By Susanna Clarke
Bloomsbury, 235 pp., $23.95
In the realm of reading, seduction occurs at an early age. There is a strain of British children's literature marked by the solemn conviction that fairies live at the bottom of the garden and might be encountered at any moment. Some young readers find that conviction utterly reasonable and convincing. They grow up to be literary Anglophiles. They know who they are, and will surely come running at the sound of fairy trumpets issuing from this story collection by Susanna Clarke.
Masquerading as an ethnographic anthology edited by an earnest scholar of faerie, these tales, enchanting as they are unnerving, place spell-casting witches and shape-shifting avatars of the supernatural in the historical England of Clarke's best-selling novel, ``Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell." Strange and Norrell even make a cameo appearance in the title story, in which three Regency-era ladies summon sorcery to defeat a more corporeal threat. In ``Mrs Mabb," a determined young woman who could pass for a Jane Austen heroine bravely wrests her bewitched fiancé from the grasp of a fairy queen. Other narratives embellish similarly fanciful plots with eccentric literary flourishes. What saves the project from preciosity is Clarke's mastery of pastiche, her wry wit -- and the complicity of readers still hoping to meet those fairies in the garden.
Water From the Well: Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah
By Anne Roiphe
Morrow, 274 pp., $24.95
As Anne Roiphe reminds us in this affecting meditation, there are no saints in the Old Testament. Biblical time may be a time of miracles, but it is also a time of human beings, of fathers and sons, laborers and kings, warriors and prophets, all of them flawed, all of them fallible. And hovering in the background, sowing the patriarchs' fields, bearing their burdens and their children, are women whose roles, when mentioned at all, seem merely supernumerary.
In fiction and in nonfiction Roiphe has celebrated the common themes in modern women's lives, creating a sisterhood of the imagination. Here she extends that sisterhood backward to embrace the matriarchs of the Hebrew Bible, endowing them with the detailed if idealized emotional lives the biblical scribes denied them. In her sympathetic storytelling they become yearning physical beings who feel the same pain, ambivalence, and mother love that she deems universal among women in all eras, enduring with dignity in societies that have needed them far more than they have honored them.
Insecure at Last: Losing It in Our Security-Obsessed World
By Eve Ensler
Villard, 202 pp., $21.95
``Security check. Security watch. Security clearance. Why has all this focus on security made me feel so much more insecure?" Good question. Although Eve Ensler, or at least her publisher, envisions this book as a confessional memoir offering self-healing assistance, it speaks as well to readers more interested in healing the body politic.
The post-9/11 obsession with insulating ourselves from danger is itself a dangerous illusion, says Ensler, a survivor of abuse in the sanctuary of her own childhood home. To immunize herself against fear, she sought out women placed by circumstance in dreadful peril who rose above their victimization with transcendent courage.
Ensler is a performance artist, not a journalist; she occupies center stage with grim determination throughout these peripatetic vignettes. Here is the author in a burka, braving Taliban enforcers. There she is empathizing with Bosnian refugees, Sri Lankan tsunami victims, poor folks in New Orleans abandoned by FEMA. These women's accounts of horror, heroism, and defiance get muddled with Ensler's personal saga of self-redemption. She nevertheless makes her point about the folly of demanding security in an insecure world. The safest place to be, she says, is in a cage. Is that what we want?
Amanda Heller is a critic and editor who lives in Newton.