- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 23, 2001

Celebrated for her inventiveness and seamless prose style, Maureen Howard, National Book Critics Circle Award and Pen/Faulkner Award nominee, now offers Big as Life: Three Tales for Spring (Viking, $23.95, 225 pages).

Her 1998 novel, "A Lover's Almanac," was the first in a fiction series based on the four seasons. "Big as Life " is the second and includes three long and meticulously crafted stories that mark the arrival of spring.
In "Children with Matches," a female historian, confounded by the circumstances of her life, learns from the past and takes her cue from a doomed princess who doesn't wait to be rescued, but takes matters into her own hands. "The Magdalene" recounts the story of Irish immigrant Nell Boyle, who arrives in New York during the 1930s and whose accomplishments as a nurse appear to outshine the seemingly uneventful life of her pious cousin Mae.
The longest piece, "Big as Life," is itself told in three parts, the first, "LaForest," involving the artist and naturalist John James Audubon. Cruelly ambitious, Audubon tests the resolve of everyone around him, most especially his wife Lucy whom he abandons to present his great achievement, "The Birds of America," to the world. "Salvino" revisits the story of Artie and Louise from "A Lover's Almanac" and examines the meaning of success and failure. Finally in the autobiographical "Myself," Miss Howard examines certain salient details of her own life and assigns meaning to them in context of the natural world.
These tales are elegantly crafted from concrete and sensory details and bring into sharpest focus those vivid and memorable incidents in a life that often lights the way toward increased self-awareness. By addressing some of the subtler moral aspects of human behavior as they play themselves out in ordinary life, Miss Howard compliments her readers by assuming in them two of the finer qualities that she here gives evidence here of possessing: attentiveness and intelligence.

English author Beryl Bainbridge, a five-time Booker Prize nominee, tells the story of 18th-century man of letters Samuel Johnson's unrequited love affair in her newest novel According to Queeney (Carroll & Graf, $22, 216 pages). Afflicted by gout, middle-age and depression, Johnson accepts a dinner invitation one evening in 1764 from wealthy brewer, Henry Thrale, whose charming wife rouses Johnson from his depths to begin a coy and spirited relationship that lasts for 20 years. Johnson's friends and followers the novelist and poet Oliver Goldsmith, painter Joshua Reynolds, and actor David Garrick, put in their appearances and manage to compound matters as sexual tensions and household entanglements build.
Witness to all the subterfuge is the Thrales' lively daughter, Queeney, precocious and "a little marvel" upon whom no subtle word or gesture is lost. It is her clearsightedness makes her the perfect tour guide through this burlesque of human folly.
Miss Bainbridge, author of 16 previous novels, once again demonstrates her mastery for narrative by drawing readers into the action and holding them there while never failing to keep the twists and tangles from hopelessly knotting up the threads of her story. The results are satisfying, entertaining, and provide still more evidence why Miss Bainbridge is a perennial favorite among British readers.

In Columbus Slaughters Braves(Houghton Mifflin, $23, 224 pages) Mark Friedman offers a tale of sibling rivalry played out against the game of baseball, and it is a first novel that scores a hit.
Ever since they were Little Leaguers together in California, Joe Columbus has been jealous of his younger brother CJ, a born ball player. Agile and gifted, CJ distinguishes himself in the sport early on, making his rise to the majors inevitable. Only 23 and already into his third season with the Chicago Cubs, CJ holds five different team rookie batting records and has a 51-game hitting streak to his credit. He's the most popular baseball player in America and older brother Joe, now a lackluster high-school science teacher struggling to hang on to a restless wife, is having more than a little trouble with CJ's stardom.
Joe is constantly called upon by fans and reporters to gush about his brother, which only feeds his jealousy. While he may appear outwardly proud of CJ, Joe's private frustrations only fuel his instinct for revenge. But the only way hapless Joe can think of to strike back is to revoke his brotherly love. This only makes matters worse, for besides being undeniably talented and wildly popular, CJ is also annoyingly nice. Something has to snap Joe out of this foul attitude, and something finally does, though before he can see the error of his ways tragedy marks the entire Columbus family.
This is the other story, the story of the sore loser, the one no one particularly likes to hear about. But Joe, so neatly drawn by Mr. Friedman who offers us a fully dimensional character, is sympathetic, redeemable, and worthy of our attention despite his flaws.

When Roz Rosenzweig, snappy, no-nonsense New York Jew, meets mild-mannered Nebraskan Edwin Anderson at a Manhattan party in Thisbe Nissen's The Good People of New York (Knopf, $23, 288 pages), marriage is the last thing you'd expect. But marry they do, and for a while all is golden. They compliment each other nicely, intuitive and gutsy Roz, who "feels" things, and sturdy and reliable Edwin, a good man, but "too amiable to be a great man." Then Roz has a baby, a daughter Miranda, and everything else in her life, including Edwin, is shoved into the corners.
Exalted in her motherhood, Roz is perfectly attentive and loving. As Miranda grows into her teen years, easygoing and accommodating Roz is so much cooler than all the other moms that, as Miranda observes, they seem more like roommates than mother and daughter. And that is cause for concern. This openhanded approach to parenting may have its surface appeal, but as Miranda is beginning to suspect, Roz's rule over her daughter is really very crafty. It belies her brash exterior, and more importantly helps Roz to keep her secrets from her daughter.
Between mother and daughter much goes unspoken, but plenty is revealed by innocent bystanders. Miranda's old friend from summer camp, the film student who rents a room in their brownstone, Edwin's second wife, and even Miranda's orthodontist, accidentally conspire in moments both hilarious and sad to show Roz and Miranda to themselves.
As she exhibited in her impressive debut short story collection "Out of the Girls' Room and into the Night," Miss Nissen strength in this, her first novel, lies in her use of the language, her edgy, wisecracking turns of phrase, and her perfectly pitched and comically timed dialogue. Hers are those Woody Allen-type New Yorkers, befuddled schlumps, neurotic in their self-absorption, but so droll, earthy and wise that they're finally irresistible.

R.C. Scott is a writer living in Alexandria, Va.


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