An epochal disaster, the coming of World War II, overshadows Hughes' "In Hazard" (above); another, Sept. 11, 2001, provides the hinge in Alam's first novel, "The Groom To Have Been." Alam's hero Nasr, a young Muslim, is about to enter into an arranged marriage when two things happen: There's "the terrible event," as Alam describes it, and this combines with Nasr's sexual noticing of his lifelong friend, the Westernized Jameela. The result is a novel, mostly set in and around New York in the summer and fall of 2001, that recalls the who's-he/she-going-to-marry plots of Jane Austen and Edith Wharton rather than the post-modern Muslim jazz of Salman Rushdie, Hanif Kureishi and Zadie Smith. That's no bad thing. Alam's voice feels very much her own, and she writes with grace and light-handed wit. Nasr's sister is described as "a notoriously dedicated sleeper," while the crux of Nasr's wavering is neatly put: "What did he want? What did he want?" Alam crafts a delicate novel about big issues of belonging and desire.
Rossetti -- whose brother Dante was a leading Pre-Raphaelite painter -- never married, held a strong religious faith and published poetry throughout her life before dying in 1894. In a poem like "A Daughter of Eve" she writes achingly of lost love and lost hope, though this new collection proves her a much tougher and more sinewy writer than most people remember. The long poem "Goblin Market" (the story of cackling, crowing goblin men who sell fruit that excites more than merely the taste buds) burns and drives with suppressed Victorian sexuality and stands as a startling precursor to feminism: "She clung about her sister / Kissed and kissed and kissed her: / Tears once again / Refreshed her sunken eyes, / Dropping like rain / After long sultry drouth; / Shaking with aguish fear, and pain, / She kissed and kissed her with a hungry mouth."
"May Day: Poems" by Phillis Levin (Penguin)
"I've decided to waste my life again, / Like I used to: get drunk on / The light in leaves, find a wall / Against which something can happen," writes Levin in the title poem of her new collection. The tone seems ruminative and musing, and many of Levin's poems are like that, although a fierce immediacy is often combined with the cooler mood, striking notes that may be political, or even violent. In "The Chariot," a meditation on the rage of Achilles, she allows a chance encounter with an image from Iraq to influence and conclude the poem: "Distance dissolved, desire and anger / Dissolved, revulsion rising in the face of what a piece of clay can become."
"Erotomania" by Francis Levy (Two Dollar Radio)
"Neither of us bothered with the niceties," says James Moran, Levy's first-person sex-addict narrator in this first novel. "I'd pull her blouse over her head. She'd unzip my fly. . . . It was always after we were through that the trouble began. I always found myself wandering in the street, not remembering her face or how it had started." Moran wanders the streets, exhausted, unable even to remember the name of the woman with whom he's having a wild affair. The turning point of the story is when sex turns into love, and Levy handles this dilemma well enough; he's excellent too, like Miller and Bukowski, on the mechanics and energy and animal filth of rumpy-pumpy, bringing to his sex scenes all the humor they need. There's a hilarious sequence in which the lovers use art criticism as a sex aid. Readers will never think of Robert Hughes or the abstract Expressionists in quite the same way. Sex is familiar, but it's perennial, and Levy makes it fresh.
"The Death of Jim Loney," "Winter in the Blood" both by James Welch (Penguin)
Welch died in 2003, at only 63, having grown up part Blackfeet and Gros Ventre, and part Irish on the plains of Montana, whose harsh beauty his work unsparingly evokes. Here, re-issued with new introductions by novelists Jim Harrison and Louise Erdrich, are two of his finest works. "Loney" is terse to the point of existentialism, recalling "The Stranger" by Camus. "Winter" is more internal and, while often despairing, offers more hope. "James Welch knew that small gestures between people tell big stories," writes Erdrich, and the quality of Welch's writing is such that, not only Indian life, not only Montana life, but the essence of what it might mean to be a disenfranchised human being nonetheless living day-by-day is evoked in every telling paragraph -- with poetry, with detail and sometimes with surprising wit. These are haunting, sad, lovely novels.
"Out Backward" by Ross Raisin (Harper Perennial)
"I was up early. The sun had just started to show himself when I stepped into the yard, a ball of orange half-hid behind the Moors," says narrator Sam Marsdyke, suggesting that his creator, first-time novelist Raisin, is artfully familiar with classics of the English demotic novel such as Joyce Cary's "The Horse's Mouth" and Anthony Burgess' "A Clockwork Orange." The story tells how teenage outsider Sam becomes involved with a girl from London, who moves into the Yorkshire countryside where he lives. The two of them go on the run, on the trek across the moor, and violence intercedes. The plot is familiar, but not the way Raisin deftly uses Yorkshire dialect to create speed and a fictional space that feels new. In the reader's notes at the back, Raisin brings up the subject, not only of Bradford, the failed industrial city he obviously knows end-to-end, but the history of that city's less-than-illustrious football (OK, soccer) team. Here's a writer who uses obscurity to cunning advantage.
"The Underdogs" by Mariano Azuela (Penguin)
Azuela's 1915 novel, newly translated by Sergio Waisman, tells the story of Demetrio Macias, a humble Indian who rises to become a general in Pancho Villa's army. Once the battles are won, and the federales defeated, Macias becomes disillusioned; he watches his colleagues fighting among themselves for the prize of post-revolutionary leadership. Azuela, a doctor in one of Villa's armies, saw these ironies arise at firsthand, but he marries a natural gift for fiction to his eyewitness analysis. Events come quickly, and the dialogue -- expertly and sometimes thrillingly rendered by translator Waisman -- whips us along. Introduced by Carlos Fuentes.