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October 25, 1998|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS | Susan Salter Reynolds is an assistant editor of Book Review

THE WAY WINTER COMES. By Sherry Simpson (Sasquatch Books: 164 pp., $19.95)

Once in a great while, even this foreigner gets an inkling that she is reading something truly Western, truly indigenous. These are the books that could be read anywhere, because their roots go so deep into Western soil that they join the other strong, place-inspired literatures at the molten canon in the Earth's core. Read these stories in New York and you can still be stung by the wind off the tundra.

Simpson, who was born in Juneau, Alaska, and teaches journalism at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, writes, in these essays, about killing wolves, being cold, tagging bears, tracking otters, living alone on an island for a week and being "fixed in the eye of a raven." She has a plainspoken, short sentence style--like but unlike the New Yorker's New England down-style, multilayered like the Southern writers but not quite so baroque and metaphorical. The nouns are astounding (because Alaska is a place of astounding nouns); the adjectives are personal but not narcissistic; and the verbs are very exciting: oceans "suck at the shore," "permafrost contours the land," "meanings arrive the way ice does, forming silently, congealing and crystallizing almost beyond vision until suddenly the surface shimmers and I need a new word to describe what I'm seeing. Ice blink. Shuga. Brash ice. Icebound."

"My life," she reveals in an essay about "end-of-the-roaders," or people who wander into the forest and get lost, "is one long craving for that moment when the self is surrendered and discovered all at once."

THE WITNESS OF COMBINES. By Kent Meyers (University of Minnesota Press: 230 pp., $22.95)

This is the portrait of two indistinguishable carbon-based life forms: the farm in southern Minnesota where Meyers grew up and the father who farmed that land until his death, when Meyers was 16. It is also an unsentimental study of the repetitive tasks, obstacles and joys of the farming life and of the kinds of art that spring up from that repetition: human kindness, family forgiveness, neighborly helpfulness, insightfulness in fixing a huge and crucial piece of equipment, writing a book.

Meyers writes of the "endless tasks" that he and his father "performed in silence." Through these tasks, he writes, "I learned my father's life. I learned, in silence, how his muscles worked, the rhythms of his breathing, how cold crept through the soles of his boots, the ways, finally, that he responded to the world and its pleasures and difficulties." On this land, 200 acres, Meyers grows up with eight brothers and sisters. His memories of that childhood remind one of the writing of E.B. White, an Easterner, and a practical man who wrote many essays about the economies of daily life--the tasks, the lists, the details that take on a patina day after day, generation to generation. Like White, Meyers' leaps are as beautiful as his lists; for example, this insight into the fears that accompany prairie life: "The first is that . . . we will be stuck 'out in the middle of nowhere.' 'Nowhere' in this phrase means a flat road converging to a point in the distance, and nothing but sky all around." This is the fear of being "so disconnected, so much 'upon' the surface, that you can be swept away." A bonus in "The Witness of Combines" is watching Meyers' way of discarding, chaff from wheat, some fears, and learning to live side by side with others.

LOST IN TRANSLATION. By Nicole Mones (Delacorte Press: 370 pp., $23.95)

Novels about China do a yin-yang dance, as though it actually was the land we could reach by digging through the Earth, emerging at the other end upside-down with an appetite for adventure. The heroines are tough, secretive, practical, observant. The heroes are gentle, cautious, sad and insightful.

Alice Mannegan is a red-headed 36-year-old girl-woman who works as an interpreter in Beijing. She loves all things Chinese, wants to be Chinese, speaks the language perfectly and sleeps frequently with Chinese men she picks up in bars. She prefers one-night stands and wears, at all times, an antique red silk stomach-protector, an undergarment that is hard to forget. She is on the run from a congressman father she loves but who inadvertently ruined her life when, during a campaign, he held her up and announced that he didn't want his 3-year-old daughter to go to a mixed-race school.

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