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'Theory of Light and Matter,' 'Invisible'

THE THEORY OF LIGHT AND MATTER, by Andrew Porter. Vintage, 180 pp., $14 paper.

In Andrew Porter's stories, things happen. Of course, you say, things happen, but Porter builds his words around them. There is a wavelike movement in each story, a swelling toward the event and an ebbing toward the new future after the event.

In "Hole," the narrator's friend, 11, falls down the hole in the driveway and dies; there's a 13-year-old boy, in "Coyotes," whose angry father makes him watch his mother in mid-infidelity through the window of her office; an exchange student in "Azul" almost dies while in the care of an irresponsible couple.

Porter is more interested in the buildup than he is in the life after; in some cases, the event will lodge, like a splinter, in others' lives. Porter is in it for the backward glance; he believes we might actually be able, if we look hard enough and study small movements, to predict the future.

INVISIBLE, by Hugues de Montalembert. Atria Books, 126 pp., $21.99.

How we underestimate the many forms of violence! In 1978, Hugues de Montalembert interrupted two thugs robbing his apartment. When they saw there was no money, he remembers, their actions turned ugly.

"While I was fighting with the big one," he recalls, "the little one threw paint remover in my face." His eyesight dissolved almost immediately: "By the morning I was blind." During rehabilitation, Montalembert learned new ways of seeing. He describes this process with a beautiful, grace-filled simplicity. After seven months, he felt confident enough to walk alone in the street. He memorizes the textures of Madison Avenue - the curbs, rubber matting in front of the Carlyle Hotel.

And then he began traveling everywhere - Singapore, Jakarta, Bali, Greenland - to "confront myself with a visually violent landscape, to force my brain to see." Memories take on new visual qualities. "At times I am afraid," he writes, "that the memory I have of the visible world will disappear little by little, to be replaced by an abstract universe of sound, smell, and touch." Montalembert believes in destiny. "Invisible" has a purity, a clarity that is inspiring.

THE WAY OF THE WORLD, by Nicolas Bouvier, translated from the French by Robyn Marsack. New York Review Books, 308 pp., $16.95 paper.

Twenty-four in 1953, Nicolas Bouvier and his friend Thierry Vernet took the grand tour of Eastern Europe in a broken-down Fiat. They started in Geneva and headed for the Khyber Pass. "The Way of the World," based on Bouvier's journal entries, was first published in 1985.

Bouvier, a writer and photographer, died in 1998. He was a master traveler, and the tips he offers have not lost their usefulness. "Let me briefly digress on the subject of fear," he writes. "There are such moments in traveling when it arises, and the bread you are chewing sticks in your throat. When you are overtired, or alone for too long, or are let down for a moment after a burst of enthusiasm, it can take you unawares as you turn a corner, like a cold shower."

Or: "I've always kept something absurd to say to myself when things go wrong." Just a phrase, he writes, to make you laugh out loud and disarm the bureaucrats holding your passport. The writing has that delightful courtliness, a sense of space and time and a road stretching out.

THE BEAUTIFUL SOUL OF JOHN WOOLMAN, APOSTLE OF ABOLITION, by Thomas P. Slaughter. Hill & Wang, 450 pp., $22 paper.

John Woolman should be more familiar to us, this remarkable mystical activist, child of Quaker farmers in New Jersey. Woolman was born in 1720. His writings and efforts to abolish slavery, his rejection of greed and consumption and his willingness to live by his principles - refusing to travel on the backs of animals or wear clothing dyed by slaves - earned him the respect of poets and thinkers through the centuries. Woolman's "Journal" was published in 1774 and has been reissued many times since, giving it the longest publishing life (except for the Bible) in American history.

There are a few previously published biographies, but Slaughter's is by far the most comprehensive, including many fascinating passages about Woolman's dreams. Slaughter is clearly interested in Woolman's brand of mysticism; the author walks the line between "hagiography and psychological reductionism," and there is much to learn here about the spiritual culture of the still-New World as well as the spiritual growth of this remarkable man.

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