Simon Van Booy writes some of the most haunting and lyrical prose you’ll find in fiction today. He evokes the pain of grief as “a country where it rains and rains but nothing grows,” as vividly as he does the faux Venice of a Las Vegas casino or the rainy hills of Ireland. While the five stories in Love Begins In Winter (Harper Perennial, $13.99) dramatize love in its various forms from ferocious to tender, his true focus is the vulnerable, pure-hearted child in all of us. “Isn’t everything something from childhood?” he asks, and his stories register the lasting truth of our first impressions of love and loss, of joy and isolation. Like the fiction in his beautiful first book, The Secret Lives of People in Love, these stories glow with the melancholy of foreign art films and wet roads that “reflect the world with a beautiful inaccuracy”—only Van Booy’s reflections are both beautiful and dead on.
Cynthia Ozick is a meticulous writer, and her latest fiction is the bounty of a long life of careful reading, deep thought, natural wit, and a relish of all things human, from foibles to manners to graver questions of history, religion, and language. All this—and more—figures in Dictation: A Quartet (Mariner, $13.95) of novellas. Different from one another in tone and subject, these stories range from a tour de force of historic fiction, premised on a friendship between the assistants to Henry James and Joseph Conrad; to a New York theatre’s revival of a Yiddish play and an old man’s rage; to a marriage of mercy between a pregnant maid and a visiting journalist in Mussolini’s Italy; to a family mystery involving a universal language to rival Esperanto.
A man of Enlightenment rigor and Romantic sensibility, Thomas Bewick (1753-1828) drew animals from life, accurate in every detail of every feather. Yet he also captured the attitude and idiosyncrasies of his subjects. Truly Nature’s Engraver (Univ. of Chicago, $18), he had as sharp an eye for village life, and his witty vignettes of fishermen, travelers, laundresses, and children show his expertise as an engraver of human nature. Illustrated with scores of prints from Bewick’s History of Quadrupeds, History of British Birds, and his edition of Aesop’s Fables, Jenny Uglow’s masterful and beautiful life of the printer portrays his times as well. Uglow is a knowledgeable and engaging guide to the unsettled politics of the era, the apprentice system, the business end of Bewick’s engraving workshop, the tools and techniques of woodblock printing, and the way Bewick revived a fading craft so thoroughly he turned it into an art.