Seeing other people

On highways, families, ghosts, and gods: unwrapping the gift of a good story

WISH LIST When I give a book as a present, I like to have a good story to tell about where it came from — about the author's travels or secret family life or public stunts. Many of 2007's best bets for worthy literary gifts tell such stories on their own. Curated, compiled, and translated, they have the marks of an outside force, concerning themselves with how other people — an author's child, a lover from another culture, eccentrics from California's Central Valley — secretly see the world.

Sexy, contemplative, elusive, and addictive, Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Spear (New Directions, 400 pages, $15.95 paper), translated by Margaret Jull Costa, is the first installment in Javier Marías's Your Face Tomorrow detective trilogy. Marías maps the sharpness and strange beauty of interpersonal relationships onto a larger relationship between Spain and England. The narrator's intense observations of people expose the spooky ways in which we read our lives: "those who catch or capture or, rather, absorb the image before them gain a great deal, especially as regards knowledge and the things that knowledge permits."

Orhan Pamuk's Other Colors (Knopf, 448 pages, $27.95), a collection of essays and one story, translated by Maureen Freely, is similarly a book that anyone interested in literature or love or cities or sounds or writers' families will return to. "When Rüya Is Sad," one of several snippets about Pamuk's daughter, ends so touchingly that the richly detailed worlds evoked in the Nobel Prize–winning Turkish author's novels become more intimate, less imagined: "The two of us gazed out the window without speaking for the longest time, I in my chair and Rüya on the divan, and we both — Rüya sadly and I with joy — thought about how beautiful it was."

When Pamuk spoke in Berkeley in October, he noted that it can take him a long time to warm up to even the best translations of his work. New World/New Words: Recent Writing from the Americas (Center for the Art of Translation, 266 pages, $18.95), edited by Thomas Christensen, is a continuously exciting Spanish-English exploration of the passion of translation. "O body, love and Lord, / Show me a tree made in your image," poet Pura López-Colomé writes in "Prisma/Prism," translated by Forrest Gander.

The characters in the new edition of Highway 99: A Literary Journey Through California's Great Central Valley (Heyday/Great Valley Books, 592 pages, $18.95 paper) also ask the land to reveal divinity. Editors Stan Yogi, Gayle Mak, and Patricia Wakida present a fantastic stable of story makers, from Yokuts California Indians to Joan Didion. The resulting read is hot, dry, wet, and, ultimately, mythic — something hard to achieve on a road trip through Fresno. In "The Underground Gardens," Robert Mezey writes hauntingly of Sicilian immigrant Baldassare Forestiere's underground gardens in Fresno (still maintained), remembering that Forestiere "clawed at the earth forty years / But it answered nothing." In the poem, the gardener becomes both Christ and seeker.

I wish that cultural critic Antonio Monda had trod similar earth-meets-human ground in Do You Believe? Conversations on God and Religion (Vintage, 192 pages, $12.95 paper), or at least asked his famous interviewees (Spike Lee, Grace Paley, David Lynch, and 15 others) to do what they do best: create something that more fully tells the story of their views of the divine.

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