Editor's Note: This year, the Los Angeles Times considered more than 1,200 books. Of these, our contributors reserved their highest praise for 106 novels and short story collections, 26 children's books and 113 works of nonfiction. Their original reviews have been edited and condensed for reasons of space.
ACTS OF MUTINY
By Derek Beaven
Picador USA: 280 pp., $24
Derek Beaven's debut novel, "Newton's Niece," won a Commonwealth Prize when it was published in Britain in 1994. Beaven's second novel, "Acts of Mutiny," which was short-listed for the Guardian Fiction Prize, is his American debut, and it's an ambitious, relentlessly ominous and, at times, wonderfully satisfying account of a sea voyage from England to Australia in 1959. The Cold War is in full bloom, the empire is on the wane and mutinous acts of the heart, soul and body politic abound. Into this stormy historical moment sail young Ralph (who tells this story from the untrustworthy vantage of middle age) and his mother, Erica, an impressionable military wife who has taken a womanizing American naval officer named Dave Chaunteyman as her lover. Beaven's bracing tale of moral, political and emotional seasickness is an illuminating travelogue of the treacherous point at which the modern world truly became modern.
By Barry Siegel
Ballantine: 280 pp., $24.95
It has been said that Westerns and crime fiction have much in common: tough, taciturn, sentimental and persistent protagonists; a concern with justice, professional and personal honor; and the portrayal of the law in upholding or subverting these. Barry Siegel's novel of legal suspense features all of these: a gory and well-deserved murder, a deft and guileless fall-gal, a corrupt and twisted sheriff, a bucolic community menaced by evil and polluting money forces and an unflinching lawyer waging his (almost) solitary campaign for the life of an innocent condemned to die, for the welfare of the township and for the souls of professional colleagues and other participants.
by William Wall
W.W. Norton: 200 pp., $23.95
William Wall is an Irish poet whose novel is lyrical in the best way: It's evocative and open-ended; it creates intense atmosphere with a light touch; and it's laser-like in its dissection of human frailties. It can also be almost unbearably brutal in its portrayal of two couples who have reached the Sargasso Sea of middle age, where conflicting currents of power, pain and the past stifle all hope and threaten to take down the friends and lovers who flounder around them. Alice is the long-suffering wife of Paddy Lynch, a take-no-prisoners type who owns a software firm called, tellingly enough, Micro Solutions: "His belief was in binary codes, the esoteric world of noughts and ones where every choice is simple and every event is a switch that is either on or off." Their best friends are Mick Delany, a former champion hurler who's now an insurance man, and his wife, Nora, a former free spirit who's now drowning in anti-depressants and who might be secretly in love with Paddy. While Alice, whose not-so-buried memories of abuse at the hands of a parish priest form the book's roiling core, steals off with a Kierkegaard-obsessed undergraduate, Wall allows us to realize that Paddy is more than just a soulless jerk: He's conducting a vicious and violent affair of his own. As the betrayals mount, Alice too becomes increasingly dangerous (as only a trapped creature can be), making "Alice Falling," in the end, an exceedingly bitter pill--sleek, unsugared and determined to devastate.
By Christin Lore Weber
Scribner: 252 pp., $23
Christin Lore Weber is a former nun who has written books on Catholic spirituality, including a feminist meditation on the Rosary. Her first novel is a quiet revelation, charting the paths of several women whose lives intersect with the church, with music and with one another. In remote northern Minnesota, a girl named Elise is born in 1940 to Kate and Michael Pearson. In flashback chapters--each one introduced by a lyrical passage from the music notebooks of one Sister Mary of the Holy Cross--we learn about Kate and Michael's early passion, which Kate's guilt squelches; about Kate's emotional frigidity, which began when a fatal fire claimed her father, baby brother and beloved piano; Kate's mother's lifelong relationship with a kindly parish priest; and Michael's disfiguring war wound. Weber illuminates the shadowy side of convent life, where sacrifice and motherly love can be taken too far and where good intentions can mask the darkest impulses. Weber, thank God, isn't interested in the banal sexualizing of Catholic imagery a la Madonna or Abel Ferrara; instead, she has created a delicate and compassionate tone poem about the dangerous entanglement of religion, aesthetics and desire.
By Michael Ondaatje
Alfred A. Knopf: 300 pp., $25
Michael Ondaatje is a poet at heart, a lover of words, an economist of the silences, the long moment of silence at the ends of chapters. In "Anil's Ghost" he has, moreover, found a locale so foreign to his Western readers, so ambiguous in its rights and its wrongs, that it resists the moral questions that troubled many in his World War II novel, "The English Patient," in which individual love was asked to balance the pure evil of Nazism. Though Ondaatje has always written within the channels of history, he has been most successful as an eye-painter, giving that final bit of glorious life to the silent statue of the story, in the hope that one character can speak for many characters, in the West as in the East, in the real world as in the imagination.
THE BEAST GOD FORGOT TO INVENT
By Jim Harrison
Atlantic Monthly Press: 228 pp., $24
It takes a little while to cozy up to Jim Harrison's books, which is probably just fine with Harrison, who certainly has no use for coziness. In the last few decades, Harrison has flummoxed political correctness, among other tenets, with weeping hunters and nasty Indians and feminist nymphos. Just when you think you know where he is going, he slaps your hand. Nowhere is this technique more violently apparent than in the first of these three novellas, "The Beast God Forgot to Invent," in which a 67-year-old man living in the woods is periodically called upon to track down his friend Joe (the bear-man who lost something critical upstairs in an accident) by one of Joe's sexy girlfriends. In "Westward Ho," an Indian, Brown Dog, on the lam finds himself in L.A. working as a chauffeur for a screenwriter (a juxtaposition of personalities that are not as different as you might think). The third novella, "I Forgot to Go to Spain," provides yet another fistula into the mind of an alpha male sporting a nine-day marriage. Interesting country. Good to be home.
BECOMING MADAME MAO
By Anchee Min
Houghton Mifflin: 340 pp., $25
Anchee Min's exquisite novel unfolds like a ribbon of gleaming, luminous silk--soothing in its beauty, mesmerizing in its variations, startling, delightful and ultimately transformative in a way that only the best works of art can aspire to be. An astonishing journey into China's recent past and the lives of its most noted leaders, "Becoming Madame Mao" uses recorded history--real characters, actual events, letters and poems and extended quotations from original documents--to reconstruct a world at once strange and familiar to the Western mind. It centers on Madame Mao (Jiang Ching), China's modern-day empress, founder of the Gang of Four and the person responsible for the tragedy known as the Cultural Revolution.
This is a riveting tale, and Min recounts it in language that is vivid and evocative, yet restrained. And yet it is neither the quality of Min's prose nor the plot nor the characters of the story that constitute the novel's greatest strength. It is the writer's ability to look through the one-dimensional freaks defined historically by the sum total of their public acts and to see the humans they all are. Min's Madame Mao is cruel and bloodthirsty but also lost and heartbroken, dishonest and untrustworthy but also helpless in love. Her crimes are not excused or explained away. They are only one part among many she plays on the stage that is her life.
