This Week's Reads

Jonathan Wilson, Heidi Julavits, and John Haskell.

A PALESTINE AFFAIR

(Pantheon, $23) What? A book about Palestine with no politics? Blissfully, yes. Novelist Jonathan Wilson, head of the English department at Tufts, has written a swift little mystery-romance set in 1920s British-occupied Jerusalem that manages to be wonderfully rich in period detail and atmosphere and wonderfully free of polemic, side taking, or blame. The political context of the story functions like that in Casablanca: a backdrop of rather delicious cynicism, against which the struggles and aspirations of Affair's lovelorn characters appear almost, but not entirely, futile. Poised at an exact midway point between towel trash and high art, this is a nice, crisply written beach read for the smarter set (in the Northwest, meaning a Sunday spent shivering on a bluff in the San Juans). Bloomberg, a misanthropic, sexually moribund, indifferently Jewish artist, has come to Jerusalem from London with his restless, bright-eyed, gentile American wife, Joyce, whose search for an ideology has led her to Zionism. The two are accidental witnesses to a murder involving an Orthodox Jew and a young Arab boy, which, in turn, brings the handsome English constable Kirsch calling. To reveal anything more about the plot's unfolding would deprive readers of Affair's primary pleasure. Wilson's book is so briskly meticulous in its chapter-by-chapter progression, you can practically see the 3-by-5 note cards and character flow charts tacked up to his study wall. But the love hexagram that develops between Bloomberg, Joyce, and Kirsch (among others) is neither conventional nor predictable. Despite the gauzy gold dust jacket and a few embarrassing sex scenes ("Joyce had dug her nails hard into him and left surface scratches as reminders of her passion . . . "), the romantic travails are only one part of a larger depiction of the conflicts in a land on the verge of complete, bloody transformation. MARK D. FEFER Jonathan Wilson will read at Elliott Bay Books (101 S. Main St., 206-624-6600), 7:30 p.m. Wed., July 2. THE EFFECT OF LIVING BACKWARDS

(Putnam, $23.95)

The titular effect of Heidi Julavits' lovely, slightly challenging second novel, if you choose to believe it, is that your "I" atrophies. Or at least that's what her underdog heroine Alice concludes. Her "I" is goneor it will be soon if she continues dredging up the past and pretending to be who she's not. Survivor of an airplane hijacking, student at the International Institute for Terrorist Studies, daughter of two overbearing workaholic parents, and plain-Jane sister to spoiled, willful, and beautiful Edith, Alice has accidentally assumed the kind of life that practically requires her to live with retrospection and regret. As Alice recounts the "Big Terrible" (her hijacking, not dissimilar to 9/11), the reader uncovers a character so mired in yesterday's muck that the present doesn't really exist. The worst accomplices to Alice's incessant backtracking are her instructors at the Institute, chiefly the memory-hungry and voyeuristic Professor Clifford. Julavits has Alice recount to Clifford all manner of childhood and adult recollections. The flip-flopping between the now and then can be, at times, a bit trying, but because the now is so (purposefully) thin and slippery, it doesn't take long to acclimate to Alice's strange and sad relationship with time, or to Julavits' uncommon use of it. Ultimately, of course, Alice must look forward to regain her I-hood, and I became anxious for her to face that way, too. Yet at the same time, I really wanted to stay inside Julavits' bitemporal world, even as I readjusted my timepiece again and again in order to do so. Backwards is colorful, bright, funny, and intriguing, and you genuinely care about Alice. Her smartly off-kilter sarcasm and sharp, cynical sound bites allow her to cope with the Big Terrible, while Julavits' elliptical narrative makes our own days seem boring and linear by contrast. Julavits is one of the Dave Eggers in-crowd who also penned an April screed against book critics in The Believer (which is affiliated with McSweeny's). "A lot of books are reviewed by those people whose main qualification is that they are least likely to 'get' the book in question," she wrote. She also said her ideal reviewer would be an excited fan. Well, duh. I guess I'm somewhere in between. LAURA CASSIDY Heidi Julavits will read at Elliott Bay Books (101 S. Main St., 206-624-6600), 7:30 p.m. Mon., July 7. I AM NOT JACKSON POLLOCK

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $20)

What an odd and worthwhile little bunch of stories this is. In his first published collection, John Haskell puts us inside the heads of sundry movie characters and the actors who play them. In "Chimes at Midnight," we're privy to the thoughts of Joseph Cotton as he acts in The Third Man, but no one else seems realhe's surrounded by the movie characters, like Harry Lime, the villain played by Orson Welles. Welles, in turn, leads us into Touch of Evil, where now it's one of the film's fictional characters, the doomed hooker in the famous opening scene, who alone seems to exist. Then we leap to Chimes at Midnight, where actor-director Welles seems trapped in his own Shakespearean pastiche. Haskell is always there, too, with an authorial presence; he grabs the characters' subjectivity without assuming their personhood. Each of the nine stories follows the action of a famous movie or event or personality: Jackson Pollock on a bender; Laika the Soviet dog in space; Topsy the elephant that Edison horrifyingly filmed being electrocuted in 1903. With flat, affectless, and declarative prose, Haskell irons out such familiar fabric to make it smooth yet strange. Before dying, Topsy hopes for a last glance of the keeper who spurned her: "No more struggling for a happiness that seemed to be always eluding her. She wasn't interested in happiness anymore. She just wanted Gus." Yet by borrowing these movies and texts and celebrities (Keats and Hedy Lamarr and '50s fashion model Lisa Fonssagrives among them), then inhabiting and reimagining them, Haskell gets at a different sort of cognitive-emotional reality. Call it the tug-on-the-sleeve effect, which Haskell isolates in The Third Man: "I believe there was a close-up. It only lasted a few frames but in it you could see the police inspector's hand take hold of Cotton's arm or coat, and pull. It's an insignificant action in itself, but that innocuous little tug is the beginning." That beginning is how we think, how we recall and misrememberby synaptic leap and association. Movies remind us of other movies, actors of scenes, and scenes of scenes from our own lives. In this way, Haskell's stories are always on the verge of something, liminal, in the pursuit of a thought or feeling that's inherently tangential and associative. One elusive thing is always leading to another ungraspable thing. The effect is like bouncing from title to title on IMDb.com to see who worked with whom on what movie, or the fragmentary, faceted character sketches of Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould. (Indeed, one of the stories included here is "Glenn Gould in Six Parts.") Pollock could even be called a volume of film criticism. Simply considered as a story collection, it's one of the most interesting and auspicious debuts I've read this year. BRIAN MILLER info@seattleweekly.com

 
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