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September 21, 2008|Susan Salter Reynolds


Alphabet City 13

Edited by John Knechtel

MIT Press: 344 pp., $15.95

The FUTURE gets harder and harder to imagine. This little book is oddly helpful. In his introduction, Imre Szeman describes three narratives about our relationship to oil: strategic realism, techno-utopia and eco-apocalypse. The political left, he writes, doesn't help much with the vision thing, preferring instead a kind of "moral hectoring to use less oil or none at all," which is not a sustainable solution. The photos in the book -- of oil fields and refineries, gas fields in the Arctic Sea, research fields in the Barents Sea, "slick cities" (excessive luxury and weird urban fantasy) in Dubai, oil spills -- illustrate the narratives. Then come the visions of the designers who put this book together: velo-cities built around the use of the bicycle, affordable, portable housing units that generate and store enough energy to supply their inhabitants. It's salvation by design, a new future that doesn't depend on nationalist politics -- or oil.

Twenty Fragments

of a Ravenous Youth

A Novel

Xiaolu Guo

Doubleday: 168 pp., $21.95

Fenfang WANG is 21. She's left her rural home (all those sweet potato fields) for Beijing only to be overwhelmed by the development, decay and political tensions of a city in the throes of major changes. Wang wants something new, a modern, independent life. She gets a job as a film extra and refines her dream. She feels the pull of home as the city lets her down but, upon her return, finds that her home is not the same -- more polluted, more crowded: "I worried that this place would pull me back, that it would not let me go again. . . . I suddenly missed the cruel Beijing life. I missed my insecurity. I missed my unknown and dangerous future. . . . I missed the sharp edges of my life."

On Purpose


Nick Laird

W.W. Norton: 64 pp., $23.95

"AwhEaten sun. The letterbox flicks out its tongue and envelopes / swoon from the door onto the polished oak floorboards." There's a big line between us and them in these poems of meals and avalanches, war and country music. There's enormous potential for misunderstanding in each and every poem; and just a flicker of possibility that we could ever really know what someone else means when they use words like "love" or "home." Something's missing -- its absence swims across these pages. "You're the patron saint of elsewhere," begins "Light Pollution." "Jet-lagged and drinking apple juice / I know the left-hand view of life, / I think, and it's as if I have, of late, / forgotten something in the night -- / I wake alone and freezing, still keeping to my side."


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