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The Boston Phoenix Bedtime Stories

Fiction to snuggle up with on a winter's night

By Michael Bronski

DECEMBER 13, 1999:  Rewarding fiction, like rewarding sex, has three salient qualities: it fully engages the emotions, it makes us want more, and it takes place in bed. Well, interesting sex often happens in places other than a bed, and so do interesting stories. But, often as not, reading in bed is as wonderful as anything else that might take place there. And on those long, cold winter evenings just around the corner, the joys of snuggling up with an engrossing novel might just be the thing to get you through the night. Here, then, is a list of eight of the year's most entertaining works of fiction (at least according to me). They'd make perfect gifts for people who view their mattresses as gateways to the pleasures of the mind as well as the body.

Losing yourself in a massive, densely populated alternative universe is one of the most gratifying and delectable reading experiences, and 1999 offered abundant opportunity. Ernesto Mestre's The Lazarus Rumba (Picador) has been compared to the writing of Gabriel García Márquez and even James Joyce, but it is unique unto itself. A startling mixture of magical and socialist realism, it is nothing less than a tour through the subconscious of the Cuban revolution. Dreams, magic, stories within stories, and hard-hitting politics give this debut novel gravity, scope, and potency.

If Mestre's book pays little attention to the traditional niceties of time and space, Sarah Waters's Tipping the Velvet (Riverhead) observes them scrupulously. Crammed with historical, psychological, and sexual detail, this novel explores the lesbian subculture of Victorian London's music halls and underground clubs. It dazzles and tantalizes as its heroine makes her way through society high and low, at one point passing herself off as a male prostitute. It's a cross between a lesbian Fanny Hill and a transvestite David Copperfield.

Allusions to the literary canon are more explicit in Sena Jeter Naslund's Ahab's Wife: Or, the Star Gazer (Morrow). Naslund's vibrant and unnervingly moving epic is not just a feminist re-telling of Moby Dick but a disquisition on the lives, cultures, and thought of 19th-century women. Alternately a faithful re-creation of the 19th-century American novel and a brilliant parody of it, Ahab's Wife is an extraordinary achievement.

Women's lives are also at the center of new novels about contemporary life. Louise Redd's Hangover Soup (Little, Brown) is a frighteningly funny examination of the honors and horrors of human relationships. Narrator Faith Evers leaves her alcoholic husband and is almost won back when he becomes sober, but both are faced with tragedy after he kills someone while driving drunk on a binge triggered when he discovers she's had an affair. Redd writes with steely humor, a sense of fate's ironies, and a gift for moving us in surprising and quirky ways.

In Marilyn Sides's The Genius of Affection (Harmony), a middle-aged Boston-based academic named Lucy Woolhandler struggles with similarly difficult relationships. Lucy desperately wants a child, but she's caught between a stable lover who wants no children and an idealized lover who won't leave his wife. What might have been nothing but an upscale soap opera is transformed by Sides's engagingly contemplative style into a powerful and penetrating look at the fragility of human desire.

Sexual culture clashes fuel two radically different novels. Richard Setlowe's The Sexual Occupation of Japan (HarperCollins), a fast-paced industrial thriller set in Tokyo, features sexual secrets, the Yakuza, and the looming memory of US foreign policy. Peter Saxon, a lawyer for an American multinational communications company that's merging with a Japanese company, suspects that Michiko Hara, the wife of one of the Japanese negotiators, is the ex-lover and former prostitute he knew during the Vietnam War. East meets West on any number of levels as sexual intrigue, corporate politics, and international gang warfare blend into a compelling and psychologically astute thriller.

The clash that fuels The Life of High Countess Gritta Von Ratsinourhouse (University of Nebraska Press), by Bettine von Arnim and Gisela von Arnim Grimm (translated from the German by Lis Ohm),
is no less compelling. This fanciful, ferocious fairy tale, only now available in English, was written in the early 1840s as a mother-daughter collaboration. Part gothic adventure, part pointed critique of German education for women, it recounts how seven-year-old Young High Countess Gritta leads her female schoolmates out of their convent-school prison to an idyllic, utopian island where they live in complete freedom amid elves and dancing rats. Like many fairy tales, it is simultaneously charming and distressing (not surprisingly, daughter Gisela married the son of one of the Brothers Grimm). It reflects everyday human experience through the fantastic and the imaginative.

Not all novels -- or books that read like novels -- are labeled as such. Although Dashiell Hammett's Nightmare Town (Knopf) is billed as a collection of long-unavailable stories by the famous crime writer, it reads like a postmodern fictional examination of his career and themes. Sam Spade is here, as is the Continental Op, along with a new detective -- "A Man Named Thin," who writes poetry while solving crimes. These 20 stories are not Hammett's best, and individually they have small and large flaws. But read as a whole -- and even second-rate Hammett is eminently readable -- they form a kaleidoscopic novel of hard-boiled tough-guy exhilaration.

So as the winter chill descends, plan to curl up in bed with a good book. Or with someone who is happy to read one to you.

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