By Myla Goldberg
Doubleday: 304 pp., $22.95
What is a universe of A like? What's a universe of Q?" These aren't the typical questions a father asks his 9-year-old daughter, but in Myla Goldberg's engaging novel, strait-laced suburban family life becomes fertile ground for cosmic interrogations. The 9-year-old in question is Eliza Naumann, the daughter of Saul, a cabala-obsessed former hippie, and Miriam, a type-A lawyer. The shining star of the Naumann clan is the overachieving teenage son Aaron, but that changes when the just-average Eliza stuns the Naumanns by winning the district spelling bee with the word "vacuous." Eliza then goes on to take the area finals in Philadelphia with "eyrir," an Icelandic unit of currency (when she hears the word, "it's a supernova inside Eliza's head, unexpected but breathtakingly beautiful"), thus winning a trip to the national bee in Washington, where she finally stumbles on "duvetyn." As Saul and Eliza withdraw to prepare for next year's bee season, studying dictionaries and sacred texts with Talmudic rigor, Aaron and Miriam get caught up in their own weird spiritual quests: Aaron, in an effort to define himself against his father, hooks up with the Hare Krishnas. Miriam, meanwhile, engages in an increasingly elaborate campaign of kleptomania, pilfering objects from malls and suburban homes in the name of tikkun--reassembling the broken pieces of the world. Goldberg, with abundant grace and humor, shows how these questionings have a way of splintering the Naumanns into volatile component parts and that only through a brave act of personal--and spiritual--denial will they become, once again, whole.
By Jim Crace
Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 196 pp., $21
These are the instruments of sex outdoors. You need good weather, somewhere dry to stretch out far from dogs and wasps, and no sense of the ridiculous." No matter that they were a pair of homely zoologists at the uglier end of their 50s, Joseph and Celice had the good fortune of a sunny Tuesday with no classes to teach and a stretch of dune above Baritone Bay, empty of canine and insect witness to their middle-aged pleasure. Lucky enough not to see their murderer, Joseph and Celice were unaware of the petty thief armed with a handful of granite, and so died within the lissom grass and sand, Joseph's hand grasping Celice's ankle, with no sense of the ridiculous. These are the instruments of Jim Crace's latest novel, "Being Dead." And although the matter-of-fact delivery smacks of Patricia Highsmith and the zoo-philosophical detail smells like Samuel Beckett, Crace (whose last novel, "Quarantine," was short-listed for the Booker Prize) has crafted an original--an exquisitely gentle and unsentimental tale on the evolution of love.
Translated from the Old English
by Seamus Heaney
Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 220 pp., $25
"Beowulf" is a flamboyant adventure story, an indispensable Saxon epic and the first great heroic poem in English literature. It was composed more than 1,000 years ago, most probably in Northumbria in the first half of the 8th century, when England was widely converting from paganism to Christianity. It survives as the longest poem (3,182 lines)--the only one of its type--in the language now known as Old English or Anglo-Saxon. It is also the first major poem in a European vernacular language. Think of it as a book of origins welling up from the pagan past, a foundational work like "The Aeneid." It has a somber grandeur, a mythic vitality. Its clamorous alliterative cadences rise from the dark sea floor--the unconscious sound stratum--of English poetry. Seamus Heaney's splendid verse translation and bilingual edition of "Beowulf" bring the poem into focus again as a work of the greatest imaginative intensity. Heaney supplements his supple and highly readable version with an insightful introduction, which serves as both an aesthetic defense and a classical explanation of the poem.
THE BEST OF JACKSON PAYNE
By Jack Fuller
Alfred A. Knopf: 322 pp., $25
Imagine the perfect jazz musician. With apologies to pianists, bass players, drummers (and ambitious string players of all varieties), he, and it would have to be a he, would be a blower. With apologies to Dizzy, this blower would have to wrap his lips around a saxophone reed rather than blat his embouchure into a piece of trumpet metal. And with a duck of the head to Bird, is there really any doubt that the saxophone of choice must be the tenor, with the depth and force to grind into the nether hotspots where jazz spawns and percolates? And finally, with all the guilt and racism this admission entails: Could this perfect jazz musician be cloaked in any skin tone but sepia?
Enter Jackson Payne, born darker than Parker and cooler than Miles. "The Best of Jackson Payne," a fascinating novel by Jack Fuller, is an Ellroy-esque investigation into the mysterious life and death of this Platonic ideal. It is a compilation of tracks, grooves set down by the witnesses to Payne's life, as transcribed by Payne's biggest fan, one Charles Quinlan, some of which intersect and some of which run in opposite directions. But more than a mystery, "The Best of Jackson Payne" is one of the few novels about jazz to recognize that language may never capture the magic of music but may just evoke the hell out of it.
By Duncan McLean
W.W. Norton: 230 pp., $13 paper
Look out! Young Scotsman coming of age! Duncan McLean has a knack for imagining the one true soul sitting in the pub on a Friday night; for swirling him around in the foul language and hopeless futures of his peers, in the centrifuge of village life in modern-day Scotland and pulling out a well-tempered character who may never get farther than Aberdeen but will love well and work with a philosophy. What separates McLean from authors like Roddy Doyle and Magnus Mills, who share his dry, British Isles humor, is that McLean's writing has more clods of Scottish earth clinging to it. Every fourth word is guessable but passing strange: "The track down from Goodman's Croft was rutted with mud, kirned up into a furrow of dried dubs and sharn in the middle, with more muck flung onto the long grass and tangled whins that lined it all the way to its junction with the denside road." Paddy is 18 in Blackden. Future unclear. Father dead of cancer, mother off somewhere for the weekend, leaving a flurry of notes. Auntie Heather plants the seed of a political idea on the Friday, and by the Sunday, Paddy is flung from his chums at the pub, from his job assisting an auctioneer (an "orra loon"), from his groinal attraction to Shona, from the mystical witches' coven behind the kirk, flung right out of the centrifuge to God knows where. "I jumped up," is the very last sentence. Maybe he'll make it to Aberdeen.
By John J. Nance
Putnam: 436 pp., $23.95
Talk about suspense! This one's a humdinger. In John J. Nance's "Blackout," a passenger jet crashes at the outset while flying over the Gulf of Mexico, then soon another jet goes down after it flies out of Hong Kong. Terrorists may be using some new secret weapon that endangers air traffic everywhere. The world goes on mayhem watch. The media go ballistic. The public panics. Government agencies mobilize to identify and eliminate the threat. Is it economic or political blackmail? Or is the government covering something up?
Since "Blackout" is an aviation thriller (and a damn good one), that hair-raising experience gets a lot of anxious pages, and so do other travails in air and on the ground, where every kind of motorized transport and electronic device is pressed into service. The thrills come thick and fast, skin-of-the-teeth escapes run riot, relentless high stakes devilry traces a trail of corpses, roguery on a rampage dogs the protagonists.
