This Week's Reads

Ian Jack, Simon Winchester, and Diana Abu-Jaber.


Talk about pressure. The 20 writers canonized in Granta 81: Best of Young British Novelists 2003 (Granta, $14.95), selected by Ian Jack, have got a lot to live up to. Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, and others made the cut in 1983. In 1993, Kazuo Ishiguro (a repeat), Will Self, Hanif Kureishi, and others were so honoredor so burdened. What if nothing comes after that breakthrough first novel or audacious story collection? Ten years later, 10 years older, and there's a new group of runny-nosed youngsters to make you feel like even more of a has-been. I mean, Will Self? What's he done lately? (Other than giving up smack, if you believe that.) This year, Alan Warner doesn't need much of a boost after Morvern Callar. The excerpt here from his in-progress novel, The Costa Pool Bums, also suggests a spirit of larkish irresponsibility, that all life's problems can be solvedor at least avoidedwith more drink, more plane flights, more sensation and motion. I just wonder if its protagonists will end up any wiser, or less blank, than Morvern. Nicola Barker takes all sorts of liberties with punctuation (ooh, how transgressive!). Andrew O'Hagan's extract from the forthcoming novel Personality is solid, well-wrought, and dull. I like how Toby Litt's story "The Hare," in which the narrator becomes a bunny rabbit, transports the reader through an "improvised Victorian" style of language, not just by resorting to another airplane ticket, like Warner. David Mitchell's "The January Man" nicely evokes an '80s boyhood, with references to New Romantic bands like the Human League and the pleasure of peeing in the snow. You want to read further based on chapters from Susan Elderkin ("The Clangers"), David Peace ("Here We Go"), and A.L. Kennedy ("Room 536"). As for Ben Rice's "Look at Me, I'm Beautiful!"in which a man must choose between his koi-pond carp and his wifeit's very, very funny. I make no predictions for the rest. Kennedy was also on the '93 list, which, frankly, was weaker than '83. Are under-40 novelists in decline? Or is fiction slowly ebbing away? Founded by Bill Buford (now at The New Yorker), Granta has always been stronger in its nonfiction (or "reportage"), I think. This Young Brits compilation feels like a bit of a sop, a nod to a dying art, maybe. But it's also a useful reader's guide for the year ahead: You can bend back pages, then search for future publication dates. In 10 years, you may even feel nostalgic about your discoveries. By then, however, some of those discovered may be feeling downright bitter about their fate. Brian Miller Ian Jack, Susan Elderkin, Andrew O'Hagan, and Alan Warner, will read at University of Washington (Kane Hall, Room 110, 206-634-3400; tickets required), 7 p.m. Wed., April 30. THE BIG BLOW-UP

"I am convinced that the Day of Judgment has come."

So fretted a British naval captain in the summer of 1883, as he and his ship were surprised off the coast of Sumatra by monstrous wavessome more than 100 feet highproduced by volcanic eruptions on the island of Krakatoa, less than 50 miles away. As Simon Winchester records in his captivating history, Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883 (HarperCollins, $25.95), over the course of 21 hours, that island self-destructed with a violence that hurled most of its 15 square miles of rock, including its 2,600-foot main peak, into the sky. (For the record, Krakatoa is located in Indonesia's Sunda Strait, west of Javacontrary to the 1969 melodrama Krakatoa, East of Java.) More than 36,000 people were killed, mostly by subsequent tsunamis. The roar of Krakatoa's death throes was heard almost 3,000 miles away, and the resultant ash cloud lowered temperatures around the world. It was, writes Winchester, "the most devastating volcanic event in modern recorded human history." That this blast was recorded is significant. Although Winchester, best known for his 1998 book, The Professor and the Madman, devotes much of this new work to the pyrotechnics that reduced Krakatoa to a 1,000-foot hole in the ocean floor, he first addresses Indonesian history, the science of plate tectonics, and the development of news services that could quickly spread word of the catastrophe. It was partly as a result of this coverage (plus the death toll) that the eruption of Krakatoa is so familiar, even 120 years later, while those of much larger volcanoesincluding Alaska's Novarupta (Katmai), which exploded in 1912have become the obscure province of Jeopardy! contestants. What's more, Krakatoa's history isn't over: Another volcanic island is now growing in exactly the same spot, at 20 feet a year. The explosion that occurred in 1883 will, Winchester warns, "one day repeat itself, and in precisely the same way." J. Kingston Pierce Simon Winchester will read at the University of Washington (Kane Hall, Room 120, 206-634-3400; tickets required), 7 p.m. Tues., May 6. STORYTELLING

"I used to read about Baghdad in the Arabian Nights," says one of the few characters not of Middle Eastern descent in Diana Abu-Jaber's Crescent (Norton, $24.95). "It was all magic and adventurers. I thought that's what it was like there. And when I got older, Baghdad turned into the stuff about war and bombsthe place on the TV set." While such enchanted notions of Iraq's capital are even less likely these days, Abu-Jaber's second novel certainly fosters romantic ideas about "Irangeles," the Persian American and Arab American community in L.A. where much of Crescent takes place. At the heart of this close-knit but diverse community and the Portland author's food-centric novel is Nadia's Cafe. As she stands tending to her rich, fragrant specialties, Sirine, the cafe's modest and beautiful green-eyed Iraqi American chef, daydreams about Hanif Al Eyad, a linguistics professor and poetry translator from nearby UCLA. Intertwined with the romantic fantasies that Sirine barely allows to blossom are the harrowing photographs taken by one of Hanif's university colleagues, news of Saddam Hussein's rising regime, and the shadowy, ancient fables that her wise uncle relates to her. Orphaned at 9, Sirine has been in the company of this doting, imaginative storyteller for over 30 years; her uncle's magical tales of an escaped Arab slave form an illuminating counternarrative to the burgeoning story of Sirine, the reserved chef, and Hanif, the exiled intellectual. Although her uncle tells Sirine that the secret of storytelling is to never tell the entire tale, Abu-Jaber comes very close in Crescent. Of course, the author had a book to selland an American romance-novel audience to please. Yet Crescent also leads within. The more Hanif and Sirine uncover about each other, they more they discover about themselves. Ultimately, the bitter flavors of exile and displacement complement the sweetness of their affair. Even when Abu-Jaber seems to be stirring several pots at once, the complexity of the meal is never distracting. Laura Cassidy Diana Abu-Jaber will read at Elliott Bay Books (101 S. Main St., 206-624-6600), 7:30 p.m. Tues., May 6.

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