• print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2007

    JOY OF SECTS

    For thirty years, and with an admirable measure of tenacity and audacity, the poet Susan Howe has reanimated the lives of wayward pilgrims whose violent experiences of exile in spiritual wildernesses culminate in moments of searing revelation or sadistic repression. Her 1985 prose masterwork My Emily Dickinson (published first by North Atlantic Books and reissued this fall in a handsome new edition) depicts the poet and intellectual as the ultimate wayward pilgrim who rebelled against New England's sin-obsessed Calvinism and attained a fierce aesthetic and spiritual sovereignty, only to have

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2007

    TEEN SPIRITS

    In the well-off northeastern suburb of Stonewood Heights, Ruth Ramsey is the high school Health & Family Life—that is, sex-ed—teacher. Her job is to shepherd the enclave’s adolescents on their glide path from affluent school to prestigious college free of pregnancy and STDs, by educating them in the ways of safe sex. Or at least it was, until members of a new fundamentalist church, the Tabernacle of the Gospel Truth, accuse her of advocating oral sex after she remarks in class that “some people enjoy it.” Embarrassed in the media and threatened with a lawsuit, the school district announces that

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2007

    SLEAZY PICKINGS

    When nineteen-year-old Ukrainian schoolgirl Irina Blazhko arrives in the English countryside to begin life as a farmworker in Marina Lewycka’s new novel, Strawberry Fields, she first notices “the dazzling salty light dancing on the sunny field, the ripening strawberries, the little rounded trailer perched up on the hill and the oblong boxy trailer down in the corner of the field, the woods beyond, and the long, curving horizon” and dreamily thinks to herself, “So this is England.” Never mind that she has traveled by bus from “Kiev to Kent in fortytwo hours” and was met off the ferry in Dover

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2007

    That a chemist figures prominently in Andrea Barrett’s new novel, The Air We Breathe, will come as no surprise to those familiar with her fiction. Over the past decade, Barrett has produced a novel and two story collections that dramatize an abiding fascination with scientists in late-nineteenth- and early-twentiethcentury milieus. Her characters, both historical and imaginary, have included botanists, geneticists, zoologists, biologists, and ornithologists. A genealogical chart is appended to Barrett’s latest offering, illustrating the latticework of relationships that unites major and peripheral

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2007

    The Life Room, Jill Bialosky’s second novel, reimagines Tolstoy’s societydriven epic, Anna Karenina, as a bildungsroman. Though the plot parallels the sordid events surrounding the affair between the troubled Anna and the dashing Count Vronsky, the best moments in Bialosky’s book concern the interior life of Eleanor Cahn, a literature professor, wife, and mother in her late thirties who has yet to grow up. Her existence may seem like a privileged mix of office hours, dinner parties, and Central Park playdates, but “her true desires,” Bialosky writes, have remained “locked up in a suitcase.”

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2007

    RUDELY MECHANICAL

    “Many people answer with ‘Yes, but . . .’” wrote Marcel Duchamp in 1954, in a tribute to his great friend Picabia, who had died the year before. “With Francis it was always: ‘No, because . . .’” Inventor of the “machinist painting” and carrier of the Dada virus to New York and Paris, Picabia was editor of the journal 391 and author of numerous books of poetry and prose, along with manifestos, aphorisms, and scenarios for ballets and films. He impressed everyone who met him with a cocksure nihilism. “Anybody called Francis is elegant, unbalanced, and intelligent,” Gertrude Stein opined. Tristan

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2007

    RANT PARTY

    Percival Everett—author, academic, fly fisherman, woodworker, painter, and mule trainer—has a talent for militant irony that feeds on variety and extremes. Refreshingly profane, his novels have nimbly led such sacred cows as African-American studies and Native American reparations to the abattoir. In Erasure (2001), he gave us the down-and-out novelist Thelonius Ellison, who, fed up with being told his fiction isn’t “black enough,” writes a book called My Pafology—and promptly garners Oprah-sanctioned fame. Everett’s new book takes on another worthy if easier target— George W. Bush’s America—but

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2007

    Perhaps the title of Jason Brown’s second story collection, Why the Devil Chose New England For His Work, begins with an interrogative because this is a book that believes in right and wrong answers. Most of the eleven tales describe exceptional instances in the lives of the residents of Vaughn, a fictional Maine town. It might be more accurate, however, to say that the town does the telling. Right-minded, rigid, yet deeply conflicted, Vaughn’s inhabitants collectively struggle to repress their less virtuous instincts. It’s no wonder that the devil chose this semimythical rural New England

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2007

    Shining at the Bottom of the Sea, the second novel by Stephen Marche, purports to be a compendium of Sanjanian literature, Sanjania being “little more than an invisible dot in the middle of the North Atlantic, almost in danger of becoming a phantom island.” Introduced by a scholar named Stephen Marche, this “anthology” illustrates Sanjanian literary development over several hundred years, from the distribution of pirate narratives and morality tales in the eighteenth century, to fiction’s engagement with the struggles of the colony under British rule, to the flowering of narrative that came

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2007

    In Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s stories, the subjectivity of perception is often dramatized. His principal subjects—the gap between society and self; the conflict between tradition and modernity, religion and enlightenment—are transformed via various renderings. Mandarins, his latest collection, features fifteen tales, including three new English translations. In the title story, a man’s spell of apathy and ennui is momentarily broken when he witnesses the young peasant woman he’s been observing on a train throwing mandarins, “the color of the warm sun” and a symbol of Japanese daily life and hope,

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2007

    SEEKING IN TONGUES

    A beautiful man with violet eyes sequesters himself in a language lab and masters ten tongues yet barely has a word to say for himself. Abel Nema, whose last name, we’re told, translates as “the mute” or “the barbarian,” is a fugitive from a land that no longer exists, living a hand-to-mouth existence in an unnamed European country. Often lost, Abel is periodically deranged, bisexual in his appeal, and a magnet for mayhem; his natural state is ambiguity. In Day In Day Out, Terézia Mora—a fiction writer, playwright, and translator born in Hungary in 1971 who’s lived in Germany since 1990— has

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2007

    STRANGER ZONE

    Among the pleasures to be found in reading Christian Oster’s books, surprise may not numbered. The unnamed protagonist of his new novel, The Unforeseen, will be all too familiar to readers of his other works in English—this is the third of his eight novels to be translated from the French. Like the narrators of A Cleaning Woman (2001) and My Big Apartment (which won the 1999 Medicis Prize), this one is a neurotic. Like them, he is a lonely Parisian of indeterminate white-collar employment; like them, he must recover from a romance that has gone sour for no particular reason. Like them, he meets

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