But readers can rest easy. True to the laws of the genre, they triumph in the end. What was it Oscar Wilde once said? "The good end happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means." Nance is a superb fictioneer.
A BLIND MAN CAN SEE
HOW MUCH I LOVE YOU
By Amy Bloom
Random House: 164 pp., $22.95
Amy Bloom cuts deep. It is not unusual for a reader to cry after one or two pages of an Amy Bloom story, and for who knows what reason? In one of these stories, "Light Into Dark," a mother says of her son that "there is a knot in his heart," which made us understand that Bloom ties and unties knots in the hearts of her readers. She is, after all, a practicing psychotherapist. It would not be wrong, if you are feeling wound up and out of touch with yourself, to read Bloom as a heart tonic. She writes, in these stories, about the different kinds of love: gender to gender, generation to generation. She writes, for example, in the title story, about a mother nursing her daughter through a sex-change operation. She writes, in "Night Vision," about a black son who slept with his white stepmother one time, on the night after his father, her husband, died. She writes about the anger a mother feels after her child has died. Identity is fluid in Bloom's stories: Who is gay? Who is straight? Who is the mommy? Who is the child? These things get muddled, as they do in real life. "Ellie knows it is Charley's lips and tongue," Bloom writes of a lesbian helping her friend Charley care for his wife, who is having chemotherapy, illicitly kissing him in this scene, "and she feels them with the muffled longing of a woman watching rain fall." Rich in forgiveness, these stories make you realize how badly you needed to be watered.
THE BLUE BEDSPREAD
By Raj Kamal Jha
Random House: 210 pp., $21.95
What is the moral usefulness of fiction? What are its moral limits? When a writer creates incest and murder, what is he or she asking of us? That we judge and forgive him? That we watch him forgive himself? That we look at our own lives and play our actions out on a mental stage so hypothetical it may as well be fiction? In "The Blue Bedspread," sister and brother find solace in each other, find escape from their violent father. As they grow older, escape becomes sex. Sister marries, kills husband; other things happen that aren't supposed to happen, things that in real life will get you in big trouble. But this is fiction: One can tell the truth. Or pretend to tell the truth and not get in trouble. When given a problem, we readers often try to judge it. For this, we need facts, preferably in chronological order, highly detailed. Raj Kamal Jha scrambles the evidence in "The Blue Bedspread." He plays with our desire to judge and solve. The result is frustrating, unsettling and illuminating. The point of view is erratic; now a child's, now a brother's, now an adult's. Judgment, in real life, should be this complicated, this risky and difficult. Then, we might all do it less hastily.
By Ernesto Quinonez
Vintage: 214 pp., $12 paper
In this remarkable debut, Ernesto Quinonez creates a portrait of Spanish Harlem that's as colorful and elegiac as the R.I.P.s that Chino, his straight-talking 20-something narrator, once painted for fallen neighbors as a teenage graffiti artist. But Chino's graffiti days are over: He's putting himself through college and he has married the girl of his dreams. Yet despite Chino's efforts to get ahead, he can't forsake his ties to Sapo, his frog-like best friend from junior high who now runs errands for the legendary and mysterious Willie Bodega. Bodega is El Barrio's Robin Hood and John Gotti. Like Bodega, this novel is as charismatic as it is troubling, a "representation of all the ugliness in Spanish Harlem and also all the good it was capable of being."
By Jaimy Gordon
Sun & Moon Press: 344 pp., $12.95 paper
When we first meet Ursie Koderer, the engaging heroine of Jaimy Gordon's wildly inventive novel, she is spending another season at an Outward Boundish camp for girls where her mother and stepfather have happily unloaded her. Ursie is a loner with social yearnings, intelligent, quirky, terrifyingly quick. She is Jewish and lesbian, the Jewish less arguable than the lesbianism, except in her own mind. Both make her feel set apart, freakish; she always refers to herself as an asterisk, which, like the unpronounceable name of God, stands for the equally unpronounceable name of what she thinks of as her "otherness."
What this emphatically is not is another damp, whining coming-of-age story. How easily it could have been (dysfunctional family, mixed-up neglected child, self-abuse, hospitalization, rescue by enlightened older person and analyst, etc.) only throws into stark relief the magnitude of Gordon's accomplishment. For all its massive sympathy for the tangled young woman at its center, the novel crackles with exuberance and wit and Gordon's most jaw-dropping gift--language.
By Edwin B. Shrake
Hyperion: 416 pp., $24.95
Edwin B. Shrake's novel about the Republic of Texas in 1839 is a hearty pot of chili in which we can taste some south-of-the-border, magical-realist spices. A Mexican craftsman shapes a rosewood chair in which a person can "disappear," so perfectly does it fit the human form. A legendary man-ape dwells in a cave in Comanche country, guarding a treasure in Spanish gold and a "wisdom" that Native Americans seek to cope with their displacement by white settlers. The meat of Shrake's recipe, though, derives from Larry McMurtry's "Lonesome Dove" and its sequels. Whether we call such stories "literary popular" or "popular literary," they combine a detailed and nuanced historical background with larger-than-life characters, so that they debunk and glorify the Old West at the same time.
"The Borderland" is a tall tale, but it's about Texas, where outsize characters have always abounded. A pungent and rib-sticking stew of refinement and squalor, courage and brutality, generosity and greed, romance and racism, this unabashed page-turner can't be too different from the way things really were.
By Tim Krabbe
Translated from the Dutch
by Sam Garrett
Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 152 pp., $20
The trouble with most (not all) thrillers written by American authors is that they are so literal, written according to that credo for cretins: "just the facts, Ma'am." They never lift off into the bizarre beyond. Tim Krabbe, a Dutch writer, sets his characters, a geologist and his ne'er-do-well childhood friend who has grown into a drug lord, on the stage. He then unwinds them, layer by layer, as if they were mummies. His plot is full of beautiful coincidences (two drug runners fall in forever-love at the drop-off point where they meet for the first time), epiphanies, turning points and roads not taken. Krabbe also captures (the book is about a quarter the size of most books in this genre) the terrible essence of all thrillers, the fall from grace, a character's point of no return, when the purity of youth turns sour and the soul begins to rot.
CHANG AND ENG
By Darin Strauss
Dutton: 324 pp., $23.95
As Darin Strauss' "Chang and Eng" opens, we find a 63-year-old man facing--and savoring--solitude for the first time in his life. The moment is brief, however, because that man--Eng, of the famous Siamese twins Chang and Eng--is on his deathbed, waking to find his brother, who's been attached to him since birth, already dead. Throughout Strauss' richly imagined life of these twins, Chang and Eng pull in opposite directions, even as they share enormous affection and a bond of mutual fate: Eng is aloof, healthy, reads the Bible, yearns for separation and is a teetotaler; Chang is a showman, gets sick often, speaks immigrant English, is content to be connected and eventually becomes an alcoholic.
