by Patricia Duncker
(Vintage International)

About 10 years ago I was living in Italy, in the palazzo apartment where Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning spent their married life. In exchange for opening the house to people who wanted to see it, I got to live there rent-free. It was a great deal. I spent most of my time writing my fourth book and hoping the doorbell wouldn't ring. One time a group that was doing a literary tour of Europe came in. The people were retired professors and their wives, and little old bluestocking ladies like I hope to be when I grow old. Their guide was, like me, someone who was doing this gig while she tried to write. Her name was Patricia Duncker, and she was very funny. She was seething with irony when she walked into the Browning place with her Hush-puppied charges; we gave each other the eye. That night after work we met for a couple of drinks, and hit it off. We corresponded for a few years but then lost touch, and the next thing I heard of her was Hallucinating Foucault. Naturally, I had to read it.

This first novel is as smart as the person I met years ago. It's full of uncomfortable, but dreadfully recognizable insights about the relationship of writer to reader, of author's text to reader's desire. The nameless narrator of this novel is an apparently straight male grad student who is writing a thesis about the fiction of Paul Michel. The narrator goes to France to find Michel, who has been confined to a loony bin. When reader and the writer meet their relationship changes. Does it culminate? Consummate? Unfold? Does it destroy them? Duncker's book is smart about the seductions of reading and writing and sad about fantasy realized, the difficulties of love lived in the flesh. About the Foucault of the title: well, I've never understood the big deal about Michel Foucault anyway, so I was relieved that his being in the title is mostly a tease. In this book he's a minor, offstage character, the writer Paul Michel had loved. That is, the writer our reader's writer read. The person, that is, the person reading the book hallucinated. REBECCA BROWN

by Ross Rocklynne
(Ace Books) Out of Print

by Douglas Alver Menville
(Borgo) $23

I guess I knew that our family friend, Ross Rocklynne, was a writer even before he gave my brother and me a signed copy of his book, The Men and the Mirror. But I never pinned that label on him, simply because Ross didn't tell stories. Instead, he did something much more unusual for an adult. He actually listened to ours--with a level of interest that few adults manage to muster when talking to children. Every holiday, Ross allowed my two brothers and me to subject him to endless stories we'd written and scripts we'd outlined and homemade comic books we'd drawn.

I was 12 the Easter that Ross gave my brother and me The Men and the Mirror. It was an amazing collection of interlocking sci-fi short stories reprinted from pulps of the '30s, '40s, and '50s. From page one I was captivated, and I finished the last story with a burning fever to track down those pre-war pulps, spending hours rummaging through comic shop bins of Amazing Stories, Astounding Science Fiction, Startling Stories, and Thrilling Wonder. Each issue was filled with incredible tales of horror and sci-fi by master storytellers: Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison--and Ross Rocklynne.

I remember thinking it was cool then to read old stories written by someone I knew. But it's only now, at a time in my life when I will wait in line to have books signed by authors, that I can also appreciate something else: Ross let us into his fictional worlds on our own terms, letting my brothers and me read his work only when and if we wanted to. In the end, it was not a writer who critiqued my grammar, or questioned plot holes, or suggested new character names who was one of my strongest influences. Instead, it was a writer who quietly published some of the best science-fiction short stories you'll ever find, who simply knew when to let a kid with a big imagination tell him a story instead of the other way around. JOEL ENOS

by Jim Knipfel

"Every stop played out as some sort of twisted version of This Is Your Life," reports my friend and colleague Jim Knipfel of his first book tour. "People I'd tried hard to purge from my memory kept showing up."

In his cigarette-scorched 'Sconsin drawl, Knipfel recounts his experiences promoting Slackjaw, a memoir about going blind, on public radio call-in shows in Green Bay (where he grew up), during interviews with newspapers in Minneapolis and Chicago (where'd he'd been a philosophy student and a noted activist for the cause of nihilism), and through live readings in retail outfits, like the Borders in Philadelphia where a manager remembered him, as a young columnist for local weekly Welcomat, urging readers to burn the store to the ground.

"The tour was weird, but not horrifying," concludes Knipfel--a man for whom an average trip to work is a bruising confrontation with helplessness and death. His ongoing New York Press column, also called "Slackjaw," has detailed to hilarious, even heartwarming effect, several such journeys. So for Blind Jimmy K, "not horrifying" means his trip went really well. Indeed, by tour's end, Slackjaw had sold out its initial print run.

Knipfel's got a lot in common with a sort of guy many of us know: a master pessimist, former suicidal punk rocker, dropout and slacker, convinced that his rotten luck will preclude any possibility of his considerable intelligence and talent making a mark on this fouled world. Difference is, Knipfel truly is both deeply, preternaturally unlucky--he has a rare degenerative eye disease that made him legally blind by age 30--and sharp-witted (among Slackjaw's New York following is reclusive author Thomas Pynchon, who voluntarily contributed the book's jacket copy).

Knipfel modestly calls his work "funny little stories," but his defiant sense of humor is better than entertaining. Given the material, it's heroic.

But still it's funny enough, apparently, to attract the interest of a major Hollywood studio. Hoping to develop Slackjaw into a network sitcom, reps buttonholed Knipfel when his tour passed through L.A.

