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December 28, 2008|Susan Salter Reynolds | Salter Reynolds is a Times staff writer.

Tinkers

A Novel

Paul Harding

Bellevue Literary Press: 192 pp., $14.95 paper

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Every so often (and this must happen to you too) a writer describes something so well -- snow, oranges, dirt -- that you can smell it or feel it or sense it in the room. The writing does what all those other art forms do -- evoke the essence of the thing.

In this astonishing novel, Paul Harding creates a New England childhood, beginning with the landscape. And he does this, miracle of miracles, through the mind of another human being -- not himself, someone else.

George Washington Crosby lies on a hospital bed in his living room, eight days from death. From here, he has a vision of his life, framed but not contained by the panes in the windows, the cracks in the ceiling and the foundation of the house he built. "He was nearly a ghost, almost made of nothing."

Photographs and memories and old fears move through him. Clocks and pots and old heirlooms, all bearing stories, flesh out his history and that of his ancestors. In his imagination the whole structure, the life that took generations to build, comes tumbling down:

"The very blue of the sky followed, draining from the heights into that cluttered concrete socket.

"Next fell the stars, tinkling about him like the ornaments of heaven shaken loose.

"Finally, the black vastation itself came untacked and draped over the entire heap, covering George's confused obliteration."

See what I mean?

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Motel Girl

Stories

Greg Sanders

Red Hen Press: 176 pp., $19.95 paper

Describing people, creating them from the ground up, is a slippery thing.

They don't stand still, like objects. Every fresh breeze, new thought, distant sound sets them trembling like leaves in the wind. Sanders has a way of fixing on a point, a detail (pimples, discolored teeth, tightly coiffed hair) and moving outward into the cosmos of human attributes; restlessness, a tendency to startle easily, ferocity. There is a kind of violence in every story, different kinds; and it is always surprising how the physical violence is the least disturbing kind.

Sanders' characters have a youthful ease of movement; they toss things and roll and jump and greet strangers easily. Once in orbit around other characters, however, they almost always fail to obey physical laws. "Open your mouth for my gun," says the girl at the front desk who has yet to grow into her true beauty. The man will be lucky if he gets out of there with all his teeth.

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Glass Grapes

And Other Stories

Martha Ronk

BOA Editions: 214 pp., $14 paper

In her other life (not the quiet-behind-the-scenes force in L.A. literary life; not the professor of Renaissance literature who writes frequently about Shakespeare; not the poet, not the fiction writer) Martha Ronk is fascinated by ekphrasis, the extended verbal description of a visual object.

Take the title story of this collection. It's about glass grapes, sure, but more than that it's about things that break; about the precarious balance between giving and receiving; passion and gratitude. So the grapes sit there, in the middle of the story, spewing their potential for breakage to the far corners of the story's little universe.

Or take the sofa, which doesn't appear until the fourth page of the story called "The Sofa":

"What does it mean to be so agog about another person who ought to be just furniture . . . not to be tended to but taken for granted, like your brown sofa you don't much notice until a stray cat from the neighborhood gets in and scratches it to bits and you realize now that you see that you don't like it much, thank goodness since it is ruined."

Let us now praise the ordinary, the thing, the ambient detail. Let us now praise the writer's ability to hide something surprising within that thing -- a bomb, a metaphor, another person's point of view.

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susan.reynolds@latimes.com

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