Their double story is told by the proudly erudite Eng in a series of flashbacks, in which the brothers are born on a Mekong houseboat in 1811, spirited away to the king of Siam and then, at 14, shipped off to New York and a freak-show career. After arriving in Wilkesboro, N.C., in 1842, the twins discover love in the form of two blond sisters, negotiate elaborate strategies in the marriage bed, spawn 21 children, adopt the patriotic surname Bunker, own slaves and endure the War of Yankee Aggression, in which, as Strauss cleverly suggests, the country, like Chang and Eng, finds itself to be contentiously inseparable. Strauss elevates Chang and Eng's story far beyond the sideshow, making this a haunting and thoroughly entertaining parable of loyalty and love.
CITY OF GOD
By E.L. Doctorow
Pantheon: 320 pp., $25
We may very well be living in post-Christian times. The publication of E.L. Doctorow's "City of God" 1,600 years after the appearance of a volume of the same title by St. Augustine of Hippo may be Christianity's final parenthesis. Can a spiritual church possibly survive in a secular world, ask both writers. Can the City of God survive in the city that never sleeps? In the assured hands of Doctorow, "City of God" blooms with a humor and a humanity that carries triumphant as intelligent a novel as one might hope to find these days.
THE COLLECTED POETRY
OF ROBINSON JEFFERS
Edited by Tim Hunt
Stanford University Press: 2,192 pp., $75 each
It is hard to see how anyone can read Robinson Jeffers' best poetry and not perceive greatness. His narrative verse rivals Wordsworth's or Byron's. It is electrifying; the skin prickles. The publication by Stanford University Press of the fourth and final volume of Jeffers' collected poetry and prose is most welcome. Beautifully printed and bound, this edition is an occasion for celebration and a reconsideration of the work and the man.
Jeffers' oeuvre is of Hugo-like proportions: a dozen lengthy narrative poems and verse dramas, a multitude of shorter lyrics. ("The Collected Poetry's" four volumes contain some 2,000 pages.) More important, it is of considerable originality. We will lose something of value if we let Jeffers slip away, for he, above all other poets, expresses California's peculiar ambience with unsurpassed vividness.
THE COLOR OF SUMMER
Or the New Garden of Earthly Delights
By Reinaldo Arenas
Translated from the Spanish
by Andrew Hurley
Viking: 448 pp., $28.95
The Color of Summer" is a wild, Rabelaisian homosexual satire by the late Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, which may be the best political commentary on the state of our peculiar neighbor. In a country in which at one time "thousands of queens, fairies, faggots and even just bi-curious young men [were] arrested and kicked into buses, iron cages, and patrol cars, and from there transferred to forced-labor camps," it is little wonder that homosexuality is the sharpest weapon of all. Completed in 1990, the year Arenas, ravaged by AIDS, committed suicide, "The Color of Summer" is set in a 1999 of the future, the 40th anniversary of Fidel Castro's revolutionary rise to power. The Maximum Leader has gathered the celebrities of the world onto his island for hours of speeches and demonstrations of his unbridled command. And to give the occasion a festive air, he has invited them for Carnival, that super-religious pagan holiday when, even in normal times, feather boas, mascara and falsies fall out of the closets of the most hetero haciendas of Latin America.
The real triumph of "The Color of Summer" may be the power of words. Their vitality is well-served by Andrew Hurley's virtuosic translation. To give but one example, the stage play that occupies the first 50 pages of the novel, a play that plays in Spanish on lines and authors that mean little to English ears, is translated into transcendently witty verse by Hurley, in the manner of Shakespeare, Gilbert and Sullivan and T.S. Eliot ( "I saw you, in Lenin Park, watching the men come and go / Wishing for one more hunky gigolo"). Arenas' words, clearly, are drunk with an ambrosia that nourishes them beyond the death of their author. They have flown clear of that "perfect and unanimous prison." With luck, they will survive the warden as well.
By Robert Crais
Doubleday: 386 pp., $24.95
In Robert Crais' "Demolition Angel," Bomb Squad agent Carol Starkey survives an explosion that leaves her partner dead. Not fully recovered three years later, still dependent on gin and Tagamet, Starkey, Detective-2 with the LAPD's Criminal Conspiracy Section, is assigned to lead an investigation into the death of another agent who was also blown up trying to defuse an explosive device. In the process, she has to contend with office politics, a mercurial partner, a dubiously supportive lieutenant and a special agent from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in Washington who horns in on her case. All the while, a calculating maniac known as "Mr. Red," is blowing up bits of the world for fame, fun and profit. As she zeros in on Mr. Red, Starkey transcends traps and tergiversators. She grows back from the scarred self-destructive drunk she had become to be the resolute professional she used to be. The action is relentless, and supercraftsman Crais keeps readers on edge through more twists and turns than those of a giant slalom.
By Tim Parks
Arcade: 248 pp., $24.95
"Is this suicide?" the middle-aged journalist asks himself in the tangled days after his grown son's suicide. "Ignoring yourself in pain?" As if saying "I'm unhappy!" could stop the hysterical train wreck this couple has caused. The distracted father, a journalist; the unhappy, beautiful, unnoticed mother who cannot have a child and so adopts, then has a child and so punishes the first child. It is her beloved second child who kills himself. And the man (whose name, characteristic of Tim Parks' fiction, is not revealed until "Destiny's" final pages), the poor generic lost journalist, pockets full of papers, affairs everywhere, weak as a dust mote and afraid of his wife, cringes in the corner of family life. His wife has an affair with his best friend, and cuckoldry becomes the family's coat of arms. But no one can leave. All this rages through his disorganized mind after he gets the phone call that his son has killed himself with a screwdriver. All he can think is that finally he and his wife will separate. In yet another compartment in his brain, he prepares for the interview of his life: an interview with Italy's ex-Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti. Finally, he sits in Andreotti's office. Complacent, powerful, serene, is the ex-minister: "The serene are madder than those who torment themselves," our journalist realizes. "There is no point talking to a man whose sense of his own destiny is still serenely rock-solid." Perhaps he feels better about himself after this revelation. We, however, are a nervous wreck. We want to get off the train, but we can't. Parks never fails to leave his readers alone in the hotel room, neon sign blinking.
By Alan P. Lightman
Pantheon: 384 pp., $25
Alan Lightman is a physicist at MIT. His previous novels, "Good Benito" and "Einstein's Dreams," like "The Diagnosis," explore the comedies and tragedies that unravel when the principles we depend upon, like time, dissolve beneath our feet. It is easy to imagine that physicists (who often have suspicious twinkles in their eyes) use humor (a refusal to take the things we take for granted for granted) to penetrate the unknown. "The Diagnosis" begins as a very funny book. Another regular guy, Bill Chalmers, junior partner on his usual commute, forgets who he is and where he's supposed to be going, not to mention all the pertinent numbers that we cannot live without. So begins the unraveling of Chalmers' carefully constructed life. His wife, a boozer with an online flirtation, sinks deeper; he is fired from his job; his son spends way too much time in his room, also online, marching down the same middle-class path that has led, somehow, to Chalmers' spiritual demise and to the undiagnosable disease that leads to numbness and finally paralysis. Lightman threads the story of Socrates' trial and execution through the novel, a death faced with dignity in contrast to Chalmers' impending end. This is humor based on the precarious, a humor of brinkmanship as a character fights for his own soul.
