After the Quake

Haruki Murakami

(Knopf)

After the Quake is Haruki Murakami's response to the massive Kobe earthquake of 1995. Instead of treating the subject directly, the stories in this collection give it a creepy sidelong glance that invokes science fiction and horror films. In one story a man discovers that the box he's carrying may contain his soul; in another a child is menaced by nightmares that may be real. Murakami uses genre effects to describe Japan's bizarre postquake, postnuclear, postmodern reality; the writing often lapses into cliche, but it's the cliche of a genre where the things literary fiction typically explores--ennui, despair, the failure of words--simply don't exist. In

other words, Murakami uses placid, pleasant language to describe a shattered world. In earlier novels, such as Norwegian Wood and The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, his gentle, inven-tive touches were spread out across a larger canvas, but here the stories add up to less than the sum of their little shocks. And while you have to respect a work in which the most memorable character is a giant oracular frog, this supposedly haunted book doesn't haunt. -- Adam Novy

BoyGenius

Yongsoo Park

(Akashic Books)

Odd that Akashic Books drops rabbit raisins like T. Cooper's Some of the Parts and Sparrow Patterson's Synthetic Bi Products--then whips out trump like Yongsoo Park's bildungsroman BoyGenius. Most of its plot is allegorical, most of its feints coherent and deliberate. The hero narrates. Born a yokel in Korea, he's declared a genius by the Most Honorable President Park, who makes him a TV star. Then the president's wife gets assassinated, and a frame-up strips BoyGenius of fame and fortune, dumping him in a hideous rural village. He and his ignorant family escape to the U.S., where his parents are murdered. Convinced the blame's half his own and half President Park's, he spends the rest of his days galloping after revenge and getting kidnapped by whales. BoyGenius may be schizophrenic: the allegory ruptures when plot twists aren't rationalized, and it's hard not to read the events as mere unpleasant hallucinations--which makes you wonder whether the author, who claims he's the great-grandson of a Manchurian warlord, is lucid. Then again, the hero's self-deception adds ironic humor; whether he's a lone soul in a mad world or just a nutcase, BoyGenius is such a paragon of foolish loyalty to the idea that he's a genius that the only way you can feel sorry for him is genuinely. --Ann Sterzinger

Cigar Runners

Mick Connors

(Xlibris)

The first 100 pages of Mick Connors's debut novel describe a lewd middle-aged romp, as the nameless main character, his best friend, and two acquaintances head to Cuba for the "millions of horny young women." Fortunately, when the main character starts smuggling cigars, the book switches from cliched sex adventure to entertaining con, peppered with vivid images of Cuba and its underworld. As the character becomes determined to smuggle more cigars, the stakes get higher, and he has to maneuver his way past back-stabbing amateurs, vindictive customs officials, and assassins. Cigar Runners can be crude and shallow at times, but Connors, who's currently under house arrest in Skokie after being convicted of smuggling thousands of Cuban cigars into the U.S., has the voice of a buddy--half-bragging, half-sad. He insists that his book is fiction, albeit well researched. --Jeff Faye

Earth and Ashes

Atiq Rahimi

(Harcourt)

This slim novel by Afghan expatriate Atiq Rahimi, translated from the original Dari and published in Europe in 2000, might never have seen the light of day here if not for the war on terrorism. During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the elderly Dastaguir sets off for the mine where his son Murad is working to tell him their village has been destroyed and many members of his family are dead, though Murad's son, Yassin, has survived. Dastaguir not only must find a way to cross the harsh, war-torn landscape while caring for Yassin, who's been made deaf by the bombs, but must face his own guilt at having survived, as well as Murad's eventual reaction--"To him, blood is the only answer for blood," he says. Rahimi, who was 22 when he fled Afghanistan for France in 1984, is now a documentary filmmaker, and it shows in his spare writing style. Scenes are brief yet full of repeated visual images--dust, fire, ashes--and nightmare sequences blend seamlessly with Dastaguir's waking reality. For the most part Rahimi avoids a political stance, focusing instead on the hopelessness and helplessness of people under siege. More than once he writes, "The dead are more fortunate than the living." --Jerome Ludwig

