Divisadero

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by Michael Ondaatje

(Knopf) $25

Michael Ondaatje is often criticized because his characters don't connect—nor are his endings tidy. Everyone agrees he writes so beautifully you want to weep, but then the big payoff scenes—where characters confront each other and have that big, emotional, heartfelt moment—never arrive. But what if we think of Ondaatje as a non-Western writer? He uses European and American settings, but at his core, he's not Western. While being an Eastern writer is rather a broad thing, in Ondaatje it seems to mean that the focus is not on great emotion itself, but on what lies nearby in space and time. He writes meditations on the life surrounding a fall from grace.

Divisadero has Ondaatje's usual distances between people. These spaces fit so well with the open farmland of Northern California, where the story is set, it's creepy. Yet readers might notice that the main characters—foster sisters Anna and Claire, and their father's foundling and hired hand, Coop—never stare out over sweeping vistas and sort of contemplate things the way people do in stories about ranches. The spaces that confound them lie both between people and within. "We have become unintelligible in our secrets, governed by our previous selves," Anna says. And the three never have any revelations that help.

Anna doesn't see her family again after her father beats Coop savagely. She runs away, so keen to forget her past life that she won't even admit she speaks English. Coop becomes a gambler. Anna pursues French literary scholarship abroad and Claire works in a San Francisco public defender's office. Readers complain about the foggy meanderings in Ondaatje's books, but what if the fog is the point? In life, people mostly don't connect. Divisadero flows like liquid silver and, goddamnit, Claire, Anna, and Coop make you love them. Laurel Maury

Burning Man: Art in the Desert

by A. Leo Nash

(Abrams) $29.95

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I've wanted to go to Burning Man to see the collaborative art installations stationed on the otherworldly salt flats, but I don't like to camp. I've heard how the monochromatic landscape of the playa beautifully backdrops massive pyres, vivid temples, ornate monuments, and fire-breathing contraptions. I picked up the hefty Burning Man: Art in the Desert—with its cover photo of a box of gritty, salt-crusted matches and tiny tools—because it holds the promise of a tour sans dehydrating heat and dust and pooping in a bucket.

But the photographs inside are black and white, often underexposed, and devoid of drama. The playa looks still and industrial rather than vital. The writing is informative enough, especially the heavily researched history section, but the amateur design and uninspiring photographs earn it a failing grade even as a coffee-table book. AMY KATE HORN