Villard: 150 pp., $20
In this series of monologues, Eve Ensler, author of "The Vagina Monologues," imagines the voices of teenage girls from around the world. "As a woman," Carol Gilligan writes of Ensler in her foreword, "she knows the pressures on girls to silence themselves, to act as if they have no feelings or their feelings do not matter. . . . A girl claiming her emotions breaks a silence and unleashes a vast resource of clean energy." And energy is released: The girl growing up in the suburbs faces pressure from her friends to buy clothing that her mother, a temp secretary, can't afford. The girl in Iran whose parents insisted on buying her a nose job misses her old nose. Chang Ying, growing up in China, works 12 hours a day in a factory that makes Barbie doll heads. "Because I make Barbie's head," she writes, "I send my thoughts into each one of her brains." The girl in the Congo who survived sexual slavery writes: "When it happens . . . you will think, 'These are just crazy soldiers fooling around. . . . They are old enough to be my father. They know better than this.' This will be confusing. It will make you feel stupid. It will make you feel like what is happening is not really happening. It will make you feel like you did something wrong." These are sorrowful voices, and the waste is everywhere: waste of beauty, talent, grace. Sometimes their powerful exuberance rises up and you believe they have a shot at happiness.
Things We Didn't See
Pantheon: 198 pp., $24
Dystopia. Breakdown. We are always imagining it because it seems impossible that the world can keep going along through bigger, faster vectors. We are blindsided even as we rush forward to meet it, like the characters in these linked stories, with open arms. In the opening story of this debut collection, New Year's Eve is doomsday. Father, mother and son have packed the car and are heading out to Grandma and Grandpa's farm. After this, it's all IDs, barricades and stocking up in a Ray Bradbury landscape. "This is an era of violence. Border clashes, the flu, the weather, and all the migrations they caused -- none of it has fostered anything like camaraderie. Friends turning in friends, families dumping their sick." Ordinary life now involves survival of the fittest, petty theft, competition for food and water. Throughout these stories, the survival imperative changes characters in surprising, subtle ways. The narrator, who is just 11 in the first story, survives three decades in the post-apocalypse landscape. "I have not, repeat, have not, found religion," he reports, "but life has presented itself in these stark terms, like they used to in political campaigns: I feel fallen."
I Want to Be Left Behind
Finding Rapture Here on Earth:
DaCapo Press: 288 pp., $25
Like immigrants from other cultures, successive generations in America grow further from the once-powerful religious beliefs of their forebears. Environmental stewardship, the tenets and rituals of sustainability provide a new meeting ground for lost and wayward religions. In the house that Brenda Peterson grew up in, Southern Baptist relatives with their prophesies of doom lay down, lion-and-lamb-style, side by side with the beliefs (political and moral) of her father, a forest ranger in the High Sierra. Peterson goes forth to live in New York City and works at the New Yorker. Then, she designs her own brand of activism: moving to Seattle and watching over a local seal population, being part of a community that includes flora and fauna. It is a rich and often lovely life -- full of humor and Peterson's own unique brand of faith. "You know, George," she tells her neighbor, who's a Pentecostal and speaks to her of tribulation, rapture and leaving the Earth for the kingdom of Christ, "I really want to be left behind."
Salter Reynolds is a critic in Los Angeles.