Lydia Davis’s stories are dreams. They’re also letters and lists, animal fables and obituaries; others recount episodes from Flaubert’s life. Her stories—but are they stories? Can’t and Won’t (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26), the cannily defiant eighth book of fiction by the noted translator freshens the world and teases the imagination, as stories do; though Davis is as apt to use crisp observations and tart comments as she is recognizable plots to achieve this end, she is also meticulous in recreating scenes of daily life. This very precision is marvelously suggestive; why exactly these details? Are any essential to shaping a life, or are they all more or less arbitrary? Change one—and new plots, new characters, new stories will emerge. Along with hints of such untold tales, Davis has a delightful and disarming brand of wordplay; a story about an odd crime—the disappearance of salamis—turns into a parable of identity theft when news reports call the salamis “sausages.” Then there’s the meticulous journal of how three cows in a neighboring field spend their days—a rumination on ruminants.
The Enigma of China (Minotaur Books, $15.99) is that its business practices are called socialist, but are in reality capitalist, materialist, and driven by corrupt cronyism. In addition, as the Hirshhorn’s recent Ai Weiwei exhibit instructed us, metaphor is a crucial tool for art in a land where images and words are closely monitored and censored. Qiu Xiaolong’s Inspector Chen Cao explores this theme, bringing a poet’s sensitivity to the art of detection when he must be extremely careful not to cross his superiors. This is all the more dangerous when the apparent suicide of a disgraced party leader may actually be murder.
(This book cannot be returned.)
Aficionados of American culture and Anglophiles alike can rejoice: Across the Pond (W.W. Norton, $14.95) is more than “an Englishman’s view of America.” Terry Eagleton, one of the most influential literary critics of recent decades, is the ideal guide to everything idiosyncratic about our beloved country, especially those things the natives never bother to notice. What makes American-Britiish relations so fascinating is just how close we are to each other—and yet how very far. Taking this distance as a starting point, Eagleton is a passionate observer, a wit, and a Brit who’s determined to get at the roots of the oddities, niceties, and just slightly off-ness of American life (at least, as his compatriots see it) . Now, if only he could explain Benedict Cumberbatch…. Perhaps in his next book.