Slate's winter reading.

Reading between the lines.
Feb. 1 2008 7:29 AM

Winter Books

What Slate is reading this winter.

Slate has asked a number of its contributors to review recent books of note in 300 words or less. Check the responses below for a handy guide to what's worth reading this season.

Fiction

Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black: And Other Stories

Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black: And Other Stories by Nadine Gordimer. Nadine Gordimer's latest collection of stories is not her strongest, but coming as it does toward the end of a 60-plus-year career, its inventiveness is impressive. Half the pieces, like the comic "Tape Measure," written from the perspective of a tapeworm, feel somewhat miscellaneous—lightly erotic, satirical, sketchy—yet they enliven a landscape that might otherwise appear unremittingly bleak. The title story proceeds from a haunting conceit, not quite fully realized: a white professor of biology, formerly an anti-apartheid activist, hears a stray remark about Beethoven's racial ancestry and becomes convinced that he himself must have mixed-race relatives descended from his rakish grandfather. It's only in the second half of the collection that Gordimer hits her stride, with two devastating stories of intimate betrayal, "Allesverloren" and "A Beneficiary," that are as good as any she's written. Dedicated Gordimer fans will find Beethoven rewarding, but readers new to her stories should start with one of her earlier collections, such as Jump or A Soldier's Embrace.— Jess Row

Dangerous Laughter: Thirteen Stories
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Dangerous Laughter: Thirteen Stories by Steven Millhauser. Fantastical fashions, pastimes, and pursuits consume whole communities, only to disappoint them (or worse) in Millhauser's newest collection of stories. Dresses balloon to the size of houses (and women slip out from under them unnoticed). A Babel-like tower finally reaches heaven, only to lose its mystique. Best, there is the pseudoerotic game in which friends stimulate each other to paroxysms of laughter: "We were bored, we were restless, we longed to be seized by any whim or passion and follow it to the farthest reaches of our natures. We wanted to live—to die—to burst into flame—to be transformed into angels or explosions." This is classic Millhauser, and it won't disappoint newcomers or longtime fans.— Amanda Schaffer

I, Tania

I, Tania by Brian Joseph Davis. When I first pulled Brian Joseph Davis'I, Tania from the new arrivals shelf, I narcissistically wondered if it was an elaborate hoax. Its apparent themes coincided so perfectly with my personal obsessions—the Symbionese Liberation Army, 1980s sports stars, Marxist-Leninist linguistics, kidnapped heiresses, suicidal rock stars—it seemed like a custom Build-a-Bear of a novel created just for me.

Actually, it's not exactly a novel—more a freaky bouillabaisse of teases, jokes, and intellectual puzzles very loosely disguised as the memoirs and mad confessions of Tania. (Patty Hearst is never mentioned, but if you don't recognize her SLA nom de guerre, chances are this book isn't for you.) Rarely have the rules of narrative been more imaginatively ignored—the book is full of guest lists for parties that never happened, urban guerrilla fashion tips, and a glimpse at what a truly revolutionary sex-toy catalog would look like.

I, Tania is for people who like comic books but don't care for the drawings, for readers who enjoy '70s television and Donald Barthelme, and for fans of The Bad News Bears. If you've ever wondered what it would be like to argue the merits of punk rock versus Detroit techno with Katie Couric live on daytime TV, it may well be the book of your fever dreams.— June Thomas

People of the Book

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. Geraldine Brooks' third novel is an excellent, fast-moving mystery that's decidedly Brooksian. Thick currents of emotion run through a story grounded in meticulous, insider research. The characters are smart, flawed, questing, and above all likable. Unlike Brooks' previous works, however, equal space is given to two lead characters: Hanna Heath, a hard-edged Australian books conservator, and the Sarajevo haggadah, a 15th-century Hebrew codex that went missing in the Bosnian conflict. When the haggadah unexpectedly turns up, Heath travels to Bosnia to examine it. From here the story alternates between the characters. Heath attempts to retrace the haggadah's origins; in every other chapter, Brooks reveals the book's actual past from the perspective of historical figures who came into contact with it. Muslim, Christian, and Jewish individuals all play unexpected roles in the story of the haggadah, and the largest divide is between people who respect human endeavor and those who callously dispose of lives and books.— Christine Kenneally

The Senator's Wife

The Senator's Wife by Sue Miller. Why is it that John Updike and Philip Roth can write novel after novel detailing the innermost thoughts of men at successive stages of life, and be duly celebrated for it, when Sue Miller's equally precise, insightful renderings of women's interior lives as they grow older are routinely passed over as highbrow chick-lit? Are men still getting a prize for being sensitive in ways that we take for granted in women? No matter. Just read Miller's last two novels, Lost in the Forest (a sympathetic retelling of Lolita from the girl's point of view), and this year's The Senator's Wife, and get educated.

The Senator's Wife is the story of a lopsided friendship between new neighbors in a college town. The younger Meri has just moved to campus, escaping a hard-knocks Mid-western upbringing to follow her newly minted professor husband to Massachusetts. Delia is already a public figure in town, if an enigmatic one, the estranged wife of philandering Sen. Tom Naughton, now retired and settled at a safe distance in Washington, D.C. Meri hopes to learn from her sophisticated neighbor; at 74, Delia thinks she knows enough, finally, to put her life in order. They both have lessons coming to them—about love, sex, betrayal, and forgiveness—that Miller supplies with a deft hand and in a prose style that makes lucid seem muddy. You might find yourself putting this book on the shelf between Rabbit at Rest and The Human Stain.— Megan Marshall

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