Books briefing

By the Shore by Galaxy Craze (Grove/Atlantic, $24) Though by no means a household name, Galaxy Craze has acted in a Woody Allen film and been the subject of an Interview profile. She roomed with Uma Thurman at boarding school. And, yes, Galaxy Craze is her real name. Faced with this r鳵m鬠literary purists—calloused by the scribblings of glamourpusses like Ethan Hawke, Jewel, and Naomi Campbell—could be forgiven for having qualms about Craze's debut novel, By the Shore. Additional trepidation caused by the fact that it's written from the point of view of a 12-year-old girl is likewise understandable. These skeptics are in for a pleasant shock. By the Shore is astoundingly well-written. Craze doesn't drop topical references, nor does she patronize her narrator as adults taking on a child's voice often do. In fact, she never falters. Except for a couple of mentions of '60s pop stars, the story could be set any time in the past few decades. The girl, May, lives with her younger brother, Eden, in a seaside village that's deserted in the winter. Their mother, Lucy, once led an Absolutely Fabulousstyle life in London, but now runs a small hotel. Isolated from her big-city friends, who call to chatter about boyfriends and parties, Lucy seems to be atoning for her previous haphazard method of child-rearing. The household's off-season routine is disturbed when a pretty young editor, Patricia, and a reserved writer, Rufus, move into the hotel to work on a translation. Rufus and Lucy are drawn to each other, but Patricia's jealousy and a visit from May's long-absent father threatens this tentative friendship. Meanwhile, May navigates her own stormy sea: adolescence. Common teenage concerns—getting invited to the right parties, wearing the right clothes—loom large. She's moody, and sometimes downright mean, especially to her mother. But Lucy can be equally exasperating. They dance around each other's emotions, as mothers and daughters often do, knowing exactly where to find vulnerable spots. The awkward, confusing period between childhood and adulthood is a well-worn subject, but May's voice is so compelling that it makes her travails seem brand-new. Craze has a particular knack for simple but evocative descriptions: school is "a private park that only certain people have the key to"; giving up a long-treasured wish is "like letting the brightest purple kite fall down from the sky." These precisely crafted images add to the book's classic feel. Confounding the cynics, Craze has created an ageless coming-of-age story. Jackie McCarthy The Breaker by Minette Walters (Putnam, $23.95) A dead woman's naked, strangled, and raped body washes up on a quiet beach along England's south coast. Hours later, a confused little blond girl is found wandering the streets of a town 20 miles away. As police investigate, they learn that corpse and toddler are mother and daughter: Kate and Hannah Sumner. But they have no idea how the pair became separated. Or why Kate Sumner was killed—apparently on a boat, though she detested sailing—and then tossed into the English Channel, while her child survived unharmed. Anybody who has read British novelist Minette Walters' award-winning previous works (The Ice House, The Sculptress, etc.) knows she prefers her stories full of psychological suspense, her murders sordid and violent, and her characters fraught with weaknesses. The Breaker offers all of those components in a tale with so many deft twists and misconceptions that even as you read the last chapter, you're convinced that Walters hasn't finished suckering you. Suspicion for Kate's murder falls initially on a handsome but feckless young model, Steven Harding, who just happened to be on the scene when the body was discovered, and who had enjoyed a brief fling with Kate that ended sourly. Also under investigation: Kate's older scientist husband William, who was clearly disgusted with his wife's view of marriage as simply a source of respect and material comforts, and whose mere presence in the same room now sends little Hannah into a screaming fit. Does she know something about her mother's death that she isn't telling? The whole setup of this yarn is messy, a solution to the central crime being all mixed up with talk of sexual inadequacies, the smuggling of "legal" contraband, so-called date-rape drugs, and the elastic limits of human cruelty. It doesn't take long to be disgusted with both Harding and the Sumners. And, regrettably, Walters fails to balance them out well with appealing protagonists. Detective Inspector John Galbraith is a gruff figure who finds some of his own doubts about wedded bliss and parenthood reflected in William Sumner. A more youthful country constable, Nick Ingram, is charming for his slow courtship of a comely local divorc饠now distrustful of male admirers, but their romance never quite gels with the rest of this plot. Still, Minette Walters—one among a growing list of wordsmiths intent on bringing new grit to British crime fiction—has a seductive prose style and a skill at building criminal motivations that make her novels as compelling as car wrecks: It's impossible to turn away from the carnage of a resolution that you know lies ahead. J. Kingston Pierce Selected Poems by Jorge Luis Borges, edited by Alexander Coleman (Penguin, $40) The poetry of Jorge Luis Borges invites