Dancing with Einstein
By Kate Wenner (Simon & Schuster, $24)
As a little girl in the '50s, Marea Hoffman merrily danced around Albert Einstein while he played piano in her Princeton, N.J., family living room. As an adult in the '70s, Marea's still on the move, but her dancing has become a slow wander. After traveling the globe for seven years, she resettles in New York City just before her 30th birthday and begins spending her days riding the city's subway and bus lines, now a lost and haunted figure far from her happy girlhood.
Like many hippies of her generation, Marea, named for the seas of the moon, is obsessed with nuclear weapons. But unlike the majority of her peers, Marea's ties to the bomb are unnervingly close, as we learn in passages that alternate between present and past: Her Jewish-refugee father worked on the Manhattan Project and later on the hydrogen bomb (causing a great rift in his marriage to Marea's mother, a devout Quaker pacifist). When Marea was 12, he died in a suspicious car accident while on his way to do some controversial experiments in the New Mexico desert. Eventually, Marea begins psychotherapy in New York.
In this graceful second novel, Kate Wenner's characterization of her heroine is bold, poetic, and very strange—and Marea's therapy is strange, too. She sees four different therapists, all of different schools of thought. To each, she purposefully presents a distinct side of herself. In this way, Wenner presents four aspects of Marea to the reader: She illustrates Marea's psyche, uncovers her political beliefs, addresses her spirituality, and allows her to tell the stories of her travels. This may sound like a ridiculous way to go about the therapeutic process, let alone the unfolding of a novel. Yet there's a method to Marea's seemingly oddball approach, since she learned long ago from her physicist father and from Einstein how to observe, record, and analyze the natural world. From the apparent chaos of her life, Marea's story finally assumes a shape that's beautiful and wonderfully logical. LAURA CASSIDY
Kate Wenner will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co., 7:30 p.m. Tues., April 6; and at Third Place Books, 7:30 p.m. Wed., April 7.
I Dream of Microwaves
By Imad Rahman (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $23)
Certain sentences are so true that they demand to be written. Says perpetually out-of-work actor Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (a squat Pakistani-American never, ever confused with the basketball great): "It was too hot for corduroy." Corduroy is the least of his woes. In these eight stories depicting various distinct stages of his generally unhappy life, Kareem also gets mugged by another out-of-work actor, dons a costume as the "Zima Zorro," has a tiny lapdog shit in his hand, drinks and smokes way too much, performs Shakespeare at gunpoint for some Pashto bandits, goes looking for terrorists in a Florida grocery store, and finally stumbles, yes, into the eye of a hurricane.
Throughout, Kareem maintains the same deadpan sense that he deserves it. He's a misery magnet who hopes one day to transform his experiences into Method acting success—like, say, another stint on America's Most Wanted, playing the dark-skinned ethnic bad guy as usual. "I felt despicable," he muses. "But then again, I thought, despicable makes for great ratings."
In his debut collection of stories, young author Imad Rahman—who came to the United States at 18 to attend college in Ohio—displays a typically and thoroughly American love for pop culture. Movie lines abound; Apocalypse Now can be seen as the foundation for Microwaves' palimpsest; references range right up to Rushmore and Being John Malkovich. And, often, it's too much. "Is everyone here an actor?" Kareem asks—speaking for the reader as well.
At the same time, there's an engagingly pliable sense of absurdist dislocation, as if Kareem is wandering on and off of movie sets and back to the awful streets, where he's often homeless, usually drunk, and generally heartbroken. After the first and strongest story, in which Kareem admires a girlfriend who "looked like coffee, pull-ups, and celery," things get a little too larky, like some dinner theater of the absurd. Always searching for a role and script, Kareem's story increasingly falls into a life-imitating-life-imitating-art regress. Yet even as the scenarios grow sketchy, their pages jumbled, you end up caring about this ever-hapless, unsure thespian. Says he, "I had this notion I was in a black-and-white movie, but one where the characters could see everything in color." Some days, you know exactly how he feels. BRIAN MILLER