You don't often see writing like Danielle Sosin's "The Long-Shining Waters" (Milkweed Editions, $24), so infused with an intimate relationship to nature -- certainly not in debut novels. It may be that with nature shrinking away from us, young writers don't often marinate in the sounds, smells, colors and emotions that were once readily available. Whatever the reason, Sosin writes about Lake Superior as if it were a character, a parent, a lover, an enemy. Three stories are linked between the covers of "The Long-Shining Waters": Grey Rabbit, an Ojibwe woman living on the shores of Lake Superior, tries to protect her children from starvation, even as her dream life warns that they will die; Gunnar, a Norwegian fisherman living on the lake in 1902 with his beloved wife, Berit, is haunted by the discovery of a dead man in the water; and Nora, a middle-age woman whose business on the shores burns down, takes a journey around its perimeter. A single thread joins them through time; their stories link in the subconscious like a fable. "Superior should be comprehensible," Gunnar thinks as he reluctantly leaves the body in the lake so as not to frighten Berit. "It's not."
Mary Boykin Chesnut's journals, written in the years leading to and after the Civil War, and the volume she created from them before her death in 1886 -- "Mary Chesnut's Diary" (Penguin Classics, $15 paper) -- have been called the best record that we have of the rise and fall of the Confederacy.
Her writing is both personal and political; as the wife of a South Carolina senator, Chesnut had access to many political and social figures of the day, from presidents to authors. But she was also a keen observer of servants, field slaves and women whose influence on their husbands' decisions was felt but rarely acknowledged. The down side of the book is her barely concealed pettiness and her convoluted racism -- while she acknowledges the brutality of slavery, her arrogance and snobbery are blinding. Her description of parties is downright cinematic -- so precise and detailed is her writing. She is Scarlett O'Hara incarnate, complete with post-Fort Sumter backbone and ridiculous vanity.
The new and selected stories in Melanie Rae Thon's "In This Light" (Graywolf Press, $15 paper) are set in the backwoods, the ominous shacks and dubious main streets of small-town America. Slaves, potato farmers and hardheaded, desperate teenagers people these tales. Violated bodies, nightmarish history -- her words light the path to blame. One by one, Thon takes down authorities -- the fathers, slave owners, rapists who change and destroy lives. Thon is not afraid of the minutiae of damage -- the innards, the fears or the moments of redemption: "Then I was lying in the grass with that boy. Cold stars swirled in the hole of the sky. In the weird silence, bodies mended; bodies became shape and shadow; pieces were found. Flame became pink gasoline guzzled down. Gunfire turned to curse and moan."
Reading was difficult for Lila Azam Zanganeh, until she found Nabokov. Through Nabokov, she learned the art of happiness and the art of reading and the art of ecstasy. "We read to reenchant the world. . . . Deciphering, trudging into unknown regions, making one's way through an intricate atlas of sentences, startling darkness, unfamiliar flora and fauna." In "The Enchanter: Nabokov and Happiness" (W.W. Norton & Co., $23.95), the author leads us through the work and life of her favorite author. It is a contagion of happiness, a landscape of luminous discovery. She writes in flashes, like a camera lens opening and closing. Here's Nabokov in pursuit of butterflies; Nabokov on the Swiss Riviera; Nabokov playing tennis on a "tawny court" surrounded by pine trees in a Russian summer in 1910.
Like the character in Nabokov's novel "The Gift," Azam Zanganeh crafts a practical handbook in one section: "How to Be Happy." She looks at various kinds of happiness found in Nabokov's work: unnatural and natural happiness, particles of happiness, happiness through the looking glass, the use of words to create happiness (the reader swallows them one at a time); words such as "cochlea," "conolorous," "gloaming" and "fritillary."
At times, one feels helpless and transported, led by the hand (two hands -- Azam Zanganeh's and Nabokov's) to a very strange and glittering place.
A photograph of Nabokov closing in on a butterfly with a net the size of a full moon says it all.