SMALL CRAFT WARNINGS. By Kate Braverman (University of Nevada Press: 180 pp., $16)
Precarious, these stories are. There is no sense of destiny in the characters Kate Braverman creates and destroys for us. They put one foot in front of the other and hope that the future is waiting for them--the textbook definition of a Southern Californian. Here, for example, is the image of a young mother who "never wanted this baby," walking each Sunday over a rickety bridge carrying the infant. Here is the daughter in "Hour of the Fathers" in that pivotal moment on the train when she could turn and forgive the father who left her. Here is the granddaughter who depends on the grandmother for her strength and stability and inspiration, drawn in that moment when her grandmother is taken from her. You lean on something, it falls. And Braverman has a courageous writing style to match. Her stories are written in a kind of edgy poetry, as though she has lifted whole phrases, descriptions and details from poems and corralled them into fiction with an ominous syntax, tottering characters and plots that break the sound barrier as their drivers speed toward self-destruction.
THE FRENCH MATHEMATICIAN. By Tom Petsinis (Walker and Co.: 400 pp., $24)
Lately, readers seem to crave stories from which they can learn a great deal about something outside their daily lives, like ice or commercial fishing or geisha girls or the Civil War. The more information the better. This novel recreates the life of Evaniste Galois, the French mathematician who lived from 1811 to 1832. It is a history of that period, a biography of a brilliant and creative mathematician who tries as a young boy, unsuccessfully, to pursue his soul's joy. As a student, Galois discovers geometry, dodging a thicket of distractions each of which might, in fact, hold a solution, a point of balance for his restless mind. These include a 16-year-old's fascination with women, social pressures to study a more soulful subject like poetry or rhetoric, his father's wish that he follow in his footsteps to run a school in their hometown, his mother's religious mania and, most of all, the political struggles in France at that time between the Royalists and the Republicans. The fanaticism on both sides of the revolution is so much less appealing to Galois than the cool purity of mathematics: "Mathematics is the noblest pursuit," he thinks, "because it has least to do with the corrupting influences of the world." In these days of political folly, what better literary escape than the history of mathematics?
LAMPSHADES. By Carole Morin (The Overlook Press: 190 pp., $22.95)
"Purity is power," thinks the 16-year-old monster who narrates this novel, Sophira van Ness. "The most important thing is not to have a fat brain." "German bathrooms are spiritually pure," she thinks after a class trip to Berlin. Spanking! you say. Get thee to a correctional facility! you think. So phira goes on a wild ride through Europe, falls in love with Jack the Ripper and meets the queen. She finds her Uncle Ned's sex with children amusing, feels disgust for people with darker skin than her own and enormous respect, even lust for Hitler. No matter how badly stifled by political correctness you were feeling, the maggoty inner workings of this teenager's brain explain why political correctness was ever so popular. Indignation aside, the details in Morin's writing crackle and pop--blood-red Venetian glass, women disciplining frogs, "vermilion chicken, terracotta stew," cameo characters like P.D. Hose, "the evil blond banana" who manages the hotel where Sophira stays in London. Morin has no trouble with glamorous phrases, no trouble writing seductively. It's a depth problem we're talking about, the glue that holds those marvelous bits together, the reasons characters do things. I can't find them in this book.
FOR KINGS AND PLANETS. By Ethan Canin (Random House: 336 pp., $24.95)
Here is a novel standing on tiptoe to reach the resonance, the durability across national and historic boundaries of "Brideshead Revisited." Like "Brideshead," Canin's new novel is a story of friendship between two young men with vastly different backgrounds, but set in Columbia University in New York in the 1970s, rather than at Oxford. Orno Tarcher comes to New York from the Midwest, from a modest, hard-working middle-class family. His first and best friend is Marshall Emerson, the child of wealthy academics who live on the Upper East Side and have a summer home on Cape Cod. Through Emerson, Tarcher has his experience of New York high society: He sees firsthand the stresses and pressures that bind these families, generation after generation, to their pretenses and their codes of behavior. He sees the fissures in families that have reinvented themselves and denied their ancestry. Emerson is a vibrant, generous boy with an eidetic memory, which means he never has to study. Tarcher has a strong character but not that much personality. New York glitters in the background but not enough. It's an ambitious novel but in the end, a bit of a cocktail party.
THE VOYAGE OF THE NARWHAL. By Andrea Barrett (W.W. Norton: 386 pp., $24.95)
More than a decade after Franklin Wells, "an engraver and printer by trade" and a passionate naturalist, is lost on an expedition to the Arctic, his son, Erasmus Wells, also a naturalist, signs on to an expedition aboard the ship the Narwhal, to find out what happened. The year is 1855. Erasmus' beloved sister, Lavinia, is engaged to the commander of the expedition, Zeke, which makes for tension on board, but survival, soon into the journey, looms larger than personal tensions or convictions. This is not a fast-moving story, recapitulating in many ways the pace of a journey on a wooden boat to the Arctic, but there is much to learn about Arctic exploration and naturalists, and Barrett includes an admirable bibliography for armchair explorers, from Pliny the Elder's "Natural History" to Hooker's "Botany of the Antarctic Voyage of the Erebus and the Terror in the Years 1839-1843." It's a novel of ambition (Zeke's) and conviction (Erasmus') and a gentleman's adventure that turns into a struggle for the survival of the fittest.