Exotic, despicable, neurotic, satiric


Sirine is the queen of Nadia's, an Iraqi-Lebanese cafe in the heart of Los Angeles' Arab-American community. The regulars love her for her cooking, which reminds them of their homelands, and her beauty. But she's unattainable, a rocky island in a sea of adoration. Then she meets Hanif Al Eyad, handsome and humble professor of Near Eastern studies at UCLA, and the two of them fall in love. However, Hanif brings with him an enigmatic, possibly dangerous past and an entire political-sociological-ethnic world that Sirine, though half-Iraqi herself, has mostly ignored for her 39 years. Soon, she feels as if she's jumped on a merry-go-round in the middle of the ride, and she's dizzy with the possibilities and implications.

Crescent (W.W. Norton, 352 pages, $24.95) is Diana Abu-Jaber's follow-up novel to Arabian Jazz. It's an evocative tale that, in the way of the Like Water for Chocolate subgenus, uses food and food preparation as the background music to romance.

The story is infused with the tastes and smells of kebab, pureed eggplant, garlic and ground lamb. Though it follows boy-meets-girl conventions, the drama of Sirine and Hanif is heightened considerably by Abu-Jaber's writerly use of a mild magic realism, which makes the mundane streets of west L.A. seem mysterious and exotic and gives the lovers a kind of mythic quality.

Sometimes, Abu-Jaber tries too hard for poetic effects, and a charming pseudo-Arabian Nights side story, narrated by Sirine's Iraqi uncle, doesn't really fit. Still, Crescent is a rich, delicious concoction that has you rooting for the star-crossed lovers. And its sympathetic depiction of Arab-Americans and their concerns is a welcome counterbalance to the weight of current headlines.

Nicholas Van Tassel is a pompous, self-righteous, mean-spirited man who's not smart enough to realize he's got nothing to be arrogant about. He spends his entire life blaming other people and outside forces for his despicable behavior. And he's the hero of Anita Shreve's compelling new novel, All He Ever Wanted (Little, Brown, 320 pages, $25.95).

Set in the early 1900s, the story is told first-person through Van Tassel's arch and stilted language, opening with a hotel fire where he spots a woman standing outside. She's not beautiful -- "There was about her face, and person, a strength of color and of nature that rendered her not delicate or pliant, attributes I had previously thought necessary for any consideration of true feminine beauty" -- but he's mesmerized by her sense of stillness and approaches her. He walks her home and so starts the beginning of a lifelong fatal attraction in which his contemptible acts escalate over the years in order to keep her.

Once you get past the unbelievable notion that a woman as smart, strong and forward-thinking as Etna Bliss would go on a walk with, much less marry, such a bloated buffoon as Nicholas Van Tassel, the book grabs hold and doesn't let go.

Alexander Lescziak is in desperate need of a shrink. His marriage is breaking down; he's having an affair with Nella, a suicidal patient; he's suffering panic attacks and fainting spells. Then a new patient shows up claiming to be his half-brother, born from a World War II liaison Lescziak's mother had with a German POW.

A Memory of War (W.W. Norton, 352 pages, $25.95), the latest novel by Frederick Busch, examines Lescziak as he tries to keep from drowning in this sea of interlocking relationships, each of which is revealed in a complex weave of flashback and fantasy.

In fact, it's the element of fantasy on which A Memory of War turns. Neither the reader nor even Lescziak are quite sure what's real or what comes from his overheated imagination. Did his mom really have an affair? Is his wife really cheating on him? Is his patient really missing? In equal measure, the book soars beautifully and thuds dully to the earth. The people in Lescziak's imagined worlds, notably his parents in wartime England, are vividly drawn, as is the exploration of their desires. But because most of what they do or have done is mere speculation, their problems don't connect with the reader.

Meanwhile, Lescziak himself is practically a caricature of the New York psychologist. He's a master whiner with more neuroses than Woody Allen. None of his conversations is the least bit convincing. Nella and Lescziak's mother are far more interesting characters. Busch might have been better served writing a book featuring one of them.

Carolyn Meyer isn't trying to accomplish much in Brown Eyes Blue (Bridge Works, 240 pages, $23.95), and she succeeds. Her rudimentary story involves three generations of women -- 55-year-old Dorcas Buchanan, her 80-year-old mother, Lavinia, and Dorcas' twentysomething daughter, Sasha.

In her golden years, Lavinia has become a popular local artist of bucolic country scenes. When she exhibits some erotic nudes featuring her own image, the plot engine is revved up. Dorcas, fearing that Mom is getting senile, makes a rush visit. Mom turns out to be completely sane, but Dorcas, who's going through her own midlife crisis, decides, quite improbably, to stay. She dumps her former life and opens a B&B; in her old home town in the hinterlands of Pennsylvania.

Eventually, Dorcas' daughter returns, too, reuniting the three generations. Each of the women harbors a secret that's supposed to be deep and dark but, in fact, is a rather amiable pastel. Brown Eyes Blue is an easy read with simple -- verging on simplistic -- characters and situations. One exception is Lavinia, who's lively and irascible; another is the mother-daughter dynamic, which Meyer handles with humor and insight. Meyer is an author of numerous books for children and young adults. This is her first adult book. It shows.

Karen Duve's debut novel, Rain (Bloomsbury, 221 pages, $14.95), has as many grotesqueries as a triptych by Hieronymus Bosch. A partial list: bulimia, immolation by flame thrower, rape, obesity, decomposing bodies, an invasion of slugs. It's such a horrific mess that, of course, it's meant to be satiric. But there are problems. For one, Rain was written in German, and, like poetry, satire is often lost in translation. What may have been written as madcap reads as macabre. For another, the book involves a West German in the backwaters of the former East Germany. Unless you're familiar with the cultural-political-social dynamics involved, the irony is mostly lost, leaving you with little but a kind of savage slapstick.

John Muncie is former arts and entertainment editor of The Sun. He has been travel-books columnist at the Los Angeles Times and assistant managing editor for features at The San Diego Union-Tribune. His first novel, Thief of Words, will be published in April.

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