How does it feel to consider turning your life story into a vehicle for selling Pampers and Volkswagens? "These kids were nice enough," explains Knipfel, "but I realized that if this were to happen, chances are it would turn out to be crap, and I would be destroyed." After a dramatic pause, he weighs the alternative: "And if it wasn't crap, I would be destroyed." ADAM HEIMLICH

by Eavan Boland
(W.W. Norton)

Eavan Boland is the best known female poet in Ireland. I say this because most readers recognize the men: Kavanaugh, Mahon, Heaney. The "new" voices of McGuckian, McBreen, and Boland help align Ireland with the late 20th century in a country where everyone is aprés Yeats. Boland is cross-continental: she was raised in New York, London, and Dublin. As native, transient, and foreigner, she is a perfect ambassador to feminize Irish verse and "record its contradictions." In The Lost Land, her latest book, Boland looks to the nation as if it were a chivalrous, melancholy, dumb god who needed instruction and eventually, removal from office.

Here's a woman after Yeats, overturning nationalistic icons while crafting her own out of the organic and body-felt. They're as temporary as skin, as malleable as turf "altered by its river." In "Heroic," a young girl passes the statue of a patriot and wishes she too could reach his height of "drenched stone." The chiseled patriot, above her, is godlike. She whispers, "Make me a heroine." Both the girl and the poet are resisting the emblematic as they insist on their own elevation into it. As a man, the patriot sets the river on fire. The sun leans toward him, and the landscape heels to his passions. The poet, on the other hand, writes from within the suburbs where nothing moves but her "hand across the page and these words." As you see, Boland's lines are rarely cluttered with the objets d'art of more long-lined verse.

I love the ambition of Boland's work. She puts femaleness up there with patriots. She creates that valley between lyric and narrative. She gives you stories while she leaves you craving stories, because she leaves traces, and these become her lyric. Whether tree, train, statue, patriot, or land, her images are never adornments. They comprise Boland's center: she has seen the emblematic translate female into icon status, until the ad becomes the product. She's after something more lasting--an authentic femaleness that will change the course of literature in her country.

The conflict: Eavan wrote on the cover of The Stenographer's Breakfast (my book), "This is a statement full of verve and daring. It is not just that the metaphoric frame of these poems has a wonderful ingenuity; although it does. Nor that the themes are full of zest and surprise; although they are. The real achievement of The Stenographer's Breakfast is that the skill, the daring, the risk-taking verve for a moment obscure the fact that this book is a serious and beautiful meditation on an inner life." FRANCES McCUE

by Celeste Johnson

(Self-published, available at Pistil Books) $2

We were digging plots the day I met Celeste Johnson, four years ago. I was a temporary supervisor for a gardening project. The work was lousy: heaped in worms, layers of rocks, rusty nails and mud.

Celeste started in that day telling grave-plot jokes, stories about crows, bantering--"Oh, I see how you are, then"--inventing cow puns, spinning words, fast-associating. So verbally deft was Celeste, it took me over 45 minutes to notice that she hadn't once picked up a shovel.

It took me another few years to realize that Celeste was working about 10 times harder than the rest of us that day. During those years I saw her sporadically. She would verbally spar and retreat, keeping her talent under careful wrap. Until Christmas last year. That's when Celeste compiled her first zine, Post-Christmas. She's published three more zines since then. Her most recent issues, Fears Unspoken and Rich White Guys, Religious Fanatics (subtitled Christian Catastrophe), reveal Celeste's relentless mission to get under the skin of people and institutions that interest her. She peels away until she scratches bone.

Fears Unspoken is a series of short prose pieces which examine love and self-love with suspicion. Celeste casts a cold eye that becomes momentarily tender, then catches itself again. Beneath her careful, watchful surface Celeste exposes veins of self-doubt, self-hatred. Each page is disarmingly honest. "Don't reach out to trust. I may not be here tomorrow. Unintentional of course. Just the neighbors may know."

In Rich White Guy, Religious Fanatics, Celeste explores the cracks in Christian self-righteousness. The zine is narrated through the persona of a wavering believer who sleeps with the preacher's son. "Her. Over there in the purple dress. She hates me because she's yesterday's ass." Celeste's writing catches the music--the counter beats, marking conflicting emotions--beneath the ordinary rhythms of speech. Where did she learn to talk and write so sharply? Celeste grew up in Rainier Valley and in the C.D., but she doesn't see those neighborhoods as having a big influence on her work.

"And I don't think being black affects my writing so much," Celeste claims. "My emotions don't know what color I am."

Growing up "in a house full of insults." That's what fired words into tools for Celeste. "I had to be funny," she says, "Had to learn how to talk so I wasn't using direct insults, but could still slam back." She played word battles and mind games with her cousin, Maurice. "It was reckless and dangerous, but it was all fun."

Celeste's verbal acrobatics and blunt observations are equally engaging live or on paper. She can spin you with her wit. Keep your guard up. TRISHA READY

Celeste Johnson will be a featured reader Sat March 27 at El Zin-o at the Richard Hugo House, and will read again at the April 21st Sketch Club (on "Filthy Lucre"), also at Hugo House.