By Anita Desai
Mariner: 208 pp., $12 paper
Understanding India surely is within our grasp. We can fold our arms around the contradictions and compromises and sheer color, the regular appearance of the spiritual and of grace in everyday life (much of which is squalor but some of which is more bejeweled than any other civilization). Anita Desai's method in these stories set, except for a few, in modern India, is to focus on the quirkiest of characters in hopes that the light emanating from them, from the outskirts of normalcy, will illuminate the entire continent. And it does. A man's absurd love for his dog; a woman's absurd adoration of a former mentor, a man who hovers over his own death; a family stopped on the road to Simla by a truck driver who will not move his truck. Each story ends in a pause--a quiet moment before the teeming momentum of daily life swallows up Desai's carefully chosen characters again.
DON'T TELL ANYONE
By Frederick Busch
W.W. Norton: 310 pp., $25.95
Love is unspeakable, writes the 15-year-old narrator of "The Talking Cure." But like the Beckett tramps who can't go on, must go on and so go on, Frederick Busch's heroes speak of love and talk themselves out of despair and into action through the 16 stories and a novella that make up his superb collection "Don't Tell Anyone." Busch's best stories are mysteriously economical, packed with half a dozen untold tales nested between the characters and their half-glimpsed futures. Ultimately, for Busch's heroes obsessed with confession, life is not the private secret but the betrayal of that secret in public story.
By Morrie Ruvinsky
Sasquatch: 272 pp., $23.95
The silkie myth--of a race of sea lions that can inhabit human form--is a story told with many variations all over the world. In each version, a sea lion falls in love with a human. The love is always splendid and vivid, the revenge brutal. "Dream Keeper" is set in the Pacific Northwest, from the 17th century to the present, entwining the history of the Tlingits, the Kwakiutl, the Haida and others with the Black Robes (Jesuit missionaries who went to the Northwest in the 1600s). Jason Ondine, the 12-year-old son of a missionary, is chosen by the Sisters of Creation (Indian spirits who assume raven, whale, human or other forms) to be immortal. Through the centuries, Jason emerges sometimes as a sea lion, sometimes as a man; in the 1970s, he falls in love with Lizzie Bennett. When she runs away with him, Lizzie's rich Republican parents have her committed to an insane asylum, where she lives for several decades. Morrie Ruvinsky's style is old-fashioned storytelling--part myth, part thriller, part song. It is transporting. It makes you long for animals to talk to.
By David Malouf
Pantheon: 224 pp., $23
David Malouf is one of Australia's most esteemed writers, equally at home in the realms of poetry and fiction. "I had such a feeling of lightness and happiness it was as if my bones had been changed into clouds," says the 9-year-old narrator of "Closer," one of nine short stories in Malouf's new collection. "I knew it was a dream," the lad continues. "But dreams can be messages. The feeling that comes with them is real, and if you hold on to it you can make the rest real." Brought up on a farm in a strict Pentecostal household, the boy is steeped in his family's faith yet saddened because they have declared his favorite uncle a sodomite, unfit to associate with. In the child's dream, the daunting distance between the saved and the outcast is simply yet miraculously traversed by love.
Dreams of joy and wish fulfillment are not the only kind of reveries and apparitions that figure in "Dream Stuff." In the title piece, a writer revisits the city where he was born. His memories of his 6-year-old self commingle with later memories, and these, in turn, with a present-day experience so violent and bizarre that it seems like a bad dream.
By John Sandford
Putnam: 352 pp., $25.95
"Easy Prey" is about the murder of a celebrity in an exotic locale. A famous fashion model, Alie'e Maison (a name to strike terror in a printer's breast), has been strangled at a swish Minneapolis dance-drinks-and-drugs party. That makes the crime (a double homicide) a big media event and propels the police investigation in the twin cities and their environs into overdrive.
It turns out that the upper Midwest can boast a more rambunctious social life and a more colorful police force than we credit. There is sex: committed, casual or multi. There are flirts: focused or virtual or suspended. And there are lots of party favors: short pops of heroin. There are modest and fashion photographers, gays and straights, drug dealers and other businessmen, restive wives and homey cops, all sharing a casual morality. And there's a shower of victims--one does not know of whom or why. There's also Maison's brother, an ecstatic gospeler prone to stigmata and to moral rages, who preaches that end times are upon us and perhaps perpetrates some himself.
The dialogue is deft, the melodrama masterfully orchestrated and the conclusion truly culminant. As secrets explode, as bullets fly and bodies fall, and as the ground keeps shifting, there's hardly time to keep up with the spectacle. But you won't want to miss it.
EATING THE CHESHIRE CAT
By Helen Ellis
Scribner: 288 pp., $23
Helen Ellis' murderously comic novel--which is bright as bubble gum even as it bats around issues of infidelity, betrayal, molestation and self-mutilation--traces the dysfunctional entanglement of three girls growing up around Tuscaloosa, Ala. This breezy tale about old-fashioned back-stabbing in the New South is meant to be gobbled up; Faulkner it ain't, but Ellis entertains as easily as whistling "Dixie."
ELEGY FOR KOSOVO
By Ismail Kadare
Translated from the Albanian
by Peter Constantine
Arcade: 128 pp., $17.95
"Blood flows one way in life and another in song," a Serbian minstrel sings on the eve of the legendary and bloody battle on the Blackbird Plains in Kosovo, on June 28, 1389. Here the Turkish Sultan, Murad, led his troops against a raucous coalition of Serbs, Albanians, Catholics, Bosnians and Romanians, whom they had cursed with the name "Balkans." "With such a name bestowed upon them by the enemy, they marched to battle and defeat." How could they win, the omniscient narrator muses, against an enemy united under Allah? And in the battle on the Blackbird Plains, they lose, and their Sultan is murdered, his blood spread on the plain like a curse. In this small novel, there is a twist of history: It is the Sultan's double who is murdered, and the Sultan himself lives entombed on the plains to witness the atrocities 600 years later. A Serbian minstrel, Gjorg, flees the battle and in the following days tries with his fellow fugitives to find shelter and food. In one village, he is asked to play in the home of a great lady who, mourning the ideals of Greek civilization and envisioning the bloody future, thinks, "One has to lose a thing in order to cherish it!" Ismail Kadare is a master at the pure explanation, the simple revelation. He has written many books about war, told from a perspective that most of us cannot imagine, and in so doing, he sheds a ray of light through our abject failure to understand the Balkans.
By Matthew Kneale
Doubleday: 416 pp., $25
Set in the mid-19th century, Matthew Kneale's darkly funny novel begins simply enough. When the shipless British Capt. Illiam Quillian Kewley has an opportunity to purchase a bankrupt merchant vessel called the Sincerity, he stocks the ship with both legal cargo and contraband and sets off with his crew from the Isle of Man, hoping to earn a fortune. Although Kewley narrates the opening portion of "English Passengers," his voice soon recedes, allowing a stream of other characters, including a Tasmanian Aborigine and two Englishmen, to take over. With patience and deadpan humor, Kneale weaves an elaborate, sticky web that ultimately brings on disaster.
