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Babel Tower

A. S. Byatt

Random House, $25.95

I thought about Nelson on the train this morning. this hugely ambitious novel, the third volume of a projected tetralogy, continues the tale of Frederica Potter, erstwhile Yorkshire schoolgirl and Cambridge undergraduate, now immured in her villainous husband's "moated grange," by returning her in a harrowing escape to the London world of letters where she must make her way as lecturer, reviewer, and single mother. But it is even more a tale of the 1960's and, above all, an exploration of language, its powers and its limitations. Accordingly Byatt intersperses Frederica's story and its host of voices with extended sections of a novel, "Bsabbletower," transcripts of the obscenity trial that it occasions, transcripts of Frederica's divorce and child custody trials, and selections from her "laminations" or commonplace book.

In the '60s, as Byatt evokes them in almost overwhelming profusion, the traditional limits of decency and discourse are explored, strained, shattered. . . and babble reigns. Future historians will be grateful for her lavish portrait. Present readers will be gratified.

--Hardy Long


The Enchantment of Lily Dahl

Siri Hustvedt

Henry Holt and Company, $23

Lily Dahl wants, and part of what she wants is to get closer to "the heart of things," which, in her 19th summer, proves to be an elusive enterprise. Lily falls in love with a stranger, forges unlikely friendships, encounters mortality, and relentlessly considers the mysteriousness of people she's known-and made assumptions about-all her life. She also takes the part of Hermia in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Indeed, the novel-with its dizzying array of appearance/reality dichotomies-aspires to a contemporary rural Minnesota version of the play. Here's where it falls flat at times, resembling an intriguing idea fleshed out, rather than a full-bodied drama. Nor is Lily's primary foil-a childhood friend drawn to the strangeness and creepy terror of the familiar- fully realized. But as a rite of passage the novel is, well, enchanting. What Lily learns-that knowledge is often somewhere beyond appearance or reality, and that imagination is a necessity of living an engaged life-feels genuinely wrought.

--Don Eron


An Experiment in Love

Hilary Mantel

Henry Holt, $23

Carmel McBain, the Anglo-Catholic narrator of Hilary Mantel's seventh novel, calls it a story about appetite-the appetite of girls from social and religious backgrounds in which it is customary to thwart female ambition and desire. This coming of age novel renders the narrow world of convent school-aertex blouses, Lourdes medals, the "queasy mass of processed peas and tinned apricots" for lunch-in precise and oppressive detail. Carmel tries to move beyond all that, but feels ambivalent too, and struggles with anorexia before settling into suburban housewifery. There is little comfort to be taken from the story of Carmel's ultimately uncertain efforts to make a place for herself that is free of the isolation and jealousy of familiar class-bound England, but Mantel's lovely prose and dark humor, together with her irony and her hard-headed view of the tragedies of childhood, make this a stunning book.

--Sarah Browning


Martin Dressler

Steven Millhauser

Crown, $24

This witty parody of a familiar American story traces the rise of a son of German immigrants in turn-of-the-century New York. Dressler is a hard-headed businessman with a romantic streak who seeks to assuage his sehnsucht by building a series of increasingly elaborate apartment complexes. Dressler's personal life is similarly divided. He marries a sickly, lounging wisp, and relegates her lively sister to the role of business manager and advisor.

Dresssler is captive to an empty, mechanical dream, and of course i t destroys him. Success, thy name is Xanadu. Wandering his artificial halls like Charles Kane or Howard Hughes, Dressler lives the blankness of the American capitalist. Success such as Millhauser's has its own peril. It is a peculiar triumph to mirror vacuity well.

--Joseph Shea


A Fine Balance

Rohinton Mistry

Knopf, $26

The five main characters of A Fine Balance, converging in a crowded apartment in a nameless Indian city, face a variety of horrors-a lingering, repressive caste system, the corrupt and callous government of Indira Gandhi's Emergency, the heartlessness of unchecked capitalism, and an environment that is both unhealthy and demoralizing. Their struggles hold our attention through the first half of the novel, where Mistry succeeds in balancing his desire to create a moving tragedy with his strong impulse toward political and social commentary. A penchant for heavy-handed sentimentality, though, eventually overwhelms the attempt at tragedy, while social insight gives way a predictable survey of the evils threatening India. A Fine Balance is finally neither poignant nor pointed enough to fulfill Mistry's ambitions or the reader's expectations.

