Seeing Through Places: Reflections on Geography and Identity

by Mary Gordon

(Scribner) $23Mary Gordon is a good writer, and her latest book, Seeing through Places, a collection of personal essays, is articulate and reflective. Gordon can string together a list of adjectives like nobody's business; in describing her grandmother, she writes, "Her house was her body, and like her body, was honorable, daunting, reassuring, defended, castigating, harsh, embellished, dark." All the same, I resisted this book, and I think this had more to do with my impatience with the form than anything else.

Gordon has chosen to meditate on the charged and important places in her personal history -- her grandmother's house, a house on Cape Cod she loves but will never own, the campus of Barnard University where she now teaches. At the outset, Gordon writes of her childhood, "I believed then that I had no business communicating anything I only partially understood," implying that now that understanding has been granted, what follows is an exercise in self-exorcism. And it is self-exorcism -- utterly personal, too much so for the reader.

Like most intelligent children who grow up to be writers, Gordon knew herself to be apart from others. "I have known the bad news of my nature," she writes. In these essays, her singularity is made extreme; everyone seems to hate this strange child. The result is a too-acute sense of damage that is repeated, insisted upon. Other good books by other good writers such as Kathryn Harrison and Alix Kates Schulman have served up minutiae as evidence of the past's sad truths. But what quantity of this is useful information? How much of it is an exercise for the writer, and how much for the reader? EMILY HALL


by Colin Harrison

(FSG) $25Welcome to Colin Harrison's fantasy world, where mobbed-up thugs drill holes in people; where a 60-year-old man can give a 27-year-old woman multiple orgasms; where Chinese bankers are inscrutable; where a Nice Girl who goes to Columbia falls in with a bodybuilder shipping stolen freight around the Eastern Seaboard; where a former bomber pilot/Vietnam POW recaptures his bloodlust by barking into a cell phone and moving millions around the world. All very interesting, if improbable.

The novel starts with two main storylines that take too long to intersect. Our ex-bomber pilot's only surviving child, a daughter, can't have children, and his wife is too old to get pregnant, and he's feeling the rich man's vain urge for an heir. He secretly places an ad looking for a woman willing to bear his child. Meanwhile, our Nice Girl is mysteriously released from prison by forces that do not have her best interest at heart, so she escapes into New York City anonymity. The two meet and (I'm giving away the ending here) nothing much happens (except for sex scenes that read like Harrison's personal fantasies, considerably diminishing our enjoyment); then a deus ex machina descends in the form of a bloodbath of torture, and almost everyone dies. It worked for Shakespeare, Harrison must have thought.

Along the way Harrison bludgeons us with his knowledge of aerial bombing techniques, high finance, and the telecom industry. In the hands of a master of the genre like Donald E. Westlake, we're fascinated by such minutiae (in one novel, Westlake built a slick murder story around the specialty paper industry), but Harrison's fact-dropping is just show-offy, like a kid waving his arms in the sandbox. DAN TENENBAUM


The Art of Fiction: A Guide for Writers and Readers by Ayn Rand

(Plume) $12.95I would love to invite Ayn Rand to a dinner party with a guest list that spans all times and languages. The Rand circa '58 would be ideal -- she had just published Atlas Shrugged, thereby making her permanent mark on 20th-century literature. Also in that year, she caved to "popular demand," and gave an informal series of lectures in her living room to friends who were glad to bask in the glow of her success. Those homespun lectures have recently been pieced together and published, and are excellent fodder for my dinner party fantasy.

Maybe she'd start with a toast: "In regard to precision of language, I think I myself am the best writer today." Oh Ayn, you card. (Is she kidding?) How about seating her next to old Mark Twain and watching his face as she says, "The number of words to express human evil is much greater in other languages than in English. For that fact, I give great credit to America." What would he say?! He'd bust up!

The best, though, would be to place her across the table from the writers she rips into. We'd all be a little soused at this point (I'd be slipping and calling her "Ann Ran"), and she'd start in with, "A writer who is not laughed at, but taught in universities as something very serious, is James Joyce. He is worse than Gertrude Stein; going all the way to the ultimate in nonobjective writing, he uses words from different languages, makes up some words of his own, and calls that literature." Joyce would no doubt be tickled pink by this (Gertrude would cop the evil eye). And to REALLY stick it to 'em, Rand would throw back the last of her highball, stand up, and say, "If to any extent you hold the premise of nonobjectivity, then by your own choice, you do not belong in literature, or in any human activity, or on this earth." Another drink, Ayn? BRIAN GOEDDE