This Week's Reads

David Bezmozgis, Erin McGraw, and Ben Macintyre.

Natasha: And Other Stories

By David Bezmozgis (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $18) If you're going to beat the shit out of a classmate at Hebrew school, make sure the rabbi isn't watching, and make doubly sure it isn't Holocaust Remembrance Day. Unfortunately, nobody gives seventh- grader Mark Berman such advice. He's a Jew straight out of Riga, an émigré to godless '80s Toronto, fresh off the boat. In "An Animal to the Memory," one of seven stories in 31-year-old Russian-Jewish- Canadian author David Bezmozgis' debut collection, young Berman is simultaneously moved by the Holocaust ceremony and peeved by a taunt. "What are you looking at, ass face?" a bully hectors. Berman goes for the throat, then suffers the rabbi's reproach for his violent streak—he's stooping to the level of Nazis, he's told. Remorseful tears follow. "Now maybe you understand what it is to be a Jew," the rabbi concludes. It's not as simple as that, although Natasha first strikes the reader as a slim, simple, autobiographical batch of stories. You can read them as the capsule history of the Berman—or Bezmozgis—family and its uneasy, unsuccessful, unresolved assimilation into the West. The streets aren't paved with gold for these refugees from the last tubercular coughs of the Cold War era; instead, the Western embrace is poisonous and corrupting. Safe, predictable Soviet persecution is traded for baffling, random abuses of freedom. The Berman clan is given license to fail and misbehave more spectacularly than it ever did back in Latvia. In other stories, a slightly older Mark embarks on a quasi-incestuous rec-room sexual tutorial with his 14-year-old cousin-in-law, Natasha; his father attempts a dismal career as a masseuse; and a visiting Russian superstar athlete (real-life weight lifter Sergei Federenko) comes up short in the clean-and-jerk. If you want still more pathos, an innocent dog is killed. New suffering provokes nostalgia for old suffering. Yet throughout these stories of woe, Bezmozgis' first-person narration never succumbs to self-pity. Each catastrophe comes as a kind of half-absorbed lesson. Berman undergoes an unsentimental education in this strange new land. As he veers toward adult understanding and resignation, he's no longer so likely to lash out at those who might have troubled or tormented his parents. A KGB minder for once-mighty Federenko is to be pitied, not feared, for his need for Western dental care—obtained samizdat and after hours, of course, and chased with a bottle of vodka. Two old Jews living together in a subsidized apartment, probably but not necessarily gay, are treated with dignity, not contempt. Losing a lover to a drug dealer, Rufus, is neither a tragedy nor an occasion for vengeance for 16-year-old Berman. Instead it is "the end of my subterranean life," he muses. "In another country under another code, it would have been my duty to return to Rufus's with a gun." By this time, Berman is a long way from juvenile Hebrew-school fisticuffs or petty revenge. He's no longer so touchy or violent as the oppressive old country would dictate. By dropping her drawers so freely, cousin Natasha has helped guide him into the West, where liberty brings a whole new set of shackles of its own. BRIAN MILLER The Good Life: Stories

By Erin McGraw (Mariner, $12) Erin McGraw's third collection of short stories is not, as the title might suggest, some archly sarcastic exposé of WASPy malcontents, its Ralph Lauren–ad stand-ins avoiding one another's gazes as the ice melts in their afternoon highballs. Instead, the figures in her poignant, expertly composed snapshots are all decidedly ordinary people: restless retirees, mediocre ballet dancers, overeating priests—even (bang the irony gong, please) a miserable, adulterous self-help author. In nearly all of these 11 stories, McGraw (Lies of the Saints) infiltrates the inner lives of characters just when they're realizing—sometimes with an startling jolt, other times with hapless resignation—that the things they had once dreamed of for themselves have either failed to pass or failed to manifest in quite the way they feel they ought to have. The graying boomer protagonist of "A Whole New Man" has the straggly ponytail and baggy-seated corduroys to match his Aquarius Age ideals; and though his teenage children deride his hopeless retroisms, he believes he has a true partner and ally in his wife—until a television makeover show reveals otherwise. In "The Beautiful Tennessee Waltz," a sarcastic young woman abhors the treacly New Ageisms of a friend's supposedly insufferable husband; when the cracks in her own marriage begin to show, however, she's forced to reconsider her scorn. Aside from a particular emphasis on the Catholic faith and the priesthood, McGraw mines much of the same fictional territory as Lorrie Moore and Jonathan Franzen. Though she's not quite the master of the form that Moore is, at least half these stories show a true gift for creating resonance from seemingly insignificant moments, and that's no small thing. LEAH GREENBLATT The Man Who Would Be King: The First American in Afghanistan

By Ben Macintyre (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25) In the pantheon of 19th-century American folk heroes, none may be more thoroughly forgotten today, or more worth recalling in this era of imperialist wanna-bes, than Josiah Harlan. Born a Quaker in 1799 and raised a Freemason, Harlan fled a failed romance and faked his way into service as a surgeon with the British East India Company. After participating in a military invasion of Burma, Harlan—full of hubris and hungry to follow in the footsteps of Alexander the Great—turned soldier of fortune, agreeing to help a deposed and exiled Afghan king, Shah Shujah al-Moolk, regain his throne. In exchange, Shujah would make Harlan his vizier, the effective ruler of his kingdom. So, with this royal endorsement, Harlan set off from India in 1827 at the head of a motley army, bound for Kabul. Sound familiar? It's probably because Rudyard Kipling reportedly used Harlan's tale as the basis for his 1888 short story "The Man Who Would Be King," which John Huston turned into a movie (starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine) in 1975. But when journalist Ben Macintyre, who'd covered Afghanistan for the London Times from 1989 to '91, set out to learn the truth about Harlan—ultimately unearthing this empire builder's long-lost memoir—he realized that not even the expanse of Kipling's prose could accommodate the extraordinariness of Harlan's life. The Kabul expedition was cut short when Harlan realized he was short of firepower. Instead he ingratiated himself with the devotedly debauched maharajah of Punjab, for whom he served as a military adviser and district governor, before being expelled for allegedly counterfeiting money from alchemized gold. Harlan later led (on elephant-back, no less) an army against a refractory warlord in northern Afghanistan and was just about to make that region his personal principality when British expeditionary forces foiled his plans. Disheartened, Harlan retreated to the States, married, sought to introduce camels into the American West, led a mutinous regiment during the Civil War, and finally returned to doctoring, this time in San Francisco, where he died in 1871, unmourned. The Man Who Would Be King is a challenging read at times, with too many similarly named characters and a redundancy of political intrigues (which often result in the losers relinquishing vital body parts). And Macintyre quotes rather too liberally from Harlan's flowery journal. Yet this remains an absorbing and exotic adventure. Macintyre, whose taste for historic eccentrics already produced The Napoleon of Crime (1997), is no jaded biographer. Thank goodness, for The Man Who Would Be King wouldn't be half as good were it not told with a wide-eyed amazement at the scope of it all. J. KINGSTON PIERCE

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