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Say You're One of Them

Uwem Akpan

Little, Brown: 368 pp., $23.99

These stories about children in various African countries offer an almost dizzying fall into another way of life and other ways of surviving. They are set in Niger, Benin, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, Kenya, Gabon, Nigeria and Rwanda, and after reading them you will never see that continent as monolithic again. You will picture buses, bedrooms, walls to hide behind. A child runs away; a child is sold; a child learns a strange new language to describe the myriad dislocations in her world; a Muslim child whose hand has been cut off learns that death is not the greatest thing to fear; a child watches his parents fail to protect him. "The world is not looking," the author says in an interview included with the book. "I think fiction allows us to sit for a while with people we would rather not meet."

Hidden in the Shadow

of the Master

The Model-Wives of Cézanne, Monet & Rodin

Ruth Butler

Yale University Press: 376 pp., $35

Hortense Fiquet, Camille Doncieux and Rose Beuret were the little-known wives of Cézanne, Monet and Rodin. All three began as models for their respective artists and graduated (for better or worse) to wedlock and survival in the shadow of genius and, in the beginning, extreme poverty. The happiest pair was Monet and Doncieux. All three women came from modest backgrounds in the French provinces. Ruth Butler works to assure their place in history as more than models, showing how they contributed to their husbands' emotional lives and how those emotions played out on canvas. When these three artists painted domestic scenes, Butler points out, the role of their wives in their art became even more pronounced. All three models brought a freshness, an unprofessionalism, a vivacity to their husbands' work that distinguished them from other faces and bodies studied by the artists, who "needed flesh and blood models in the here and now, that right person to provide the inspiration as they began to translate the materials in their hands into form."

Broccoli and Other Tales

of Food and Love

Lara Vapnyar

Pantheon: 156 pp., $20

It is is easy to forget, watching the Food Channel and following the latest food fads, how deeply food is tied to the need for comfort and safety. These ties are strong enough to persevere across generations and continents. Rarely does food take center stage in fiction; more often, it's part of the backdrop, a character's past. In these stories, food never plays a supporting role: The vegetables Nina finds in American markets are more symbol than nourishment. Sergey would rather have a bowl of homemade borscht than sex. Meatballs are disturbingly erotic in the story "Puffed Rice and Meatballs." In another story, two lonely women cook competitively to win the attentions of a fellow student. Of course, recipes are included, all of them Russian: borscht, meatballs, salad Olivier and more. They open the hearts of Lara Vapnyar's characters and allow the memories in: "The snow-covered street is cold and soft. I slowly take it in, the powdered cars, the timid light of the lampposts, the naked twigs of the cherry trees. The weak and helpless snow melts on contact with my feet. It doesn't crunch the way it did in Russia."

susan.reynolds@latimes.comSusan Salter Reynolds is a Times staff writer.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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