--Aman Garcha


Toddler Hunting & Other Stories

Kono Taeko, translated by Lucy North

New Directions, $21.95

Though virtually unknown in the States, the 70-year-old Kono Taeko has won many of Japan's top literary prizes. This collection of her stories from the '60s offers Americans a rare voyeuristic peep into the private lives of the famously guarded Japanese. Most of the protagonists (all female) have a penchant for sadomasochistic sex. One story tells of a young woman, estranged from her husband, who becomes entangled in the master/servant games of a hunchback and his beautiful wife, while in two others, the heroines express their conflicts over being childless by fetishizing little boys (hence the collection's title). And "Snow" is a beautiful account of a woman who gets migraines whenever it snows, the legacy of a childhood trauma. Taeko's intimate descriptions of unhappy relationships are not only unexpectedly frank, but often genuinely shocking.

--Susannah Hunnewell


The Hollow-Eyed Angel

Janwillem van de Wetering

Soho Press, $22

A Dutch bookseller is found dead in New York's Central Park, and the Commisaris of the Amsterdam police agrees as a favor to the dead man's only living relative to cross the Atlantic to look into the matter. Janwillem van de Wetering's books are following a trajectory like that of Jeremy Brett's performances as Sherlock Holmes: brooding, increasingly eccentric character studies in which the detecting grows all but secondary to the detective's exhilaratingly infantine psychomeanderings. In this case, it's unclear for most of the book whether the death was even a murder-there is, for instance, a long, serendipitously consequential, and rather comical side-investigation into questions of death-by-golf-ball. Van de Wetering has long since perfected his laconic maundering style; mystery readers new to the series will probably be happier starting with an early book, but connoisseurs will find all the old and several new satisfactions here.

--Rosemary Pepper


Representations of the Intellectual

Edward Said

Vintage, $11

Edward Said is well known for speaking his mind on controversial issues. In this brief lecture series, he goes beyond speaking up for a cause or a social group to defend the act of speaking up itself. Hence the double significance of the title, Representations of the Intellectual: In representing an idea to the public, the intellectual also represents an image of what it means to be an intellectual. Positioning himself against the "expert" who provides "'objective' advice for pay" (to a government, corporation, or the media), Said articulates a vision of the intellectual "as exile and marginal, as amateur, and as the author of a language that tries to speak truth to power," by "bearing witness" to forgotten, ignored, or suppressed stories. Appreciating the postmodern anxieties that may arise from his bold claims about universal moral principles and the neat separation of truth from power, Said honestly confronts the problem of objectivity. He illustrates his idea of the intellectual with historical, literary, and personal examples, candidly confiding his heroes and villains, and revealing the beliefs and passions behind his own life's work.

--Amy Meselson


Liberalism's Crooked Circle: Letters to Adam Michnik

Ira Katznelson

Princeton University Press, $19.95

Composed as a pair of letters to Polish activist and intellectual Adam Michnik, Liberalism's Crooked Circle is an intellectually rich engagement with two large issues in contemporary liberalism. Katznelson's first letter explores the possibility of accommodating, within liberalism, egalitarian themes drawn from the socialist tradition; the second explores strategies for accommodating ethical-cultural pluralism, and suggests an idea of "neighborliness" as a way to navigate between individualist and communitarian conceptions of human sociability. As its epistolary form suggests, this is a deeply personal book. A Columbia political scientist, Katznelson is an egalitarian, cultural-pluralist, and liberal; he writes in the hope that these values can all be reconciled within a single political society. To be sure, this book does not present a sharply delineated political program. But as "an effort to clear ground, [and] assert the value of a particular manner of political thought"-historically grounded and sociologically realistic-it is a great success.

--Joshua Cohen

Originally published in the October/ November 1996 issue of Boston Review



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