a world of further reading. His allusions and direct references to great literary works (and to lost minor works beloved by the poet) abound. His poems concern themselves with creating a living world with words—while realizing that such a gesture is futile. Yet this futility itself is met with an explosively engaged mind that wants to share an intellectual friendship with imagined writers and readers across time. His mythical, magical existentialism draws not only upon other writers and philosophers, but upon a catalog of personal symbols and images. The result is a secret library, and with Borges as the chief librarian, we discover metaphysics and philosophy, we witness a world of tigers and street toughs with knives, we dip our feet into Heraclitus' river only to find that its water is shared with the Nile and the Rio de la Plata, that its water is the blood passed on from one generation to the next. This attractive 576-page volume is the second part of Penguin's applaudable three-book Borges anthology (the late author's Collected Fictions was published last fall). Unfortunately, for a series that proposes an overview of his oeuvre, the publisher has cut too many corners. Little effort has been made to contextualize the work, aside from the random footnotes accompanying individual poems. There is no introduction, no biographical information, no commentary. Many of the poems have been squeezed to fit onto one page. A biographical timeline for the reader new to Borges would allow a glimpse into the 30 years prior to the publication of his first book of poems. Unfortunately, the editor seems to have been constrained by budgetary concerns, a shame given the $40 price tag and the significance of having such an important body of work brought together at last. Michael Wiegers No One Left to Lie To by Christopher Hitchens (Verso, $19) What a treat this nasty little bonbon is! Christopher Hitchens resurrects the forgotten literary form of the polemic with 113 pages of cannon fire aimed squarely at President Clinton, "an attack," he writes, "on a crooked president and a corrupt and reactionary administration." Hitchens has always been known as the thinking person's leftist, willing to prick his fellow travelers with thorny questions about abortion and Mother Teresa, but on Clinton he's gone completely ballistic. What kills him is the deal the American left has lived with for most of the 1990s: Put up with hated policies (like welfare "reform"), excuse the lies, condone the boorish private behavior, and Clinton will secure the presidency for the Democrats. Hitchens spends much of the book analyzing the strategy of "triangulation," which has been to '90s politics what the Chicago Bulls' triangle offense has been to '90s basketball. Triangulation is simply the process whereby Clinton disarms his conservative opponents by adopting modified versions of their own ideas. "Clinton is the first modern politician to have assimilated the whole theory and practice of 'triangulation,'" writes Hitchens, "to have internalized it, and to have deployed it against both his own party and the Republicans, as well as against the democratic process itself." There are so many other reasons to hate Clinton—his habit of hanging friends and allies out to dry, the way his lies infect those around him like a virus, his intimate ties with Dick "Spawn of Satan" Morris—and Hitchens makes such delicious cutlets of them all that it's a wonder he found the restraint to stop at page 113. Bruce Barcott The Drowning People by Richard Mason (Warner Books, $24) Published before its author turned 21, The Drowning People has attracted a lot of publicity. No doubt Englishman Richard Mason deserves attention for selling his first novel at such a tender age, but most of the talk has been about the author's youth and Hugh Grantlike looks, not his writing ability. Mason wrote the novel the year before beginning college at Oxford, during which he lived in Prague and earned his living writing a travel journal and playing the piano in bars. He's spent the past year in Paris, finishing a second book for Warner, though he plans to return to Oxford in the fall. Unfortunately, Mason's own story is more interesting than the one he tells in this overwritten and contrived saga. The Drowning People begins with 70-year-old narrator James Farrell confessing to the murder of his wife, Sarah. Actually, Sarah plays a secondary role to her cousin, Ella Harcourt. Flash back 50 years (to the 1990s), and for the next 300 pages, James chronicles his doomed relationship with Ella, his innocence-shattering betrayal of a dear friend, a few suicides, lots of family rivalry, travels in three European countries, and, finally, the reason for taking his wife's life. Enlivened by a few fresh images, The Drowning People more frequently bogs down with clich鳠and uninspired dialogue. Mason clearly doesn't follow that cardinal rule drilled into students in American creative writing programs: Show, don't tell. "She leaned across the table and kissed me," James says in one passage. "Our lips met and I knew in that brief sweet touch that I would do anything for her." Looking ahead to Mason's next effort, let's hope that Paris' magic and a few more terms at Oxford inspire a volume that eschews this tiresome melodrama. Abby Tannenbaum

 
comments powered by Disqus