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By Mary Walling Blackburn, Dorothy Cole, Ann Peterpaul, A. Sampson

AUGUST 16, 1999: 

Fredy Neptune: A Novel in Verse by Les Murray (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), hardcover, $27.50

My house is small, so I give away most of these review copies after I finish them. This one's a keeper. Murray's narrative poetry is easier to read than most prose, and certainly moves faster. The form serves as shorthand for what could have been a long, unwieldy saga in prose. Trimmed of the unnecessary baggage of setting and explanation, it's a fictional piece of oral history. A poet constructs sentences and phrases according to speech patterns and lyrical rhythms, and that's exactly how this book is written.

The story runs from a little before the beginning of World War I to a little after the end of World War II. The narrator is Fred Boettcher, a hyphenated Australian whose childhood language is German. As if being a German-speaking subject of the British crown isn't complicated enough, Fred develops leprosy while roaming the Eastern Mediterranean and eventually loses tactile sensation throughout his body. With the numbness comes phenomenal strength; our hero reckons it's because he can't feel the strain on his muscles.

Fred (a.k.a. Friedrich, F.W. Beecher, and Fredy Neptune the strongman, among others) may be numb, but he has feelings. He encounters some of the most horrifying events of this century and manages to be present for some of the best-known. Always trying to return to his family in Australia, he sails all seven seas, appears as an extra in Hollywood movies, and rescues a retarded teenager from castration in Hitler's Germany. And that's before breakfast.

Physically, he is largely uninjured by the violence that surrounds him, but he remembers everything and takes it all very much to heart. He goes everywhere and does everything, but rarely in first class. Instead, he finds out what trench warfare is like for the soldier at the bottom, what riding the rails is like for a starving hobo, and what welfare is like for the landless. He handles his forays into society with irony and his frequent descents with humor.

Get over your fear of long poems. Read this.

The Emerald City and Other Essays on the Architectural Imagination by Daniel Willis (Princeton Architectural), hardcover, $19.95

Architect and professor Daniel Willis is a romantic softie, so to speak, splicing his academic-speak with whimsical examples of real and imagined architecture (Christmas trees, Christo sculptures, claptrap gypsy dwellings and the Emerald City of Oz) and literary and musical references (ranging from Milan Kundera and the I Ching to Peter Gabriel). Willis does not choose these examples simply to amuse. He has an agenda, and it infiltrates each essay.

According to Willis, architecture and her posse of yes-man architects should examine what it means to dwell rather than simply to be housed. We should utilize construction materials that have an emotional history, and we should temper our fascination with technology. Willis calls for a world where "a building must not be reduced to its lowest common economy-driven denominator." Is this possible in a country that graciously accepts fake wood paneling, silicone breasts and cell phones? We love the Emerald City and its glimmering, money-colored spires. Therefore, it is debatable whether a majority of people would choose to return to gray, tornado-strewn Kansas -- where the breasts are real and a party-line telephone reigns -- for more than a weekend back-to-nature retreat.

Is Willis simply dreaming when he calls for an architecture that honors ritual and promotes conviviality? Does he grant architecture too much importance in the lives of people-who-are-not-architects when he proposes that a return to "meaningful" architecture will return meaning to our hectic and detached modern lives? Don't people always create meaning when and where they need it, be it a birth, death or cheerleading competition, in a castle, a suburb or the highly transportable yurt? I have seen photographs of people speaking in tongues in fluorescent-lit mobile homes, and seen squabbling, turned off and tuned out couples at the Hagia Sophia. Meaning is not dependent on beautiful, strong architecture, but if Willis' lectures/essays can inspire the proliferation of more beauty and imagination in the constructions around us, I'm all for it.

Stronger in the Broken Places by Sheila Cowing (Sherman Asher), paper, $12

Poems of gentle beauty that resonate within the reader's mind demand to be read more than once to be fully savored, and so it is in this thin book of poetry by Sheila Cowing. At first glance she appears to be skimming the surface or teetering on the edge of personal revelation or discovery, too afraid to jump in. The reader senses a certain stiffness and formality. Upon reading more deeply, some of those frustrating outer layers begin to fall down, and a powerful message, cast in refined and elegant imagery, reveals itself. Such revelations are apparent in "Late Snow": "It's the land in repose. March is at work beneath the snow. The birds of my throat are afraid." Nature is a constant theme, which the poet handles very deftly, in spite of occasional lapses into heavy self-awareness.

The small things in life, such as the smell of an old bread tin, a rain-soaked vegetable garden, or a child singing in a cellar are mused upon in a striking and refreshing way. They are devoid of pedantry or artifice.

A sense of loss and its accompanying confusion are written about so vividly that the poet becomes very accessible. This is one of her main strengths. There is no wallowing in self-pity, or an insurmountable regret for what was. Instead, there is reflection, knowledge and sadness. This can be seen in a few lines from "You and I": "You and I are nearly over, you never knowing under, unruffled." In "On My 60th Birthday," Ms. Cowing speaks of pain: "It's only myself I consume with longing, the way my mother waited for some prince or for her ship to come."

The last poem in this collection is an ode to women -- for keeping memories alive, for passing down beloved simple objects, for nourishing attachments to daughters -- in sum, for keeping alive all the things women share. This is a fitting end -- like the lingering, closing chords of a sonata.

Who's Irish? by Gish Jen (Alfred A. Knopf), hardcover, $22

Due to my rapidly diminishing attention span, I have come to really enjoy reading short stories. These days, I prefer story anthologies over novels, television over films, and sometimes even commercials over regular television programming. Thankfully, the supply of short stories from publishers seems to have increased over the past few years, possibly because writers' attention spans have likewise diminished. Regardless, I have found this development to be a very good thing, and the icing on the cake is books like Who's Irish?

Who's Irish? provides an interesting perspective on the assimilation of Chinese culture in the United States and American culture in China. Jen's short stories sometimes fail to flow gracefully, but this flaw is balanced by an interesting and precise style. This is best demonstrated in the title story, an account of a Chinese immigrant and her American-born daughter. The story illustrates the conflict between the two resulting from the birth of her Chinese-Irish-American granddaugther. In this tale of humor and struggle, the reader receives an intimate portrayal of diversity and the effects of cultural stereotypes. This story is definitely the high point of Who's Irish?, and I hoped that the following stories would continue to chronicle the life of the mean grandmother.

However, the grandmother disappears, only to be replaced by an interesting and sometimes confusing cast of characters. A Chinese-American travelling in China as a "foreign expert" discovers his heritage and some quirks of Chinese culture lost in his American upbringing. His discovery coincides and is incorporated into the trials of a young woman grasping adulthood and the abandonment of her family. Though these are all separate stories, their themes and symbols, primarily dealing with Asian-American life, make this a cohesive collection.

If all short story collections were this good, I would never leave the comfort of my couch. I highly recommend Who's Irish? to anyone even slightly interested in culturally diverse experiences and conditions. These stories show off the author's ability to extract humor from ordinary situations and grasp kindness in ordinary people.

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