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Short takes

By Barbara Fisher
Globe Correspondent / August 16, 2009

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THE MOST BEAUTIFUL BOOK IN
THE WORLD: Eight Novellas

By Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt.
Translated from the French by Alison Anderson.
Europa Editions, 192 pp., paperback, $15

There is a surprising sweetness to these stories of redemption and reconciliation. They carry a slight pleasant aftertaste, a lingering hint of delight. The central characters, all women, get more than they deserve or ironically get more than they understand, often by giving more than they know. Their consolations, transformations, unintended gifts, are rewards for them and for a reader as well.

In the title story, women political prisoners in Stalin’s Gulag create a gift of love for their daughters that, in its domestic simplicity, expresses their love and eloquently begs for their forgiveness. Rich, pampered, utterly self-centered “Wanda Winnepeg’’ finds an ingenious and anonymous way to repay her earliest benefactor. Helene, in “A Fine Rainy Day’’ cherishes her beloved dead husband by incorporating his sunny disposition into her own critical nature. By translating him into herself, she holds on to him and at the same time ironically opens herself up to someone new. “Odette Toulemonde,’’ a simple shop assistant with a talent for joy, worships a famous Parisian writer. When he is attacked by critics, she offers her support. By accepting her lessons in happiness, he redeems himself and her.

WHY THIS WORLD:
A Biography of Clarice Lispector

By Benjamin Moser
Oxford, 496 pp., $29.95

Unknown in this country, Clarice Lispector (1920-1977) was respected, revered, and almost worshipped in her own country, Brazil. From the time she was a precocious 21-year-old, she wrote passionately obscure novels (“Near to the Wild Heart,’’ “The Chandelier’’), which were admired and acclaimed for their mysticism, amorality, and philosophical daring. Like other shy, disconnected women of great beauty, she provoked rumors, inspired legends, and invited mystery.

In fact, she was simply protecting her fragile self, straining under the burden of a terrible family history - Jewish parents who fled vicious progroms in the Ukraine and miraculously made it to Brazil. Her grandfather had been murdered; her mother having been raped, was a shattered, almost senseless shell, slowly dying of syphilis; her father was a ruined and despairing man. Despite her feeling that she was not meant for marriage, Clarice wed a well-connected diplomat and traveled with him to Naples, Bern, and Washington. Eventually divorced with two sons (one schizophrenic), she returned to Rio de Janeiro, where she lived alone for the rest of her life, writing her enigmatic novels and sustaining her image as a sacred monster. Benjamin Moser, who has thoroughly researched and elegantly presented the life of this gifted and glamorous woman, seems to have been caught up in her “glacial intensity.’’ This is a very cool and detached performance.

FOLLOWING THE WATER:
A Hydromancer’s Notebook

By David M. Carroll
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 208 pp., $24

David Carroll is a man sensitive both to nature and to language. Here he celebrates his “own holidays, constants within the season’s variables: the Opening of the Water; the Migration of the Mayfly Larvae; . . . the Arrival of the Frogs and Salamanders; the Time of the Spotted Turtles Migrating . . .’’ He is especially drawn to the riparian landscape, that area between the wetlands and the uplands, where his favorite creatures, the turtles, mostly dwell.

With great feeling, he describes the first appearance of the spotted turtles as they emerge from six months of hibernation. Missing legs, feet and tails from recent predatory otter attacks, they gamely move on into the stream. He marvels at the mayfly’s few hours of life, given over entirely to an aerial ballet, a synchronized mating dance. After a year as egg and larva, the mayfly has but one day of adult life. Carroll challenges himself to locate a tree frog, lost in the confusion of scaly tree bark and lichen. “Lichen with eyes’’ is his shorthand for the image of the frog.

As Carroll celebrates, he also mourns. Behind all the wonder is this constant spoken or unspoken worry: “It is all but certain that the increasingly over peopled world will find its way here . . . and will bend it to some human purpose, breaking its bond with time, countermanding its coevolutionary imperative, depleting its biodiversity, and erasing its remarkable natural history.’’

Barbara Fisher is a freelance writer who lives in New York.

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