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December 1998/January 1999
The Ladies from St. Petersburg
Translated by Marian Schwartz
New Directions, $19.95
These three short stories should establish Nina Berberova—who fled revolutionary Russia for a shaky émigré existence in Paris and New York—as Gogol's, Tolstoy's, and especially Chekhov's most vital inheritor. The spare, exquisite "Ladies from St. Petersburg" and "Zoya Andreyevna" (1927) begin where Chekhov left off, tracing the skittish flight of the threadbare Russian elite from the forces of history. "Big City" (1952) weds Berberova's pining Chekhovian precision to a fresh, kaleidoscopic modern vision, as in this wonderfully-translated paean to Manhattan: "The red needle of a distant skyscraper was reflected in the sink, and a blue flame fell on the face of my watch. . . . A precise raspberry circle ran across the ceiling (a fire truck racing somewhere with its distant clanging). . . . It felt as if, despite the fact that I had settled on the eighteenth floor, the entire city was running down my shoulders, face and arms. . . passing not somewhere below but through me. . . blinking in my arms with dozens of reflected lights." A bracing tonic against contemporary American fictional flab.
Like Never Before
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $23
Collections of interlocking stories can feel false, leaving the reader thinking either that the author has written a novel but is too lazy to provide proper transitions, or that some enterprising publicist suggested that several discrete stories be cobbled together for easier marketing. The first few pieces of this strong collection incite suspicion on the second count. The recurring names at first seem grafted onto separate stories about observant Jewish communities in New York, refugees in Nazi-occupied France, and the end of a Yuppie marriage. As the stories progress, however, the yeshiva boy sneaking cigarettes becomes the broken man on a cross-country trek; the lost child in Lyon becomes the absent-minded teacher who could have been a rabbi. Havazelet's prose is self-consciously old-fashioned, often sounding like a translation from the Yiddish: "Rabbi Solomon Memmel was a short man, with small glittering eyes that fastened on what he saw." Yet he is modern and adept in dissecting the smaller emotions and undercurrents of family life: "He was disappointed in himself, and disappointed, obscurely, in his father, for accepting him as he had turned out." The accumulation of such truths fuses the separate pieces, and in the end they become not an incomplete novel but a larger story, that of members of a family who cannot come to terms with each other or themselves, with the restrictiveness of religion or its absence.
Mayhem: Violence as Public Entertainment
Drawing on both empirical studies of entertainment violence and the ideas of ancient and contemporary philosophers, Sissela Bok rejects the simplistic notion that watching TV violence leads viewers to commit violent acts in real life. Bok argues instead that it creates "an intensified fear of crime, greater callousness toward suffering, and a great craving for ever more realistic entertainment violence." In Bok's view, voluntary activity is the answer, and she argues that technology such as V-Chips for television and filter mechanisms for the Internet provide both producers and consumers with ways to exercise control without resorting to censorship. The media literacy movement in America, Bok notes, helps young people respond critically to media images-making them more "self-reliant, informed, and less fearful." And she speculates about governmental policies in Canada and Norway which aid media literacy initiatives and provide incentives for entertainment corporations to stop exposing viewers to gratuitous violence. Though there is reason to doubt the effectiveness of some of these initiatives (especially given the corporate centralization of the media), Mayhemelucidates a major social dilemma and some potential solutions.
Unified Field Theory
University of Georgia, $24.95
These seven stories are collected here as the winner of this year's Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction, and no wonder: they're quietly spectacular. More loaded than plotted, they resist individual synopsis, but tend to be about the numbing fragility of marriage and divorce and the casualties of each. Soos's South teems with distracted women and well-meaning men of expertise: mechanics, bicyclists, carpenters, former athletes (a pastor endures a sports injury that "limits his range of ecclesiastical gestures"). Soos enlists chatty omniscient narrators ("I wish I could take you on a helicopter ride over our town"), then blithely hands off the point of view-a welcome if anachronistic feat of authorial generosity. Scenes forecast disasters-a spurned suitor goes on high-speed drives, a developmentally slow baby floats in a flimsy handmade boat-that usually don't arrive, as if to underscore the infuriating uneventfulness of the lives herein. But it's also true that the author's prose is so deftly observed that he doesn't need to wreak havoc to hold our attention. He's no minimalist-these stories are long and must be read slowly-but Soos's protagonists recall Raymond Carver's language-impeded cast: after receiving oral sex from an eager young colleague, a character in "Key to the Kingdom" sits in bed "thinking about her look and trying to decide why he didn't like it."
House of the Winds
Mia Yun's lush, evocative novel of her childhood in 1960s South Korea begins with one beautiful but ordinary image: herself, as a child, standing in her mother's cabbage patch, watching a butterfly hovering over the flowers, "wings . . . transparent pieces of white silk in the sunlight." In the intricate story she spins out from this golden, peaceful moment in a garden, Yun shows that she has a poet's sense of the mot juste, a painter's instinct for arresting imagery, and a storyteller's flair for melodrama. Her images come crowded with color and plangent with pathos: "Moonflowers bloomed at the end of a long, heat-hushed afternoon, when dusk came softly and swiftly, steadily dripping persimmon red and azalea pink over the tiled rooftops." Amid the flood of metaphors, there are sharply observed characters rendered with a deft instinct for the absurdity of life, adding up to a wry, richly textured portrait of life in a place and time that already feels bygone, though close enough to be part of living memory.
–S. R. Shutt
The Long Falling
Houghton Mifflin, $22
In recent years Dublin has been redefining itself as a city of cultural diversity and edge, and that exciting impetus is what gives this otherwise brooding first novel its freshness. Ridgway, a 32-year-old Dublin native, maps his city with Joycean care, and his streets, squares, parks, and revolutionary landmarks are swathed in a gray mist that makes even midday seem like twilight. But in this noir Dublin are young men-in and out of offices, pubs, gay bars, sex clubs-who pursue careers and lead politically engaged lives at a 1990s remove from the Irish fiction of even a few years ago. The fact that abortion is still illegal rankles the characters of this novel, even the older ones. When Grace Quinn, the fiftyish woman at the center of the action, murders her abusive husband in a hit-and-run "accident," the moral ambiguity of the deed has ramifications that will alienate her once understanding son but arouse sympathy in the investigating detective. It's a somber story, full of clouds and rain, but Ridgway's finely nuanced characters are never as predictable as the weather. A very gifted writer emerges in The Long Falling; his Ireland is right now, and it's a fascinatingly complex place to be.
The Love of a Good Woman
Munro's most recent collection deals with the bits of memory that connect past to present and person to person. Set against a rural Canadian backdrop, these are stories of surfaces and of the murky depths below; they thrive on the upset of complicity. Thus we discover, in a startling and roundabout way, that the kindly optometrist in the title story is not a drowning victim, but the casualty of his own passion and that of an enraged husband. In "Cortes Island," a mute old man's dark secrets unfold in an equally surprising way, through a tour of his scrapbooks. Munro's characters are propelled by passions until they have no hope of retreat: in "Save the Reaper," a woman drives her grandchildren to a stranger's desolate and ramshackle house, and then cannot escape fear for their safety. And just when we think that we know what-or at least who-these stories are about, Munro introduces a new character or a new piece of information to shed light on the plot. Through all their unexpected and intriguing turns, the narrative voices remain steady, unfaltering.
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But I do miss the hymns, / the small, hard apples with their dimpled skin. I do miss / things.
The vast hinterlands of the Global South’s cities are generating new solidarities and ideas of what counts as a life worth living.
Protests in China are shining a light not only on the country’s draconian population management but restrictions on workers everywhere.