A GESTURE LIFE

by Chang-rae Lee

(Riverhead Books) $23.95

Franklin Hata -- a graceful, aging Japanese American affectionately called "Doc" for his medical supply business -- lives in an affluent suburb called Bedley Run. Virtuous and accommodating, Doc takes a lengthy daily walk through the township, upon which no person can refuse a "hello," and a wave or smile -- gestures of kindness and respect that the good Franklin Hata treasures. No one in town knows that Doc Hata is lonely; that his decent, ordered, and unassuming life is quietly falling apart.

Apparent throughout Chang-rae Lee's gorgeous second novel is that no one knows who this strange and wonderful man is at all. His has been a life of gesture, informed by a compulsion for order and appropriateness, which stems from an inability to forgive himself for mistakes he has made in his "dark" past. However, Franklin's resulting self-restraint has created further difficulty for him, including the loss of a lover who can't bear his resistance to affection, and his daughter, who never felt wanted.

As in any complete story about a man's interior, Franklin's memories come back to haunt him. A set of events breaks the emotional ice: His estranged daughter moves to a nearby town with her young son, and doesn't call. Franklin accidentally starts a fire, injures his lungs, and nearly burns down the beautiful home he has spent years cultivating with pride.

We are transported by Hata's memory, through a series of strategically placed flashbacks, to WWII and his tragic love affair with a beautiful Japanese "comfort woman," too spirited to suffer the same fate as the others. The horrifying memory is indelible, as is Franklin's story of it, which will not easily be forgotten by any reader in possession of a soul.

This book is nothing short of a humble masterpiece, written in lucid, poetic prose. Lee's rhythmic voice is noticeably controlled, even as it slyly mounts pressure and tension, to allow for a truly heartbreaking climax. Chang-rae Lee reads Thurs Sept 16 at Elliott Bay, 101 S Main St, 624-6600, 7:30 pm, free. JEFF DeROCHE

PUNK ROCK: SO WHAT?

edited by Roger Sabin

(Routledge) $22.99

Jus' what we NEEDS... another fuggin' book 'bout '70s "punk"! Well... but, like... this ain't the usual redundant, chronological "who goosed the golden egg -- L.A., NYC, 'r London?" crap; rather it's a collection of essays intended to present a serious study o' the long term cultural impact o' '70s "punk," and how its history has often been rewritten by well-intended critics 'n' evil pop media. Good... the "kids" can always use smarter sources... like, less fashion photos 'n' mo' ideas/facts, as it seems most "punks" nowadays are VERY... misdirected.

Right. Well, generally, I was entertained by the anecdotes 'n' ideas, as So What is full of differin' viewpoints and personal recollections. However, I felt mosta the text was OVERWRITTEN, readin' like a heavy-handed art historian's graduate thesis, a patented first-class ticket to SNORESVILLE. So, maybe a mo' "punk-" er, "layman"-friendly edit shoulda been considered, but not no "sanctioned by U.S. public schools," dumbed-down version. My problem with the smartypants approach is it may alienate yer standard issue "punker," and who in the fuck else'd buy this book? The ideas presented here for "rethinkin'" 'r built with such mightiness the POINT might easily fly over the heads o' the "kids," buddin' "punks," who at THIS moment are MOST affected by '70s "punk." But with any rewrite, this "scholarly" book might jus' be wrongfully considered another wasteful pop cash-in. And cashin' in... welp, that ain't punk... is it? MIKE NIPPER


LOST AND FOUND

THE HOUSE OF BREATH

by William Goyen

(Triquarterly) $15.95

There are a lot of great books that totally flop when they come out. Stupid reviewers don't get them and unadventurous readers don't buy them, and they suffer a sad, quiet commercial demise. But they don't completely die, because a few curious readers find them and become fanatic about them and press them on their friends, and then several years later they are reissued as underrated classics. That's been the fate of William Goyen's breathtakingly beautiful first novel, The House of Breath, originally published in 1950, then reissued, slightly revised, by Random House in 1975, and now re-reissued by Triquarterly. The current reissue restores erotically daring parts of the text that had been dropped from the 1975 version. I first read that version after a fanatic reader friend of mine told me to. I remember feeling woozy, on the verge of some weird kind of ecstasy or recognition when I read the opening:

"...and then I walked and walked in the rain that turned half into snow and I was drenched and frozen; and walked upon a part that seemed like the very pasture of Hell where there were couples whispering in the shadows, all in some plot to warm the world tonight, and I went into a public place and saw annunciations drawn and written on the walls. I came out and felt alone and lost in the world with no home to go home to and felt robbed of everything I never had but dreamt of and hoped to have."

Readers who dream of lush prose, sweaty content, and spiritual yearning to beat the band should read The House of Breath. It is a sustained lyric exploration of home, belonging, the body, language, and love, and it's one of the great American books of the second half of the century. REBECCA BROWN

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