"Lightning" by Jean Echenoz, translated from the French by Linda Coverdale (New Press, 142 pages, $19.95)
Gregor, Echenoz's character based on the life of Nikola Tesla, the eccentric Serbian inventor, is born as a bolt of lightning sets the surrounding forest on fire.
From that point on, his life moves in bolts and flashes. He swallows his education whole, excelling at everything and, with a pocketful of diplomas, heads for the U.S. to work with Thomas Edison at the Edison Electric Co.
There, Gregor develops the alternating current, disagrees with Edison over its relevance and finds himself looking for a job. He goes to work for Westinghouse, where he invents the motor, the generator, the transformer, the turbine.
He is a trusting man and does not care about money, and Mr. Westinghouse cheats him out of his rightful share. He moves from his rooms at the Waldorf Hotel, to the St. Regis, to an attic room in the New Yorker Hotel, where he cares for his pigeons and measures time in 33-minute intervals. He has an obsessive fear of microbes. He lives on milk and crackers. But still, he discovers the particle beam.
Echenoz captures the spare beauty of Tesla, this often-drawn and much-translated figure, up to his death at 86. He is a lean ghost in the history of power, electricity and invention. Echenoz fixes him even more firmly in our imaginations.
"The Seamstress and the Wind" by Cesar Aira, translated from the Spanish by Rosalie Knecht (New Directions, 132 pages, $12.95 paper)
In the first chapter of this magical book, Aira, a prolific and popular author in his native Argentina, spells out his intentions. He sits in a Paris cafe and dreams of the novel he has always wanted to write. Aira knows who his characters will be: "The heroine has to be a seamstress ... and the wind her antagonist."
And we're off, in a play within a play, a novel within a novel, blown by the wind to a town south of Buenos Aires, where Delia Siffoni, seamstress and madwoman, is driven further afield by the disappearance of her 7-year-old son.
Delia is sewing a wedding dress for a teacher when her boy disappears. She grabs the fabric, calls a taxi and wants to be driven to the place where she thinks a local trucker has taken her boy. When her husband gets home, he follows in his red truck. A mysterious stranger follows in a blue car.
"A man has a very precise and detailed premonition of three or four events that will happen in the immediate future all linked together," Aira explains, unfolding the story sitting at the cafe on the Place de Clichy, opening a present he has carried with him for years.