Note Found in a Bottle: My Life as a Drinker by Susan Cheever (Simon & Schuster, $23) In 1630, Susan Cheever's ancestors set sail for

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Books, Briefly

Note Found in a Bottle: My Life as a Drinker by Susan Cheever (Simon & Schuster, $23) In 1630, Susan Cheever's ancestors set sail for America aboard a ship that carried three times as much beer as water and 10,000 gallons of wine. Three centuries and many drinks later, Cheever came into the world the daughter of John Cheever, the New Yorker writer famed for his martini-soaked tales of upper-class exploits and ennui. In her new memoir, Note Found in a Bottle: My Life as a Drinker, Susan chronicles the blossoming of an inevitable addiction, from its genesis in her childhood when she observed her parents' partying to her own mind-numbing habit of excessive boozing and promiscuity. Having already demystified her parents' tweedy suburban glamour in her previous books Home Before Dark and Treetops, this memoir is a more introspective exorcism for the author as well as a revision of an all-too-often stereotyped illness. Cheever, now in her fifties and sober, has a knack for self-examination—no doubt the special gift of a life telescoped by her father's popular short stories—and her forthright account of three disastrous marriages and her inebriated lifestyle is strangely engrossing and remarkably devoid of self-flagellation. In tidy prose she relates her romance with alcohol and its influence on her choice of men, the star-studded parties she attends but only vaguely recalls ("Remembering was for suckers and squares," she writes), and her ever-so-gradual awakening to the corrosive nature of her habit—all of which chips away at the image of the alcoholic as the easily recognizable lout and reveals instead a dangerously appealing figure cloaked in gentility and promise. REBECCA ROBINSON The Electrical Field by Kerri Sakamoto (W.W. Norton, $23.95) When personal and political traumas converge in a work of fiction, its success hinges on the avoidance of pop psychology, instead of expressing how a complex character suffers. The recent surge of novels to do this, such as Edwidge Danticat's The Farming of Bones and Anne Michael's Fugitive Pieces, challenges first novelists like Kerri Sakamoto to raise the stakes. In The Electrical Field, history's shadow is the internment of Japanese Canadians. Canadian independence dramas are often portrayed by Americans as watered-down versions of their own national experiences ("Don't talk to us about secession; we had the Civil War!"). The Canadian government's goals for the internment of its Japanese citizens had a chilling focus: Unlike most Japanese Americans, families were intentionally separated to encourage dispersal. While property was looted and lost by depreciation in the US, the Canadian government sold internees' property directly to fund construction of the camps. Today there is no Japantown or Little Tokyo anywhere in Canada—only traces of the original one in Vancouver. Set in an Ontario suburb in the 1970s, The Electrical Field weaves parallel mysteries. The narrator, Asako Saito, is a solitary woman in her thirties whose older brother died when their family was interned decades earlier. Long-buried sensations of violence and loss surface when an adulterous neighbor of Saito's, Chisako, is murdered with her lover. Chisako's husband, an agitator for the redress of internees, disappears with their children, one of whom leaves behind his disturbed teenage girlfriend who pleads for Saito's help. It's risky to recount a psychological thriller through a narrator who, eager to avoid painful memories, is reluctant to tell the story. Sakamoto keeps her finger on the pulse, though, as each fragment cuts to the next on a precise emotional line. Occasionally scenes could have been carried a few steps further; there is the sense that Sakamoto is protecting her characters. Still, it's refreshing to see a first novel as ambitious as this, its writing sure and honest. ELIZABETH BRINKLEY Kerri Sakamoto reads at the Elliott Bay Book Co. 2/1 at 7:30. Storm poems by Judith Skillman (Blue Begonia Press, $12) Poetry explodes our old habits of experience to make the world (and thus ourselves) new again. Some poems take us apart while putting us back together, enfolding our perceptions in the act of smashing them, and this is one of literature's great mitigations—the work of art that can possess its own chaos tells us we, too, may be able to hold ourselves steady. Look for no such mitigations in Storm, Skillman's new collection of poems. Her work tugs us into the maelstrom of being alive and strands us there, dust devils and curses blowing by, the ground buckling under our feet. Attention twitches, like tic douloureux, from Styrofoam replicas of molecules to memories of palsied Uncle Jake in the kitchen where the dog humped your red-faced mother's shin. A schoolgirl's briefcase holds "the stink/of instruments and limbs"; vision darkens in the "sackcloth of winter"; somewhere "between sewer and hedge" a turtle stalls. The nervous system is a scraped and shaken web on which moments crazily stitch themselves while "the earth gallop[s] closer." If we opened up, we'd feel this storm under the skin of even the sunniest picnic afternoon, but survival seems to require closing off most of our perceptions. Shall we open Skillman's book, then? Pricked and prodded by her restless, strenuous interrogations of the world we thought we knew, we'll shift uncomfortably, failing to find a place where the heart can rest. That's the point. JUDY LIGHTFOOT

 
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