"What Becomes: Stories" by A.L. Kennedy (Alfred A. Knopf, 208 pages, $24.95)
Nothing shines light on the darkest corners of human existence like icy British irony. A man makes soup for his wife's dinner. He cuts himself and bleeds profusely. She comes home, hates him. He's an idiot. She throws a potted herb (thyme) at him. "Thyme was quite hardy," he thinks, "he thought it would weather the upset and come through fine in the end."
Characters here bleed frequently, unaware that they are bleeding. A.L. Kennedy has nothing but scorn for them — losers embalmed in their thoughtlessness. Every little thing conspires in Kennedy's darkness: "The house grew disturbed, doors pestering at their frames whenever the weather drew breath; clatters on the roof, something twisting, scouring overhead, and meanwhile she dreamed a little of being underwater." Walls are the worst, complicit in their porosity. Through them, daughters hear fathers beating up mothers. In Kennedy's fiction, humor often rises to hysteria. "All I do is laugh," thinks one of these daughters, "which is making the sound of hurt things, who are trying not to be ... dying things who are trying to bounce back, looking like a different actor so that everything goes on just as before."
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"Every Day in Tuscany: Seasons of an Italian Life" by Frances Mayes (Broadway Books, 306 pages, $25)
Some people read detective stories to relax. Some read magazines. Some read books about Italy: Once you get over your petty jealousy, these books about moving to the place where slow, fine living was invented are almost as good as going there.
The Italy books come in waves, usually beginning in April. The leader in this year's crop is Frances Mayes, who along with Peter Mayle, the ex-ad exec you love to hate, started this "movement" by simply getting off a tourist bus at a house in Tuscany she couldn't resist and staying there — wow, you gotta love her. Mayes has more dreamy revelations in her 13th-century house above Cortona, gets to know the "mountain people" and pretty unabashedly tells us how great her life is.
Joining Mayes on this spring's Italian bookshelf is the forthcoming "Marcus of Umbria: What an Italian Dog Taught an American Girl About Love," in which Justine van der Leun, zombie-like, leaves her life in New York for Collelungo where — surprise! —she meets a hunky farmer and cozies into an Umbrian village. In "Keeping the Feast: One Couple's Story of Love, Food and Healing in Italy," Paula Butturini and her husband, both foreign correspondents, fall in love and marry in Italy.