Short takes

By Amanda Heller
Globe Correspondent / May 16, 2010

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By Alina Bronsky
Translated, from the German,
by Tim Mohr
Europa, 366 pp., paperback, $15

Other 17-year-old girls may daydream about date night. Sascha Naimann daydreams about revenge. Her abusive stepfather is in jail for killing her mother, and Sascha entertains Jacobean fantasies of vengeance. Should she shoot him, or poison him, or perhaps bludgeon him to death with a candlestick? The more we learn about Sascha, the more we suspect that she might actually be capable of committing mayhem.

She is capable of much else. Warehoused with other Russian immigrants in a squalid housing project in Berlin, Sascha has learned to speak German so well she can pass for a native. She is an A student, a chess whiz, a streetwise survivor, a sardonic teenage temptress who drives the boys — and men as well — wild but yields up little of herself. With the help of a caretaking cousin summoned from Novosibirsk, she serves as surrogate mother to her traumatized brother and sister, protecting them from the perils of the urban underworld around them.

Written by the intriguingly pseudonymous Alina Bronsky, “Broken Glass Park” is a vivid depiction of contemporary adolescence under pressure. After such a debut, it will be interesting to see what the author can do as her talents mature.

The Explosion of the American Language since 1900

By Sol Steinmetz
Harmony, 256 pp., $19.99

The 20th century was a time of expansion and invention, and one of the things that expanded, lexicographer Sol Steinmetz shows, was American English, which continuously invented words to fit new phenomena.

The coinages of the 1910s, for instance, described a dawning age of prosperity and leisure: “silent film,’’ “Model T,’’ “jazz,’’ “ritzy.’’ But the decade also produced a wartime vocabulary of “air raids’’ and “dog tags’’ that would gain renewed currency in the 1940s. The 1950s, of course, gave us “Cold War’’ and “rock ’n’ roll’’ as well as “academia’’ and a host of names for the scientific innovations academia made possible, from “antimatter’’ to “zircalloy.’’ “Sit-ins,’’ “miniskirts,’’ and “flower children’’ were “trendy’’ in the 1960s, but it was more arcane ’60s terminology — “megabyte,’’ “microchip,’’ “cyberspace’’ — that pointed the way to the future. Innovations in language didn’t end with “Y2K.’’ “Hanging chads’’ and “9/11’’ ushered in a brand-new century of political high anxiety.

“There’s a Word for It” doesn’t aim to analyze or evoke, or even to be a good read. It’s basically an annotated glossary. But it provides ample raw material for anyone willing to be a “do-it-yourself’’ (coined 1952) social historian.

By Aryn Kyle
Scribner, 240 pp., $24

These whip-smart stories by Aryn Kyle leave a distinct tang of astringency. The collection opens with the powerful narrative of a high school girl who joins the drama club and falls into the orbit of its coldly manipulative prima donna.

The ruthlessness of alpha females is a frequent theme. In “Take Care,” a troubled college student makes a cat’s-paw of her malleable younger sister, precipitating a life-changing rupture between the two. In “Allegiance,” an anxious little English girl recently arrived in America sizes up the Darwinian social order at her new school, sees that it’s a matter of eat or be eaten, and decides to sharpen her claws.

“Captain’s Club” is a particular standout, in no small part because it breaks the female mold, having as its protagonist a 12-year-old boy who falls innocently, touchingly in love with the neglected girlfriend of a schoolmate’s father when the four find themselves thrown together on a Mediterranean cruise, a quirky shipboard romance to remember.

Amanda Heller is a critic and editor who lives in Newton.