With its scathing exposure of British colonialism and its populous and heavily caricatured cast, Kneale's adventure tale takes on a Dickensian seriousness. As the ship moves farther from British waters, the perspective of its passengers seems to shrink, as if in losing sight of their homeland, they lose all capacity for reason. The reader uneasily anticipates the violent combustion bound to occur when British plans backfire, leaving them at the mercy of those little motivated to behave mercifully. Kneale's detailed exposition of the consequences of Christian zeal and 19th-century eugenics brings complexity to this novel, making the tale as horrifying as it is funny.
THE FEAST OF LOVE
By Charles Baxter
Pantheon: 312 pp., $24
If you wake up one night in a darkened room and cannot remember who you are, if you find yourself seized by a mild sleepy terror (troubled perhaps by a book you have read or are writing), if you feel yourself somehow "glimmerless," then write your name on a slip of paper and step outside. The city will connect you to your soul in many unexpected ways.
"Hey . . . . What the hell are you doing here?"
Bradley W. Smith sits with his dog in the park. It's almost 2 a.m., and he's been up for a while too. Why don't you join him? He talks a lot and presumes even more, but he just might have a solution to your problems. "I'll send you people, you know, actual people, for a change, like for instance human beings who genuinely exist, and you listen to them for a while." He rambles a bit, but he gets to the point, "Everybody's got a story, and we'll just start telling you the stories we have."
The idea's enough for "The Feast of Love," and Charles Baxter--both the insomniac who opens these pages, glimmerless in a darkened room, and the writer who disappears behind them--plays it out brilliantly. Bradley sends him people he knows, a half dozen or so ex-wives, current lovers, some friends and neighbors living in Ann Arbor, Mich. The effect is part gossip, part confession and, in Baxter's hands, wholly compelling.
By Witold Gombrowicz
Translated from the Polish
by Danuta Borchardt
Yale Nota Bene / Yale University Press:
282 pp., $30, $14.95 paper
Start with the title. Which means . . . nothing. There is no character in the novel called Ferdydurke. And this is only a foretaste of insolence to come. Published in late 1937, when its author, Witold Gombrowicz, was 33, "Ferdydurke" is the great Polish writer's second book. The title of his first, "Memoirs of a Time of Immaturity" (1933), would have served beautifully for the novel. Perhaps this is why Gombrowicz opted for jabberwocky.
From the start, Gombrowicz was to write, he had chosen to adopt a "fantastic, eccentric, and bizarre tone" bordering on mania, folly, absurdity. To irritate, Gombrowicz might have said, is to conquer. I think, therefore I contradict. A young aspirant to glory in 1930s literary Warsaw, Gombrowicz had already become legendary in the writers' cafes for his madcap grimaces and poses. On the page, he sought an equally vehement relation to the reader. Grandiose and goofy, this is a work of unrelenting address. "Ferdydurke" is one of the most bracing, direct books ever written about sexual desire--this without a single scene of sexual union.
FLASHMAN AND THE TIGER
By George Macdonald Fraser
Alfred A. Knopf: 336 pp., $25
Ever since 1969, we have found this series an irresistible delight, and "Flashman and the Tiger" is George Macdonald Fraser at his vintage best. The obligatory bonkings, one of them in a couchette on the maiden run of the Orient Express, are as vigorous, and harmless, as ever. One of the best and most eccentric characters, Henri Stefan Blowitz, Paris correspondent of the London Times and unrivaled political scoopmeister, is drawn, with meticulous accuracy, from life (Bismarck once looked under the table before a meeting to make sure Blowitz wasn't hiding there). And what happens at Charing Cross station? Flashman, returned from Europe, is gathered up on the last page and carried off in the boat-train by mad Gen. "Chinese" Gordon. Destination? Khartoum, where else? To be continued, one hopes, in Fraser's next. An ideal read for either beach or bed.
A FRIEND OF THE EARTH
By T.C. Boyle
Viking: 288 pp., $24.95
T.C. Boyle has long been celebrated for his comic genius, for his mastery of that side of the classic antinomy he explores here. In "A Friend of the Earth," he sets himself a new challenge, swinging a leg wide to plant a foot solidly on new ground. His work is the richer and more affecting for it. Part antic comedy, part ecological intelligencer, part heartfelt plaint, "A Friend of the Earth" is a comic novel on grievous themes, a serious exploration of tragic truths. It not only marks Boyle's progress as a literary talent but demonstrates his consistent ability to entertain.
By David Mitchell
Random House: 430 pp., $24.95
It is possible to read almost all of David Mitchell's deft and engrossing debut without coming to terms with its rich moral subtexts: the writer's preoccupation with power and oppression, the illusion of free will, our interconnectedness with others and the purpose (not to mention the nature) of God. There are hints from the beginning, however, that some sort of exit toll will be exacted from us in its final pages and that even the casual reader will be drawn into debate. How else to underscore the enormous pleasures of Mitchell's fictional world, which depend not only on the usual elements--plots, characters, settings, all keenly and lovingly rendered--but also on Mitchell's breathtaking ambition to pursue the old, great themes, an Ahab scanning a horizon now cluttered with leaky oil freighters, Coast Guard frigates, drug smugglers, Haitian rafts and Disney cruise ships. For Mitchell, the white whale is still out there, plowing the waves beneath the floating garbage.
Elegantly composed, gracefully plotted and full of humor, "Ghostwritten" moves from Asia to Europe to America with the ease of so many new technologies. Yet it is less the "21st-century novel" that some critics have found it than a revival of the 19th-century tradition, recalling Tolstoy and Dostoevsky in its emotional scope and its ambitions. Like the great Russians, Mitchell makes us feel that more is at stake than individual lives, although it's by individual lives that pain and loss are measured.
A GIRL WITH A MONKEY
By Leonard Michaels
Mercury House: 240 pp., $14.95 paper
Author of such books as "The Men's Club," "A Cat" and "Sylvia," Leonard Michaels can distill the familiar into the essential, with an economy and lyricism that distinguishes him from his peers. Throughout these tales, Michaels' thematic core is the human heart and what it feels, particularly the troubles that stem from an exposure to other hearts. One might call this predicament love. And while this amorous terrain has been traveled like a literary gold rush route of late, the uniqueness that Michaels brings to it is a euphonious prose to be sure, a structural vigor and, most fundamentally, an edgy sense of humor that is all his own. "A Girl With a Monkey" takes the reader on a beguiling journey through a disarming range of vividly human evocations.
