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A Refuge From Politics, as Well as a Refuge for the Imagination


Sounding the Waters

By James Glickman

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Crown, 275 pp., $23

I Was Amelia Earhart

By Jane Mendelsohn

Alfred A. Knopf

146 pp., $18

Commonwealth Avenue

By Linda Nevins

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A Wyatt Book for

St. Martin's Press

420 pp., $24.95

The Animals' Waltz

By Cary Fagan

St. Martin's Press

277 pp., $21.95

The Life Stone of Singing Bird

By Melody Henion Stevenson

Faber and Faber

175 pp., $19.95

Tired of election year soundbites? Of the endless parade of pundits more interested in predicting a winner than in analyzing the characters and policies of the candidates?

The most satisfying "escape" from politics may not necessarily be a retreat into the realms of science fiction or romance, but - surprisingly - to sink one's teeth into a political novel that restores one's sense of the human depth, the psychological pressures, and the moral questions that go with the territory.

Set in the present time in an unnamed Midwestern state, James Glickman's first novel, Sounding the Waters, tells the engrossing story of a group of people involved in a hard-fought campaign for the US Senate. Ben Shamas, the narrator, is a man whose once-happy life has been shattered by the accidental death of his young daughter.

Divorced from a wife who blames him for the tragedy, Ben has given up his career as litigator for less stressful work as an appellate lawyer. He manages to get through his days and nights but is prone to bouts of drinking. And drunk or sober, he feels distanced from people and events, benumbed, a sleepwalker living out a post-humous existence.

Against his better judgment and his inclination toward withdrawal, Ben finds himself involved in the rough-and-tumble of politics when his oldest and dearest friend, Bobby Parrish, asks Ben to help run his campaign for the Senate. An idealistic and honorable man, Bobby is in the uneasy position of having lost the whole-hearted support of his two most trusted advisers: his wife and his sister, each of whom, for different reasons, is reluctant for Bobby to run.

Secrets, scandals, conflicts-of-interest, potential dirty tricks: Soon Ben is in the thick of things. But the mechanics of the plot - intriguing as they are - do not crowd out the personal stories of the characters.

Glickman is a sound craftsman who fills in all the necessary details, making this a richly rewarding, agreeably old-fashioned sort of novel with complex, believable characters who develop in the course of engaging in vividly and intelligently rendered experiences.

If "Sounding the Waters" can be viewed as a novel about a man who finds his way back into the active world, Jane Mendelsohn's first novel, I Was Amelia Earhart, could be summed up as a paean to the ultimate escape. Taking as her starting point what is known of the mysterious disappearance of aviatrix Amelia Earhart on her uncompleted final round-the-world flight, Mendelsohn has imagined not only the fate that might have befallen Earhart and her hapless navigator, Fred Noonan, but also the thoughts, memories, emotions, and longings that propelled this woman into a life of flight.

Jane Mendelsohn has composed this novel as a sequence of short, sparely written, almost visionary passages. Third-person descriptions of Earhart and Noonan on their final voyage alternate with first-person accounts, written in Earhart's voice.

The writing throughout is terse, austerely lyrical, and the emphasis is on the subjective and psychological. Mendelsohn has chosen to view and to present Amelia Earhart's last flight as the culmination of a lifelong desire to escape. And in the adventure that Mendelsohn has invented for her, Earhart succeeds in escaping, not only from the pressures and structures of modern civilization, but from all previous failed definitions of herself.

Linda Nevins's novelistic debut, Commonwealth Avenue, features two heroines, great-granddaughter and great-grandmother, each of whom achieves a sense of identity through her commitment to family tradition. Forty-year-old Zoe Hillyard is a production designer living in Los Angeles, where, after nearly two decades of painstaking devotion to her craft, she has finally gotten her long overdue big break working on a prestigious period film set in the Whartonesqe Gilded Age.

Period decor, particularly Victorian, is Zoe's specialty. She is also involved in a relationship with Roger, an intelligent, patient, and supportive man who owns an art gallery.

