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Book briefs for the month of February

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Night Watch
By Reinaldo Bragado Bretaña
Translated from the Spanish by David William Foster
Bilingual Review/Press, $12

An exiled Cuban author once imprisoned for his writing, Bretaña has penned a novel about Alberto, a Cuban author previously imprisoned for his writing, and his journey into exile with a small and ultimately expendable cast of companions. The usually compelling question of separation -- or lack thereof -- between author and narrator does not succeed here, and so we can't quite bring ourselves to care about Alberto, or the fleeting characters who accompany him almost accidentally across the Straits of Florida. We don't exactly want them to die, so when they do, we're shocked; however, because we hardly know them, they exit the narrative with little more significance than numbers on the evening news. It's really the narrator's relationships with Havana, the city of his birth, and Miami, his uneasy new home, that drive the most powerful passages in the book. Opening on Alberto's description of the ancient-feeling Havana night in which he is able to find an ephemeral freedom, and closing as the sun rises in a glittering and money-riddled Miami a month or so later, Night Watch introduces us not to memorable individual characters but to a people who seem collectively to have lost something. -- Nora Sohnen

Goat: A Memoir
By Brad Land
Random House, $22.95

The first 27 pages grab you by the scruff of your neck and proceed to slam you into a state of near-total obedience. Here's a writer with a voice at once breathless and controlled, with a natural ability to combine suspense with inner monologue. Goat begins as Land leaves a party in a South Carolina college town where his younger brother Brett is faring well with some drunk girls. Brad isn't. Brett is the good-looking one for whom things seem to come so easy; Brad is the pensive creative type. Each envies the other. Getting ready to drive home, Brad is hit up for a ride by two strange men and, despite his better judgment, he agrees. They direct him to a secluded location, beat him mercilessly, and drive away. Land is left a bloody pulp on the side of the road. One gets the sense he has never entirely recovered. Unfortunately, this chilling opener is never redeemed in the remaining pages, most of which concern Land's brief tenure as a "goat," the pejorative name for pledges of Clemson University's chapter of Kappa Sigma fraternity. His so-called Kappa "brothers" are the apotheosis of boilerplate fratboys: arrogant, hedonistic, and downright haze-happy. Halfway through Goat, Land's portentousness becomes cloying, then cumbersome, then flat-out unbearable. A brutal attack commands our sympathy, as does the emotional interplay between two brothers. But this rendering of a voluntary fraternity pledge with the same solemnity as, say, a Holocaust memoir is hard to stomach. There's an immediacy here, a boatload of wonderful writing, and absolutely no perspective or even levity. Anti-Greek undergrads, however, may wish to adopt it as their new manifesto. -- John Dicker

The Good Doctor
By Damon Galgut
Grove, $23

The narrator of Galgut's exquisite fourth novel languishes on the hairy end of a seven-year stint in a rural South African hospital. The institution was created as a ray of hope for this barren country, but the funding is too low and the staff too disinterested to make their presence known. As a result, the place has been looted and ransacked by villagers rather than used for its intended purpose. Into this grim situation strolls Laurence Waters, an MD on a two-year community service gig. Young and idealistic, Laurence breathes life into a lifeless place. Relationships that had pivoted on old certainties and associations of guilt develop new dimensions. Frank, the book's edgy narrator, discovers he actually has a conscience. The shift alarms him. "The past and the future are dangerous countries," he says. "I had been living in no-man's-land, between their borders, for the last seven years. Now I felt myself moving and I was afraid." Galgut magnifies this sense of dread by giving Frank a narrative voice that is controlled, but not airless. He speaks in clipped, accidentally beautiful sentences, using words like "escarpment" and "sibilant." With language this mannered, any emotion, no matter how sincere, has a way of sounding melodramatic. But if Galgut loses control over his tone in some scenes, this tiny flaw makes The Good Doctor endearing rather than tedious. Shimmering, willowing, lulling us into collusion, Frank's voice in the early sections encourages a slow letting-go of possibility. All this changes when the good doctor arrives, bringing hope and awakening anger. Suddenly, Frank must take sides. It is a testament to Galgut's skill that this quiet novel set in a faraway place can ask the same of us, too. -- John Freeman

The Singing
By C.K. Williams
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $20

Poets, more than other writers, are expected to be sincere. Readers will forgive errors, even bad writing, if they love the poet (Maya Angelou), agree with her (Adrienne Rich), or feel for his or her plight (Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath). The easiest way to what passes for success in poetry is to convince the reader that the aim is true. For this reason creative-writing workshops have, since the 1950s, given rise to a poetry of manufactured empathy. Tearjerkers for the thinking person. Williams' new collection is in this tradition. There's no denying that it's heartfelt, that the poet cries real tears. Still, the same can be said of at least some of the poets who work for Hallmark. The lesson to be learned from The Singing is that poetry, like music or any other art form, relies heavily on chops. Williams is fond of extra-long lines. Even the casual reader will sense that a long line has a biblical feel, signaling a big thought. Yet The Singing is a book of quiet thoughts. Words that should be whispered are sung, grand-opera-style. Perhaps in the hands of a master, this strategy would set up an interesting tension. Here it produces a gnashing-of-teeth quality that is ultimately embarrassing. Other errors abound. In "Flamenco," the phrase "he played like a fiend" is repeated until it becomes unintentionally funny. This repetition of uninteresting words and phrases plagues the poems. And this lack of discipline is surprising, coming from such a respected and award-laden poet. Yes, there are touches of beauty. In "Elegy for an Artist," Williams tightens up the lines and strikes a tone that seems just right. Yet even this one needs a little editing, though this would be a difficult job for an editor. How to edit a poet who is so sincere? -- Owen Hill

The Devil's Dictionary
By Ambrose Bierce
Illustrated by Ralph Steadman Bloomsbury, $15.95

In American literature, the man-of-letters mode might seem variously outdated, but the curmudgeon-of-letters is due a revival. The occasion for this new edition of a 1911 classic might be nothing more than an ambitious publicist's stunt, but that sits well with the tradition of snarky showmanship that Bierce and Steadman have in common -- and is reason enough to rediscover the two of them together. Readable enough for the coffee table, small enough for the bathroom, The Devil's Dictionary is probably best enjoyed staying up late, reading aloud to a cherished friend: "Peace, n. In international affairs, a period of cheating between two periods of fighting. ... Reconsider, v. To seek a justification for a decision already made." You could go on all night. Wait -- one more: "Bride, n. A woman with a great future behind her." Steadman's frenetic, ink-splotched drawings complement the aura of wide-swinging satire and the specificity of the skewering epigram. Bierce, who lived for a time in Berkeley, began writing in the late 1860s as the "Town Crier" of San Francisco. Mark Twain was his friendly rival -- at least as friendly as anyone could be with a man who defined humanity as "the human race, collectively, exclusive of the anthropoid poets." Bierce's view of the world owed much to his experience on Civil War battlefields and the lurching political shuffle of a callow nation. In a brief biographical introduction, Angus Calder writes that "The atrabilious Bierce persona of the Dictionary was the mask of a much-hurt man," and certainly it is so. But there's great fun in this, too; one feels lucky to be among Bierce's readers, and not among his targets. -- Jonathan Kiefer

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