THE GLASS BEES
By Ernst Junger
Translated from the German
by Louise Bogan and Elizabeth Mayer
New York Review of Books:
224 pp., $12.95 paper
Ernst Junger perceived industrial capitalism as a ridiculous game, so he proved remarkably good at predicting its future moves. "The Glass Bees" combines the icy insights of Stanislaw Lem with the reactionary rancor of Celine. Junger understands that technology is pursued not to accelerate progress but to intensify power. He fully grasps that popular entertainment comes with a military-industrial underside. Junger understands that programmers throw tantrums and act like loons because they are engaged in "a most peculiar kind of work . . . very close to pure fantasy." He even understands that 20th-century wars are won not by courageous blitzkriegs but by making your own weapons obsolete as rapidly as possible. Technomoguls, hackers, microminiature assembly, artificial pop stars, agropharmaceuticals--there's scarcely a single stroke of Junger's imagination that hasn't struck some real-life merchandizable echo. It's a taut, compact, masterful book which, though it must have once seemed highly fantastic and absurd when it first appeared in 1957, is never silly. It is discursive but does not outstay its welcome. It is also terrifying.
AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE
By J.K. Rowling
Arthur A. Levine / Scholastic: 734 pp., $25.95
Harry Potter is a marvelous creation, an ordinary boy who discovers at age 11 that he has extraordinary powers. An ordinary boy who discovers that he is brave and resourceful. But if that's all Harry were, he'd be a dreadful bore and long since remaindered. There is a paradox at the center of Harry's nature, as there is with our best heroes, our Hamlets, our Macbeths, our Dantes, our Elizabeth Bennetts and Mrs. Ramseys. J.K. Rowling's greatest achievement in "The Goblet of Fire" is to turn the paradox at the center of Harry's nature into painful action. "The Goblet of Fire" shows Harry failing at the same time he succeeds. Harry's very decision to be fair and brave leads directly to the death of one of his friends. And although magic might be used to prolong life--and there are some very old wizards indeed and some who are seeking the Elixir of Immortality--there is a rule in the World According to Rowling that we have hitherto suspected but only now have heard in fact: Neither potion nor spell can cross into that undiscovered country and bring the dead back to life.
THE HEARTSONG OF CHARGING ELK
By James Welch
Doubleday: 440 pp., $24.95
"The Heartsong of Charging Elk" is as much a book of memories as it is a story of survival. Soon after the Little Bighorn, the last ghost dance and Wounded Knee, ethnographers believed that the Indians would soon vanish. Wild Bill Cody first put them and their endangered world on display, and the machinery of popular culture has kept them there. Political correctness has tempered the terms of our wonder. War whoops and savagery have been replaced by blessings of sage, fry bread and dream catchers. Both are, of course, worlds stuck in amber.
The Indians didn't vanish. They shape-shifted into something more difficult to capture. We see glimpses of it in the photographs of the time, in the faces of the boys sent to the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania and in the faces Edward Curtis captured in his monumental work. It is James Welch's achievement to show what lies behind their expressions through the experience of Charging Elk as he is posed in the pages of this evocative novel.
By Jane Smiley
Alfred A. Knopf: 562 pp., $26
"Horse Heaven" is a narrative balancing act so ambitious and so precisely executed that it becomes necessary to see Jane Smiley as half acrobat, half writer; the novel is as least as athletic as the animals it describes. It also demands an athletic reader--at least 20 major story lines interweave and diverge, overlapping contextually and metaphorically just enough to cohere. Somehow all the novel's far-flung subplots hang together, and it moves inexorably forward, driven, a horse trainer might say, by nothing but heart. The feat of this novel is that it keeps its balance, but its joy is the horses. The novel feels not unpleasantly like one of those carnival rides based on centrifugal force, which goes around and around until the floor drops out and still all the riders stick to the walls. The unspoken truth in this novel is that whatever peace the people discover, they discover because of their proximity to a horse. For all the heartbreak horses can bring, all the unaffordable vet bills and the dashed Derby hopes, they also make happy endings possible. They can help a suicidal woman find her way out from behind the darkness of a heavy hotel shower curtain. They can make a rich man feel gratitude. They can keep an old man alive when he's in cardiac arrest. They can make a 65-year-old Republican ranch owner send $50,000 to Barbara Boxer. They can make you believe in miracles, just walking down the road behind them, watching them pick up one hoof and then putting down the next.
By Stephen Hunter
Simon & Schuster: 476 pp., $25
Stephen Hunter is a master of the tough thriller, and "Hot Springs" is relentlessly violent, brutal and readable. It is about post-World War II America, full of returned veterans and pols on the make, of mobsters and molls, of unselfconscious knee-jerk racists and cops cheaply bought; full of decent folk too, God-fearing, hard-drinking male supremacists as ready to reach for a gun as for a fifth of Bourbon. It is 1946, and Fred Becker, the self-serving newly elected prosecuting attorney of Garland County, enlists a fearless ex-Marine to lead a ruthless campaign against gangster-gamblers in Hot Springs, Ark. Across the country, Bugsy Siegel is sinking millions into the Nevada desert to create Las Vegas. Owney Maddox, king of Hot Springs, master of its police, judges, casinos, nightclubs, whorehouses and bathhouses, is entering a collision course with Siegel. Earl Swaggart, the Marine, won the Medal of Honor on Iwo Jima. Now he is supposed to boot Owney out of his kingdom and provide Becker with the unearned fame that will make him governor of the state. Hot Springs will be swept by alarms, raids and bloody ambushes, while ignorant armies clash by night and Earl's team is decimated. But, despite gangsters, corrupt lawmen, a dodgy double-crossing boss and his own ghosts, Earl's tough integrity will see him through. Becker's perfidiousness will earn no brownie points this time round. But Arkansas is a fine springboard for shifty politicians, and Becker may get to Little Rock yet. Then, why not to the White House?
THE HUMAN STAIN
By Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin: 364 pp., $26
American pastoral, American historical, American comical and now, with the appearance of his latest novel "The Human Stain," American tragical--it's time to circumcise the genre of "Jewish American" from Philip Roth's name and declare him, simply, bard supreme of the bad end of the American century past. The bad end, for Roth, is the Clinton end, the Lewinsky end, the blasted heath of an America as infatuated as Malvolio in its propriety and senile as Lear in its forgetfulness. "As a force, propriety is protean, a dominatrix in a thousand disguises, infiltrating, if need be, as civic responsibility, WASP dignity, women's rights, black pride, ethnic allegiance, or emotion-laden Jewish ethical sensitivity. It's not as though Marx or Freud or Darwin or Stalin or Hitler or Mao had never happened--it's as though Sinclair Lewis had not happened."
But propriety is only the launching pad for Roth, the Laureate of Rage. The latest of his Zuckerman novels, "The Human Stain" once again uses Roth's aging alter ego, the author Nathan Zuckerman, to embellish the perceived with the color of fiction and reveal a more potent, mythic truth.
By Tony Hillerman
HarperCollins: 276 pp., $26
"Hunting Badger" is the 13th of Tony Hillerman's mystery novels featuring Navajo Tribal Police officers Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, and it is one of his most successful. Hillerman combines evocative descriptions of the rugged landscape and people of the Four Corners area of the Southwest, a sensitive appreciation of Navajo culture torn between tradition and modernism and a lively contemporary plot to make a jaunty and satisfying tale of intrigue, deception and surprise.
