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Mysterious Press, $22
If this is the first Peter Lovesey mystery you read, very likely it won't
be your last. Thoroughly satisfying and all that--several twisty puzzles,
a light but not facetious tone, an acceptably counter-debonair police inspector.
In England's seaside resort town of Bath a cranky group of mystery aficionados
called the Bloodhounds meet once a week to wrangle over which writers and
which sub-genres are the ne plus ultra of the art. Meanwhile, the local
news media receive a warning in verse of an impending theft; the police misread
it, and are busy guarding the Victoria Gallery when, lo, the Bath Postal Museum
is robbed of a priceless stamp. Is one of the Bloodhounds responsible? Another
verse warning arrives, and Milo Motion, the John Dickson Carr enthusiast who
lives aboard a narrowboat, is found murdered in his locked cabin. It won't
be the last violent death in Bath as the police stumble from one false conclusion
to another. A perfect blend of psychology and technique.
The seven shorter pieces collected in Amy Hempel's strikingly beautiful third
story collection continue to till ground first broken by Raymond Carver. Hempel
is a master of economy, and in these quiet narratives about off-center characters
the detail of a moment leaves the reader with a complete picture of a life.
The title novella (new ground for Hempel) consists of a voluntarily institutionalized
woman's harrowing letter to an artist she met just once--an exhausting, searching
document in which she struggles to understand her longings and insecurities,
attachments and separations, until her examination of shards of memory and
her interaction with fellow "guests" eventually allow her to trace their development.
Throughout, Hempel's concern is the shifting nature of home--both the dream
of escape and the silent hope of return. Her pared prose combines melancholy
humor with an undercurrent of deeper sorrow. As one character reasons: "if
you had to . . . there was nothing wrong with faking your way to where you
--Jay A. Fernandez
The manic machinations of post-Reagan Wall Street may seem faddish, frivolous
and unconnected to the real world most of us live in, but according to Henwood,
they reflect a profound change in capitalism: the rise of the "rentier-creditor"
sector over traditional corporate ownership and management. Henwood, editor
of the Left Business
Observer, argues that the premises of the new casino economy, particularly
that "markets optimally allocate social capital" and that "money and credit
are neutral means of exchange," are conceptual fig leafs covering a unprecedented
concentration of power. Very little money from the stock market ever makes
its way into real productive investment, Henwood shows; furthermore, the determination
of the price and supply of money is no mere technical matter but a crucial
conduit of social control. With irreverence and often incisive wit Wall
Street analyzes how arcane mechanisms such as bond markets, trade in government
debt, commodities futures, deregulation of national currencies, Federal Reserve
policy, and the stock market have effected "a systematic re-organization of
ownership claims over society's productive assets"--one that might well have
made the 19th-century robber barons blush.
Complete Fiction of W. M. Spackman
Dalkey Archive Press, $16.95
It is still possible to find in used bookstores copies of four of W. M. Spackman's
stylish, idiosyncratic, almost cloyingly elegant short novels--An Armful
of Warm Girl, A Presence with Secrets, A Difference of Design, and A
Little Decorum, for Once. Products of an unusual late-flowering, these
books are rhapsodic celebrations of the worldly pleasures, most especially
the pleasures of adultery, seen and depicted through a cosmopolitan literary
tradition stretching from Ovid to Proust. This edition brings together in
one volume all four of these novels, along with his last, unpublished book
and a streamlined version of his first. It is devoutly to be wished that some
quixotic publisher might re-issue Spackman's On the Decay of Humanism,
a critical book of astonishing arrogance, brio, and erudition. No one, now,
writes like Spackman, though there are definite affinities between him and
Edmund White, or Nabokov, or, perhaps most of all, James Merrill. His last
book ends as follows, with a triad of sentences, reached after much stylistic
intoxication, each of them worth the price of the present volume: "Suzanne
saw us, and waved, and put the sorrel into a trot, and he came up to us scuffling
nimbly through the drifts of leaves, nickering politely to the filly, ears
cocked. `Ah god,' I heard my uncle mutter, `what a pretty thing a pretty
girl is!' and he went to meet her, holding out his arms. And, well,
young women were fond of my uncle: she dismounted into them, to be kissed."
