Her austerity demands a command of the facts, which Mary Gordon bows to. White doves and butterflies aside, she was a human, a girl, born in 1412 and burned to death in 1431. She had three brothers, was born into a peasant family in France and at 12 began hearing voices. The voices told her that she must crown the dauphin, Charles, king of France. At 17 she told her parents she was going to help a cousin give birth and never returned. She led an army of 4,000 men to victory against the British at Orleans, then Troyes and oversaw the coronation of King Charles, who abandoned her to fate as soon as he became king. She was the perfect symbol--simplicity itself and the brilliance that simplicity stumbles upon. When she was first imprisoned, she jumped 70 feet from her tower to escape and so was shackled to her bed for the rest of her eight-month trial. She was sold to the British for 10,000 pounds, raped in prison and burned. Gordon has chosen the facets of the diamond that sparkle for her: Joan's patron saints, her fervent commitment to cross-dressing and her feelings about her body--the body that her death-audience was allowed to stare at to make certain she was a woman, the legendary beautiful breasts, the thinness. Gordon is more interested in the woman than the myth.
FULL CIRCLES, OVERLAPPING LIVES Culture and Generation in Transition; By Mary Catherine Bateson, Random House: 258 pp., $25
Mary Catherine Bateson has always written books that soothe a troubled soul. She uses her tools as an anthropologist to tell her readers that they are not alone, no matter what permutation of family or career or sexual identity they have chosen. She writes in the patchwork style of the old-fashioned anthropologist, listening and retelling people's stories, pulling them into a real or virtual group (in this book, a seminar she taught at Spelman University in the late 1980s). "Today," she writes, "the challenge is to learn and affirm new kinds of recognition both within the species and outside it." This professional listener tells her audience how to hear--people of different ages, classes and races. Bateson is not exempt from her own scrutiny. She offers herself up on the pyre of bad turns and worse relationships. She is uncertain; she builds not one but several points at once; she writes from a dense cloud of unknowing, like Carol Gilligan and Deborah Tannen and all of those academics who have ventured out to help us behave better, love more wisely and live longer.
THE WISHING BOX; By Dashka Slater; Chronicle: 300 pp., $22.95
Two daughters, now in their 30s, abandoned at 5 and 7 by their father, use a spell prescribed by their maiden Aunt Simone: Put a statue of the Virgin Mary in a box and make a wish. They wish for their father, silly girls, "him or his personal effects, whichever would be less disgusting to look at." There is so much magic in fiction these days. Sometimes it is treacly; sometimes it pulls the humanity from the characters, making them prophesying angels, not people; sometimes it flummoxes the grammar when liberties are taken with language that are showy or hysterical. Dashka Slater negotiates these pitfalls with her good ear for dialogue and her allegiance to personality. She tells the story of four generations, a genealogy that sometimes blends in the centrifuge of the present; flattening the characters like tracing paper as their stories overlap. But Aunt Simone is an invaluable Beatrice. "Sometimes," she admits, "second sight is like a song you can't get out of your head, a sad, plaintive song in this case." It's an impish novel, a San Franciscan novel, hopeful and full of humor.
SKATEAWAY; By Michael Grant Jaffe; Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 260 pp., $24
Do not reject the possibility that your child will become a writer and use memories from the childhood you are creating as material. The children Michael Grant Jaffe creates for "Skateaway" are as quirky and serious and high-minded as the children in Susan Minot's classic "Monkeys." In their unstable lives, they seem grounded only by their own names: When they speak to each other, their voices echo like the calls of mountain climbers on belay. Their mother is an abortionist at a local hospital in Lukin, Ohio. About once every two weeks, protesters line their driveway. Their father is an eccentric artist who is institutionalized. These parents make school bus rides unbearable. In his last novel, "Dance Real Slow," Jaffe explored the love of a single parent, a father, for his son. "Skateaway" is about siblings and how they keep each other from falling. Jaffe's writing is 24 frames per second: He dissects movements and gestures into their smallest parts, metaphor.