The Navajo nation has given Hillerman its Special Friend Award, and the Mystery Writers of America, of which he is a past president, has named him a recipient of its Edgar and Grand Master awards. Why he well deserves both, and why he deserves his readers' thanks for fast-paced mysteries set in an authentic, unusual background, is well illustrated by his skillful and convincing "Hunting Badger."
By Patrick O'Brian
W.W. Norton: 288 pp., $23.95
Patrick O'Brian had a life even before the sea engulfed his imagination and forced him to tell its story. "Hussein" is incontrovertible proof that before O'Brian became O'Brian, he was Rudyard Kipling. Written in 1938, it is a tale set during the British Raj, with all its formality, graciousness and fury. Hussein is a young mahout, or elephant handler, a lifetime profession and also a calling. Done well, the mahout gains not rupees but a powerful ally; a shortcut to the gods, a prop for con jobs (mainly snake charming) and a very big brother to stomp out competing suitors. Hussein falls in love with Sashiya and has his brutal competitor murdered using a fakir's curse. But he could not have done it without Jehangir, his elephant, who also saves him from wild dogs, leopards, wild bees, tigers and snakes. Every orphan should have Jehangir for his family. For many readers, nothing will bring the creatures and myths of childhood back faster than an imaginary journey to gallant India with O'Brian as a guide.
By Susan Sontag
Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 388 pp., $26
Susan Sontag's new novel is a brilliant and profound investigation into the fate of thought and culture in America. It masquerades as historical fiction, flaunting the stuff of drama and romance. It is something restless, hybrid, disturbing, original. Winner of the 2000 National Book Award for fiction, "In America" is a picaresque fable, a historical tragicomedy. It is a melancholic comedy about the defeat of every kind of integrity. Sontag's stance is one of abject mourning for the tragedies of the past and for what these tragedies have done to our culture and our ideas about art. By means of this acceptance, she has found a way to connect the modern novel to the great monuments of the past, the works of Stendhal, Tolstoy, George Eliot. She embarks upon a journey of construction--the novel is composed as a succession of microstructures--and arrives at a new use of tradition, one that seemed unavailable to the postmodernist sensibility. She is giving us, in fiction, the history of the loss that led to irony and fragmentation, the death of so much that could formerly be called culture, and she bravely attempts a journey beyond that loss. Sontag has managed to structure a paradox--call it hopeful inconsolability or optimistic pessimism--a belief that the destruction of our ideals and our long-lost innocence can still be narrated, that there is still a story to be told about us and about how we came to be the way we are or to see, as the title of one of her past stories has it (borrowing from Anthony Trollope), the seeds of the past in "The Way We Live Now."
IN THE YUCATAN
By Earl Shorris
W.W. Norton: 264 pp., $23.95
Testimony is a beautiful word. Capacious, it gives authority to the breadth of experience. It is big enough to enfold perception and fact, the politics of governments and individuals, the pain of bureaucrats and citizens, and it is big enough to call all that reality. Fiction, with its broad bays where wise men fish with wide nets, is a safe house for testimony. Earl Shorris uses fiction that way--an underground railroad for political testimony. "In the Yucatan" is the story of a Chicano lawyer from Los Angeles, John Mendoza, and a Maya union leader, Andres Chay, imprisoned together after a workers' strike at a sisal factory in the Yucatan. These are two fine men, and Shorris makes them real very quickly: their humor, their fears, desires. What is worth fighting for? What is worth living for? What are the basic human rights? What is the nature of power? There are answers to these questions in the testimony of these two men.
AN INVISIBLE SIGN OF MY OWN
By Aimee Bender
Doubleday: 246 pp., $22.95
Aimee Bender's collection of funny stories, "The Girl in the Flammable Skirt," concealed their barbed observations of modern life in the ha-ha-oops-help-uh-oh style of humor. Her first novel, "An Invisible Sign of My Own," also contains ha-ha-oops, but there's a lot more uh-oh. There's also time, this being a novel, for the aaaahh. The Alice-Through-the-Looking-Glass main character, Mona Gray, is a 20-year-old who loves numbers and teaches math to second-graders. One of her students, 7-year-old Lisa Venus (whose "hair was so ratty, it barely moved when she did"), also loves numbers. Her mother is dying of cancer, and her cry for help is the soundtrack of this novel. "She told me my class was already her favorite class," Mona explains, "and that if I really wanted to do something for her, then I should not get sick, ever." It is a plot full of clues, most of them numerical, designed to tell Mona what the right thing to do next might be, a novel that resembles a mad croquet game, played in the mystical thicket of everyday life.
JIM THE BOY
By Tony Earley
Little, Brown: 228 pp., $23.95
From its wistful, retro cover depicting a barefoot boy in overalls to its epigraph from "Charlotte's Web," Tony Earley's "Jim the Boy" puts us squarely in mind of young-adult classics like "The Yearling." And though Earley--the author of the highly praised short-story collection "Here We Are in Paradise"--clearly wants to nibble around the edges of the juvenile genre, this exquisitely wrought story of a boy named Jim growing up in North Carolina during the Depression with his mom and three uncles exhibits a clear-eyed maturity, and an understated daring, rarely seen in the most cutting-edge adult fiction. Earley delivers Jim's bittersweet coming-of-adolescence story with the pared-down, earthy lyricism of a classic folk ballad.
LAND OF SMILES
By T.C. Huo
Plume: 224 pp., $12.95 paper
We live in the age of the refugee. Unprecedented masses of people, uprooted by war, deprivation, natural disaster and political upheaval, leave their homes to board buses and boats, trains and planes, headed for unknown lands, unimaginable lives, unspoken tongues. Each displacement bears its story of tragedy and hope. Occasionally, by quirk of circumstance or plain literary luck, the immigrant himself (a Nabokov) comes to write his tale in the adopted tongue.
Laotian-American author T.C. Huo's second novel, "Land of Smiles," tells the story of a 14-year-old boy, Boonkatorn, who escapes Communist Laos in the late dark days of the Vietnam conflict by swimming across the Mekong. Heartbreaking, keenly observed, "Land of Smiles" rises at moments to a strange lyric intensity, a sort of Southeast Asian magical realism. Certain haunting leitmotifs--imaginings of his dead mother floating down the Mekong, the song of a man singing across the river to his lost Laotian lover--knit together the life he lost with the one he is entering. An original telling of the Indochinese immigrant experience by a talented survivor, it is a decided success: a remarkable story, a courageous performance, and we're privileged to get it.
By Diane Johnson
Dutton: 322 pp., $23.95
One often hears that it is no longer possible to write novels of social comedy in the tradition of Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope. How can a novelist poke fun at pretension, snobbery, gaucherie and other behavior that deviates from normal standards when no one seems sure anymore what those standards are? But defying the conventional wisdom, novelists like Alison Lurie, Diane Johnson and the late Barbara Pym have continued, enriched