lover in the Palermo cafe who sings the song to his girl that a squirrel taught him. The middle-aged man thinks about baldness and mortality. "I don't want to make too much of this," he writes in "Gold," "Again, I don't want to exaggerate," he insists as he explains his effort to see things as they are, to leave them as light as he finds them, unburdened with a poet's perception. Collins' gratitude is uplifting — when he learns his dog does not have cancer, even the cheese grater looks beautiful. Even his sadness, in the collection's title poem, as he reads the horoscope of a loved one who has died, is tinged with appreciation: "No more goals for you, no more romance,/no more money or children, jobs or important tasks,/but then again, you were never thus encumbered." Collins' buoyancy is contagious: "Simple Arithmetic," in which the writer sits on a dock and gently erases himself, is the sweetest manifesto, the best recipe you'll ever read.

Salter Reynolds is a Los Angeles writer.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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