The Disappointment Artist
By Jonathan Lethem
Doubleday, 149 pp., $22.95
Bricks in the incomplete edifice of an autobiography, these essays give as poignant a sense of Jonathan Lethem's adolescence as any more concerted assault on the project of writing a memoir.
Lethem, best known as a novelist (''The Fortress of Solitude," ''Motherless Brooklyn"), repeatedly describes his younger self as an earnest, bespectacled nerd. We imagine an urban Harry Potter without the magical powers -- certainly without the power to put his parents' crumbling bohemian marriage back together or to keep his mother from dying of a brain tumor when Lethem was only 14.
His passions were typical for bookish boys in the '70s: Philip K. Dick, Bob Dylan, Stanley Kubrick, Talking Heads, Marvel Comics. They allowed him to feel he was rebelling against his parents' expectations without straying too far from their tastes. The Times Square movie palace where he took himself to watch ''Star Wars" a heroic 21 times (''That's me, with my gaudy twenty-one, like DiMaggio's fifty-six") was a comforting Freudian refuge from the emotional overload of real life. From these beginnings in fantasy and rebellion his ambitions as a writer developed, followed in reasonably short order by success. With surprisingly little sentimentality or self-flattery he tells us, essentially: Here are the seeds. See how they grew.
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian
By Marina Lewycka
Penguin, 294 pp., $24.95
A committed British feminist, Nadia feels a bond of sisterhood with all of womankind -- except, she admits, for her own sister, Vera, whom she scorns as a heartless Tory, while Vera dismisses Nadia as a drab and addled socialist. In this dotty debut novel, the two siblings must get past their lifelong rivalry to rescue their widowed father from the clutches of a scheming Ukrainian divorcee who has ''exploded" into his life, Nadia tells us, ''like a fluffy pink grenade."
Her immigrant parents' youngest and only English-born child, Nadia never experienced the horrors of war, oppression, and poverty that drove her family into exile from their native Ukraine. To her mind they were righteous immigrants of the old school, all silent heroism and self-sacrifice, in appalling contrast to her father's bottle-blonde bombshell, Valentina, a vulgar, grasping con artist who has sunk her varnished talons into a randy old man she wrongly believes to be wealthy and refuses to let go, no matter how forlorn her hopes turn out to be. A dutiful if increasingly embarrassed daughter, Nadia revises her assumptions about a number of things before the curtain falls on this awkward yet appealing polyglot farce.
Suburban Safari: A Year on the Lawn
By Hannah Holmes
Bloomsbury, 262 pp., $24.95
There are no small ecologists, only small ecosystems. Hannah Holmes's scientific domain may be humble -- in fact, it's her suburban backyard in southern Maine -- but she finds as much teeming drama in ''this two-tenths-acre empire" as in any Shakespearean kingdom.
To call Holmes's approach to natural history quirky is an understatement. (Her previous book was titled ''The Secret Life of Dust.") Nose to the ground, she communes with the critters, animal and vegetable, that populate her personal realm, reports their behavior, and speculates on their motives and sentiments. She observes the losing battle of effete native species against the incursion of land-grabbing foreigners -- English sparrows, Norway maples. She admires the ingenuity of creatures most suburbanites consider unmitigated nuisances -- woodchucks, crows, even the wasps building their sinister metropolises under the eaves. Most daft and endearing of all is the interspecies love affair she carries on with a chipmunk who makes free with her house and her person in search of the seeds she stashes while waiting for him to call.
All this rampant anthropomorphism would be too terribly Disney if the bee-petting author herself weren't so delightfully funny, though not so comical that we fail to appreciate how much we're learning.
Amanda Heller is a critic and editor who lives in Newton.