By Alison Anderson. St. Martin's Press. 272 pages. $23.95
In one of the most hauntingly beautiful novels of the year, Alison Anderson tells the poignant tale of Fran, a 40-something behavioral ecologist working on Egret Island, a fragile and failing ecosystem off the coast of Mauritius. There to help re-establish the natural ecology of the place and chart the evolution of local birds, Fran loses her assistant and lover, Satish; he vanishes, possibly the victim of foul play. Enter her new assistant, Christian, a displaced Red Cross worker ravaged by the loss of his Serbian wife and child to that war-torn region. Christian, like Fran, driven by grief and guilt, seeks healing and redemption. Soon Fran's passion for the island infuses him, and the deeper they engage in the work, the deeper their connection to each other grows. However, dark forces threaten them and the island. Anderson uses the theme of man-made destruction and the metaphor of extinction to powerful impact. This exquisitely written and beautifully wrought novel wields an intensity about love, loss and risk perfect for our times.
Men and Cartoons
By Jonathan Lethem. Doubleday. 160 pages. $19.95
In these nine very strange stories, best-selling, award-winning novelist Jonathan Lethem takes some superheroes, adds ordinary people and blends them together in a kryptonite mix of absurdity and satire; dashes of anomie and loneliness heighten the emotionality. Lethem enjoys literary experimentation and these stories -- some outright science fiction, others harkening after Borges, Kafka and Kertesz -- are not for everyone, but they sure are terrific. (The best story, "The Dystopianist ...," won the Pushcart Prize.) The supernatural edges many, the inability to really connect often haunts the characters, whether young or middle-aged, and apocalypse is never very far away, as in "Access Fantasy" and "The Vision." Iconoclastic as ever, Lethem captures the world we know and the one hovering just beyond our periphery.
The Story of My Baldness
By Marek van der Jagt. Other Press. 254 pages. $22
Who doesn't enjoy a good literary tour de force? Perhaps not the Dutch literary establishment, definitely not amused when Marek van der Jagt won the Netherlands' top literary prize for Baldness only to discover the author had previously won the same award under his real name, Arnon Grunberg. This wicked, dark coming-of-age story details 15-year-old Marek's search for l'amour fou despite what he calls his terrible handicap -- a very small penis. He has learned a lot from watching his lovely but promiscuous mother bed half of Vienna under her cuckolded husband's nose. Marek is quite a character: serious and silly, pursuing unattractive women in hopes of scoring, trying not to become circumspect like his father or straitened by the pursuit of money like his brothers. He is thoroughly engaging and utterly hilarious. This often morbidly funny novel leaves one eager for Grunberg's next literary gambit.
By Noami Ragen. St. Martin's. 276 pages. $24.95
Terrorism stalks the globe in 2004, but few live with its daily horrors like those in the Middle East. American Elise Margulies knows that the boundaries of terror are fluid in Jerusalem, where she lives with her oncologist husband, Jonathan, and their daughter Ilana. Pregnant again and already in danger of losing the baby, Elise's fears for her family grow palpable in the increasingly tense political atmosphere. When her husband's car is found pumped full of bullets, Elise turns to her grandmother, Leah, an Auschwitz survivor, for succor and clues for survival in the face of impending tragedy. Leah reveals the covenant she made in Auschwitz as a girl. Noami Ragen, an American living in Israel, brings the disturbing realities of terrorism (and how personal the political can be) to vivid and bloody life in The Covenant, which is part historical novel, part thriller and all good.
By Wendell Berry. Shoemaker & Hoard. 292 pages. $25
Wendell Berry's compelling and immensely readable regional writing often gets short shrift because his characters are the just-plain folks of America's rural heartland. This latest installment of his series about the citizens of Port William, Ky., details the reflections of the eponymous narrator. Now an old woman, Hannah reviews her life -- she was just a girl when she married Nathan, a survivor of Okinawa, and bore his children. As she contemplates the story of her life she muses, "Like everybody's, it was going to be the story of living in the absence of the dead." Berry's poetic prose is by turns as graceful and brutal as his poetry, his revelations about the impact of war on young men and their families heart-rending in this distinctly Faulknerian moral tale.
By Fay Weldon. Grove Press. 268 pages. $24
It's hard not to like Fay Weldon -- she's just so good, one of our premier satirists. Thus even one of her slighter works, as Mantrapped is, deserves reading. Trisha is down on her luck when, in a typical Weldonian moment where sexes collide, she passes Peter on a stairwell and oops -- they exchange souls. Trisha's now in a younger, trimmer male body, Peter in a far more zaftig one, but alas for Peter's wife who ... well, you'll see. Billed as a "reality novel," Mantrapped is a curious and not-always-successful hybrid: a novel of the sexes (Weldon's inimitable forte) intercut with a continuation of her incisive memoir Auto da Fay. Both bits are intriguing; how well they mesh is for each reader to decide. Nevertheless, Weldon's extraordinary wit and insight ricochet through these pages.
Victoria A. Brownworth, author and editor of more than 20 books, teaches writing and film at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Her collection "Day of the Dead and Other Stories" will be published in 2005.