But, as Roger has noticed, Zoe is secretive about her past and her family background. For years, she has not spoken with her brother Arthur, who was once the dearest person in the world to her. All this, however, is about to change, when a family crisis draws her back to Boston and the stately, now decaying, old mansion on Commonwealth Avenue where she was born.

Zoe's story, narrated in the third person, alternates with lively first person excerpts from the diary kept by her great-grandmother, Augusta Hillyard, who died when Zoe was 4.

Augusta's diary, spanning more than five decades, from 1889 to 1945, reveals the hidden strains and scandals - as well as the joys and pleasures - experienced by this impressive grande dame, who records and reflects on her life with an appealing blend of propriety, frankness, naivete, passion, and ironic wit.

In the end, Zoe and Augusta's struggles seem to reach out and meet across the barrier of time, establishing a bond between the generations.

Like Zoe's carefully researched, lavishly detailed set designs, Linda Nevins's novel is an elaborate, evocative, convincing, and ultimately poignant rendition of the living past - and of a family, its fortunes, and the highly diverse individual members who work to preserve or plunder it.

Family ties also figure prominently in The Animals' Waltz, a gently humorous first novel by Cary Fagan. Sheila Hersh, the 31-year-old narrator and heroine, spends her days writing ad copy for her father's mattress store, her nights at the clubs and bars of Toronto's avant-garde scene. Half of her yearns for independence, while the other half feels committed to looking after her widowed father, known to his customers as "Honest Abe Hersh."

Sheila's plans for a university degree fizzle out when her projected dissertation topic is turned down as too obscure. The object of Sheila's still-vibrant academic interest is a little-known Viennese Jewish poet, Charlotte Reissman, who committed suicide in 1938 at the age of 23, shortly before the Nazi Anschluss.

Although Sheila loves her father, she is not very happy at the prospect of writing mattress jingles for the rest of her days. And nightlife among the avant-garde wannabes is also proving unsatisfying.

Sheila would like to learn more about Charlotte Reissman, but her self-confidence as a scholar has been undermined. However, on a trip to Vienna, Charlotte's city, Sheila gains a fresh perspective - not only on the departed poet, but on her own life and her relationship to her family.

Fagan provides amusing portraits of the people in Sheila's milieu, especially the members of her extended family: good-hearted, ebullient Abraham; his energetic, bossy sister, Ettie; Ettie's dapper, ne'er-do-well husband, Lou; and Sheila's down-to-earth, sensible mother, whose death six years ago still reverberates beneath the surface of her family members' lives. "The Animals' Waltz" is a modest, yet appealing novel, funny, warm, and unobtrusively well-written.

First novelist Melody Henion Stevenson has a rather strange story to tell in her book, The Life Stone of Singing Bird, and she tells it rather strangely.

The ostensible narrator is India Baldoon Walker, a third-generation pioneer woman who has just been laid in her final resting place. In a series of seemingly disjunctive, but underlyingly related passages, India presents the intertwined stories of her mother, Iris Fane Baldoon, and a mysterious native American woman, Singing Bird.

Ceremonially mutilated and cast out of her tribe for bearing an illegitimate child, Singing Bird leaves her infant son in the care of Iris, who has just lost her own baby and names the abandoned child Boy Found.

Singing Bird also leaves Iris a stone that seems to have the power to foretell or reflect the experience of the owner's life.

Like a bird in flight, swooping from scene to distant scene, Stevenson's novel offers a series of darting glimpses into the widely different worlds and sensibilities of Singing Bird, Iris, Boy Found, and India.

Singing Bird, cruelly punished by her tribe, is an eerie figure, someone to be feared as well as pitied. Boy Found, raised by Iris and her husband, eventually feels torn between two cultures. Iris is resourceful, courageously accepting whatever life has to offer. Her daughter, India, feels cursed by Singing Bird and the "life stone" she bequeathed to the Baldoons.

Stevenson incorporates elements of magic, dream, and fantasy in a story as murkily bitter as a medicinal brew of herbs and wild roots.

While her novel may not be to every reader's taste, it does succeed in restoring a sense of strangeness to the subject she has chosen to treat, the harsh lives on the Great Plains in the 19th century: a boundless-seeming, untamed world where many people lost their moorings.

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