University of Nebraska Press: 180 pp., $24.95
IT'S hard to spell out dreams -- to rein them in, to make the story under our lives rise to the surface. Terese Svoboda brings a light hand, a pinch of humor and a lot of irreverence to this weighty task with her new novel, "Tin God."
It is the story of a haunted field somewhere in the Midwest. Beneath the sorghum and waist-high grass lies the memory of a battle, gold coins and a love story between a conquistador and a Native American girl -- nothing less than the story of the search for gold in America and the centuries of striving that followed.
In the present, a couple of losers in a high-speed chase with the cops fling a bag of cocaine into the field and bring all of their loose-lipped urgency to the book's main stage, the haunted field.
Presiding over the field is God himself: "Hi, this is God -- G-O-D, God with all the big letters. And I'm out here in the middle of a field. Oh, yeah, I'm everywhere, duh.... [B]ut right now I'm doing fieldwork, work in the field." God, encased in this incarnation in a giant robotic metal bug, is scattering grain.
This is all very entertaining, but the wisdom of "Tin God" lies in the idea that, in dreams, some people get within spitting distance of God, while others sleep the sleep of forgetting.
My Father's Notebook
HarperCollins: 326 pp., $24.95
LITTLE Aga Akbar, the deaf mute son of a servant woman and a nobleman, grows up in the mountains of Iran on the border with the Soviet Union.
Unlike so many novels set in this part of the world, "My Father's Notebook," by Kader Abdolah, is a gentle story, partly autobiographical, of cedar trees and oil lamps, yellow opium, Persian rugs and the village at the foot of Saffron Mountain.
Akbar works for a while as a guide in caves filled with cuneiform inscriptions. When his uncle gives him a notebook, he fills it with his thoughts and observations.
"My Father's Notebook" is Akbar's story, but it is also the story of how his son Ishmael, long escaped from Iran's ruling mullahs and living in the Netherlands, tries to translate that notebook and tell his father's tale.
"The first thing you saw were the walnut trees," the narrator says, remembering Akbar's childhood home, "then the pomegranate trees, and, beyond that, a strip of yellow wildflowers and a field dotted with opium-colored bushes. The yellow flowers and the brownish-yellow bushes merged at the foot of Saffron Mountain, which rose majestically into the sky."
The Short Day Dying
Harvest Books: 198 pp., $14 paper
"THE Short Day Dying" is another effort to imagine the past, set among the mines of Cornwall in 1870 and drawn in part from the diaries of author Peter Hobbs' great-grandfather.
Charles Wenmoth, a young preacher, spends his days visiting the poor and the sick. His favorite parishioner, Harriet French, a young blind girl with a killing cough, is the incarnation of grace, a beacon for the priest, who spends long hours wondering why God created so much suffering and how we are supposed to spend our brief time on Earth.
The deeply colored novel, which traverses four seasons, reveals Hobbs' sensual immersion in the world around him -- silk and shutters, smoke and prayers, bread and broth and the high moors; the "uneven walls of seamed Cornish stone" and the hills that are capped by close white clouds.
The tolling of the miner's bell to signal accidents in the mines competes with the church bells. "Where is the soul that binds this life together?" Charles wonders. "And still the days come meted out like water from a drying well. How many more of them shall we have?