and His Daughter: Stories
Houghton Mifflin, $24
In these seven stories written over the past 30 years, Stone's stormy relationship
with irony, his companion and weapon, is on fiery display. The relationship
has developed like a good marriage, leading his characters to fractured but
increasingly brilliant episodes of self-revelation. In the 60s-era stories--"Porque
No Tiene, Porque Le Falta" and "Aquarius Obscured"--edgy transcendence is
often fueled by drugs; the heightened perception the characters seek unravels
with the high. More recent protagonists struggle to maintain a precarious
recovery. Elliot, the social worker in the tragi-comic masterpiece "Helping,"
falls off the wagon when he sees that the mindless horror he experienced in
Vietnam has arbritrarily infected the American subconscious. Mary Urquhart
of "Miserere" has traded her bottle for the monstrous grace she experiences
in baptising foetuses. The highly autobiographical "Absence of Mercy" traces
a photographer's taste for violence to his Dickensian childhood. But Stone
refuses to let hot topics such as abuse trivialize his furious compassion.
The vortex of memory, madness, and death into which "Smart, the bearded poet"
spins with his illegitimate daughter in the title novella betrays a belief
in the power of language to reveal, even if the irony is that the revelation
usually arrives too late.
--Mark Harril Saunders
on the Cinematographer
Green Integer, $8.95
or Messages From History
Green Integer, $5.95
Eensy-weensy books (among them Penguin Sixties, Shambahla Classics of Spirituality,
and, my favorite, on sale at Tower Records, the mini-biographies issued under
the heartbreaking rubric "They Died Too Young") are ubiquitous these days.
Feel-good books, fetishes, they reflect and even embrace the very deficiencies
they pretend to redress: these are classics in a format to reassure the anxious
reader that, after all, no one has time to read classics. Green Integer hopes
to make an offbeat contribution to this genre, aiming, as the back inleaf
says, to publish "all such ephemera as may appear necessary to bring
society into a slight tremolo of confusion and fright at least"
(my italics). Not likely, I'm afraid.
For all that, these first two books are good to have. Robert Bresson is a
cinematographer whose work is marked by its radical restriction of formal
and technical means: Music and fancy camerawork are eschewed; the frames exhibit
simple, often repetitive compositions; actors do not act, but state their
lines in a near monotone. His movies recount fatalistic stories about grace
and destruction as it were without comment, but to powerful and altogether
singular effect. Notes lays out the principles behind this practice
in aphoristic form. Bresson inveighs against cinema that apes the conventions
of theater, setting forth by contrast a purist conception of cinematography
that genuinely reflects, as he sees it, the medium of film: "Your genius is
not in the counterfeiting of nature (acts, sets), but in your way of choosing
and co-ordinating bits taken directly from it by machines." But this formalist
faith is spiritual in its content: "divination--how can one not associate
that name with the two sublime machines I use for my work? Camera and tape
recorder carry me far away from the intelligence which complicates everything."
Gertrude Stein is another 20th-century formalist master, though more of a
riddler than a visionary. History or Messages from History is particularly
gnomic work. Her idiom is as always elaborated from short, chiming sentences:
they carry an ambiguous echo of the hornbook and the nursery rhyme, and they
strike the reader as simple-minded but also, in a sophisticated and mystifying
way, as placed in evidence. Here history is often mentioned--along with bicycles,
cakes, oxen, Mildred and Pierre--while, as elsewhere in Stein's work, sections
are carefully but inconsequentially demarcated--part ii follows part ii--and
material shades into the senseless: "An beautiful." In general, Stein appears
to conceive of history as the cubists did perspective--as a term of reality
and wholeness that artwork subverts, so as to make it newly present to the
reader or viewer. "Do think things," Stein says encouragingly. If you have
ears to hear, often it can be pleasant.
the Context of No Context
George W. S. Trow
Atlantic Monthly Press, $20
Trow's virtuosic essay on television and the decline of American culture,
first published in The New Yorker in 1981, now appears in a slim volume
with a new, autobiographical introduction. According to Trow, his baby-boom
generation has grown up without a sense of history, social class, regional
distinctions, or any of the other institutions that once structured American
life. In their place is television, which isolates the individual while providing
a factitious sense of intimacy; in Trow's words, American life now exists
on only two levels, "the grid of intimacy" and "the grid of 200 million."
Written in a mannered, aphoristic style, these essays leave no doubt about
Trow's intelligence and insight. But many of his sweeping indictments are
less novel than he seems to think; as a lament for American shallowness, his
book sits squarely in the tradition of Sister Carrie and The Education
of Henry Adams. Then again, that's pretty good company to be in.