Frightful Fairytales

Dame Darcy

(Ten Speed Press)

Dame Darcy's restive imagination manifests itself in many ways: she's the creator of Fantagraphics' comic book Meat Cake, a doll maker, a silent-movie actress, a palm reader, a singing-saw player, and a reputed chronic boyfriend stealer. She lives in a vortex, whirling with the best and the worst of the Victorian and flapper eras along with doppelgangers, ghosts, and other riffraff of the spiritual world. Her first novel, Frightful Fairytales, includes hyperdetailed illustrations and stories of a bloodthirsty witch who makes herself a daughter out of quicksilver, cinnamon, sugar, and the ovaries of a little girl she's murdered; a peaceful, lavish underwater kingdom of miniature shape-shifting creatures; a gold-digging grave digger; and a sorrowful chambermaid who longs to escape the evil elves she serves. In Dame Darcy's magical world, every man is either a cur or a prince, every song a dirge or a seduction, every lady a greedy ne'er-do-well or a doe-eyed dreamer. Making black-and-white judgments isn't her business; all that matters is that the characters she's created, including herself, are happy and in love. She doesn't like a yarn that doesn't end in a kiss, and for that reason Frightful Fairytales isn't all that frightful--unless you think every author should always be loftily literate and grammatically correct. --Liz Armstrong

How to Be Alone

Jonathan Franzen

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

At the heart of this collection of Jonathan Franzen's nonfiction are two essays that touch closely on the book that forever linked his name with Oprah's. "My Father's Brain" recounts his father's long descent into Alzheimer's and could have been written by the character Chip as a postscript to The Corrections, providing a peek at the source of the novel's emotional power. And his famous 1996 Harper's essay, "Why Bother?" (originally titled "Perchance to Dream"), was written to prepare the world for the coming of The Corrections. It does everything a state-of-literature essay by a novelist at the top of his game should do. It offers a great metaphor for the world of letters today, in this case, the postindustrial city--the sprawling, homogeneous suburbs as the inauthentic realm of John Grisham and the neglected inner city as the domain of serious art. It takes a wild swing at literary bad boy Mark Leyner while paying him a back-handed compliment, tells you that great art is always under siege by the philistine multitudes, reminds you how unspecial you are, stresses the importance of the author's work while maintaining an air of con-vincing humility, underscores the importance of reading over watching TV, and renews your enthusiasm for the possibilities of great literature, particularly the author's. Of local interest is "Lost in the Mail," a long piece about the woes of Chicago's postal service. Here and in several other essays Franzen writes in a mostly anony-mous journa-listic style, and though the articles are well crafted and enlightening, they're no more distinguished than ones written by less famous New Yorker contributors. Franzen writes nonfiction--and fiction--best when he concentrates on the personal. --Karl Mueller

A Killing Frost

Michael Black

(Five Star)

Michael Black, a police sergeant in south-suburban Matteson, wrote short stories and novellas while earning an MFA at Columbia College. This year he published his first novel, A Killing Frost. A Chicago private eye and kickboxer, Ron Shade, is cleaning out his downtown office when a social worker brings in a woman whose boyfriend hasn't come home from his warehouse job in three days. The boyfriend, an El Salvadoran refugee, turns up dead in the Cal-Sag Channel. Despite warnings to butt out, Shade, helped by a lively cast of secondary characters, sticks with the case. Like other fictional detectives, Shade is complicated. One of his closest friends is a black gym owner, and his girlfriend is Mexican-American, yet he looks warily at minority youths while riding the el or walking down the street. He's cynical about human nature, yet takes on lost causes. Black lets the case unfold too easily, but the local color--including a scene set in a church near Humboldt Park--strong characters, and fast pace make A Killing Frost an entertaining read. --Michael Marsh

