by Lydia Minatoya
(Simon & Schuster) $23

Seattle author Lydia Minatoya understands that paper can be as seductive a fuel as poppies. Etsuko Sone, the narrator of Minatoya's new novel, The Strangeness of Beauty, says, "Perhaps for many Japanese, autobiographical fiction writing is life. We are a people expected to complement, to harmonize, to anticipate one another's needs. All without a single spoken clue."

It is wilting, then, to see Minatoya speak so many clues in The Strangeness of Beauty. Etsuko Sone's "I-story"--as she calls her first-person narrative--opens in Seattle in 1922. She has followed her husband to America, where he has abandoned her via death. Etsuko's sister dies in childbirth soon after emigrating, and Etsuko finds herself raising her sister's child, Hanae. But Hanae's father decides it would be better for the girl to be educated in Japan, and Etsuko must travel to a country on the brink of war, to live with a mother by whom she was abandoned, adrift in a culture in which she no longer fits.

These are compelling elements, bits of beauty like haiku. And like haiku, Japanese novels bring together unexpected juxtapositions, "too much like the living of a life," Etsuko complains. "You have to work for your wisdom, panning an endless stream of banalities for the tiniest flickers of truth." Instead, Etsuko claims to prefer Western fiction: "It seems so tidy and cunning. Like a well-hurled javelin, the story soars upward.... It stands in sharp contradiction to the shape of my life."

This would be true if the book convinced us that Etsuko's life was real. But awash in the banalities streaming through Strangeness, the truths Minatoya hurls are as dull and jarring as rocks--psychological wash-ups like "Pay the price. But always choose passion." In the end, Etsuko's story is a strange and inert hybrid of Japanese and American storytelling, never quite kindled by the chemical promise of its elements. Lydia Minatoya reads Fri June 11, 7:30 pm, Elliott Bay Books, 101 S Main St, 624-6600, free. TRACI VOGEL

by J.G. Ballard
(Farrar Straus Giroux) $10

J.G. Ballard is a moralist trafficking in perversions of a distinctly British aspect--his literary output is as dry, desperate, and heavily signified as a crumpet eaten at ground zero. Ballard's utilitarian twistedness services themes so bloodless and abstract that his fiction sometimes displays an icy-hot, Unabomber-like fury at modern civilization.

To wit, Ballard's concerns are alarmingly apocalyptic. Like fellow millennarians DeLillo, Burroughs, and Kaczynski, Ballard delivers prose that is uneven and inconstant, outstanding and insufferable by turns; it is ultimately the weight of his worry which makes him important. As a means to The End, Ballard often infuses well-worn genres with mordant satire, taking on timely issues of social decay via formal innovation and a chastising atavism.

The re-release of Running Wild (first published in 1988) is timely and chastising indeed. This novella, masquerading as a murder mystery, is quite un-mysterious but terribly portentous: it describes an investigation into a ritualistic massacre, as documented in the forensic diary of Dr. Richard Greville. Greville, a sort of Anglicized Philip Marlowe, is sent by the Home Office to Pangbourne Village, where 32 wealthy adults have been inventively slain and their 13 well-adjusted children have vanished into thin air. I won't ruin anything by telling you the kids did it--it's not the who but the why that's critical. It's a creepy story, rendered in a delightful deadpan prose with ample if somewhat hackneyed twists. Too bad Ballard chumps at the finish line, opting to dwell on the how in a sadistic play-by-play which, one assumes, is intended to amplify the conditioned cunning of the spoiled richies. All it reveals, rather pointlessly, is Ballard's penchant for military strategizing and fondness for homicidal gadgetry. RICK LEVIN

edited by Cara Greenberg
(Bulfinch Press) $40

If you lived through the '60s or '70s, and currently live in the '90s, you may find yourself confused as you peruse magazines like Wallpaper, or read glowing articles about Palm Springs architecture and retro-modern hotels like the Standard in L.A. (both featured in this month's Vanity Fair). Wasn't this stuff ugly, cheap, and lurid? How have tastes so quickly returned to polyester and plastic furniture, bright colors and bold prints? A glance through Op to Pop, a glossy, cheap-looking coffee table book with very little text and 250 period photographs, offers some clues.

For starters, everything does look ugly, cheap, and lurid. These qualities may be exacerbated by the relatively primitive state of color photography and printing when most of this book's images were made. In fact, the overall look of Op to Pop is the equivalent of a Technicolor movie. But it's obvious that the recent resuscitation of this period's style has been, as most revivals are, selective. Missing from the current evocation are the shag carpets and 3-D wall hangings, the macramé coverlets and fluorescent lighting, and the bold single-color rooms (particularly orange) that frequently pop up in Op to Pop.

It becomes clear that the current modern revival is a hodge-podge of historical styles--furniture from the '60s set in architecture of the '30s, with '90s lighting, '70s clothing, '30s textiles, and '90s hairstyles. For the sake of the modern-antiques market and the health of our new aestheticians, books like Op to Pop--which drain the chicness from currently hot furniture by showing it in too-authentic context--must surely be suppressed. If you want to repeat history, better start by forgetting it. ERIC FREDERICKSEN

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