Lullaby

Chuck Palahniuk

(Doubleday)

Chuck Palahniuk's iron-faced, biceps-baring author photo is evidence that he wants to be the Henry Rollins of the novel. But in Lullaby he explores his feminine side--or at least the feminine side of violence--and concludes that real men come in all shapes, sizes, and sexes. While researching an article on crib death, reporter Carl Streator discovers that all the mothers read their babies an African "culling song" from a bed-time poetry anthology. Just by reciting the lines in his head, he offs his editor, the upstairs neighbor with the loud stereo, an overdressed creep at the next bar table. Helen Hoover Boyle, a lacquered real estate agent who sells haunted houses, knows the culling song too. It killed her baby, her husband, and dozens of gangsters and third-world dictators listed in her "grimoire" address book. She loves being mistress of death, but the queasy Streator talks her into driving cross-country and raiding libraries and bookstores to destroy every copy of the anthology. Reciting poetry is a womanly way to kill--like witches' spells, of which Helen has plenty. She's the road trip's alpha. He's a numbed null set--the book's almost over before we learn his first name, his age, and his previous experience with death. When the pistols finally appear, and with them the prospect of a hole-in-the-chest murder, Helen turns out to be the one with the balls. --Ted Kleine

Population: 485

Michael Perry

(HarperCollins)

Before attempting to bare his soul, Mike Perry wrote journalism and fiction, and when he could quit his day job as a nurse he moved back to his hometown, tiny New Auburn, Wisconsin, and joined the volunteer fire department--the depressing fodder for Population: 485. It's a compelling memoir, admirably formed, though I wouldn't recom-mend touching it until you're feeling stable--or at least so punch-drunk with morbidity you might as well explore. There's no preventing the horrors Perry sees, no possible call to arms: there's no oppressor behind New Auburn's house fires and new-fanglements that occasionally spray teens into ditches at 70 mph. But his sense of humor stops you from jumping out of a window, and he inter-sperses the heavy shit with well-written his-tories of the town, its residents, and the fire fighting profession. Perry has too much taste to sell himself and other locals as quaint or colorful, and he doesn't play dumb to seem honest. Eating a heavenly three-figure sea bass in New York City, he's tempted by his inner hick to gloat over how much fried smelt he can usually get for five bucks; instead he cuts himself for "disingenuous yokelism." In the same chapter he claims fealty to both the "Gun Rack Crowd" and the "Pale and Tortured Contingent," whose pretensions are embarrassingly fraternal: "Crying in your beer is just gazing at your navel, only louder." --Ann Sterzinger

Riding a Tiger: The Self-Criticism of Arnold Fisher

Robert Abel

(Soho Press)

It's 1988, ten years after China shifted from a centrally planned economy to a more market-oriented system, and 45-year-old American Arnold Fisher, a foreign expert at the China Electrical Engineering Company, is under house arrest in Beijing. Accused of immoral conduct and trafficking in illegal goods, he's now facing execution. Riding a Tiger is the confession he offers the authorities, his attempt to justify how he got involved in the sale and distribution of, among other things, black-market watermelons, bicycles, and a savory take-out dish called "Golden Chicken." Urged to present an objective account, he can't, especially when explaining his relationships with his Chinese business partners, who include a man who's recently been killed and two beautiful women. A pudgy, middle-aged, married white guy enriching himself while embarking on simultaneous affairs with two much younger women isn't a recipe for a sympathetic character. But as Fisher diligently searches his soul, the women come to life and the relation-ships seem plausible. The novel captures the absurdities and complexities of life in contemporary China, describing what it's like to unload a gondola full of watermelons in the dead of night, when vehicles and parking spots are in short supply, and what one can stumble over when trying to smuggle a refrigerator into a high-rise during a blackout. There's a secondary plot involving Mongolian money changers, drugs, and murder, and Abel keeps the details obscure--as if to suggest that foreigners may be able to profit from China in the short term, but they'll never understand at what cost. --Zoe Zolbrod

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