little engines issue 1

(TNI Books, 128 pages, $5)

Zines have clearly outgrown their need to be cute little Xeroxed scribblesheets devoted to telling the world about the author's girlfriend's ex-boyfriends and/or pets, parents, lousy jobs and favorite songs. Little Engines, for example--a new zine published in Seattle--is more a literary journal than a "zine" in the usual sense. Design-wise it's certainly attractive, and most of its ads tout fiercely precious indie-rock labels and websites, but Little Engines does have substance.

The strongest of the magazine's short stories is "Strategically Concealed Light," Chicago writer Susannah Felts' note-perfect tale of grocery-store theft, Gen-X roommates and fledgling vs. dying relationships. In Adam Voith's excellent "My Television Is 39 Inches," three stories about washed-up patriarchs in career slumps are linked by the concept of TV as an insufficient but inescapable lifeline.

One of the strangest pieces is Seattle folk singer Damien Jurado's transcript of a conversation he found on an answering-machine tape at a thrift store, which offers some bittersweet voyeuristic pleasure. The magazine's biggest coup is an interview with Canadian writer/zinester Jim Munroe, author of Flyboy Action Figure Comes with Gasmask, who also contributes a short story. Zak Sally of the hush-core band Low closes out the issue with a dreamy, unsettling comic.

Not everything in the collection holds up so well. The opening piece, David Drury's short story "Moonboy," seems flimsy, a throwback to the days when zines were required to be ultra-cute and hyper-quirky. And the exaggerated western drawl of Gerald Beckman's "Cowboy Café" rings false, or at least seems out of place. Still, it's a strong, polished collection, particularly for a first issue. This is definitely a little engine that could. Becky Ohlsen

the secret of poetry
by Mark Jarman
(Story Line Press, 223 pages, $14.95)

Mark Jarman's essays on poetry are intriguing. But will we learn the secret of poetry from this book? Perhaps. In the essay "The Pragmatic Imagination and the Secret of Poetry," we find this from Ortega y Gasset: "Let us reveal a secret. Life is a secret." So it might be best to say, "Poetry is a secret" and leave it at that.

What is revealed in these pages, however, is a series of perceptive discussions on such poets as Jorie Graham, John Berryman, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, John Ashbery and Robert Creeley. "The Curse of Discursiveness," with its incisive commentary on Ashbery and Creeley, is my favorite chapter here. One admires the critic who challenges someone with Ashbery's reputation. I have waited 35 years to hear Jarman's comments: "Ashbery has many dishonest readers.... They include anyone who claims that a [book-length] poem like "Flow Chart" is not boring, not devoid of any subject except its own composition, and not finally unrereadable. By unrereadable, I mean that, having read it once, I hope never to read it again. How can a poem do this to a reader, except by being bad?"

Jarman says of Ashbery's polar opposite: "Robert Creeley's new selected poems [1991] shows that he has written some of the finest lyrics in American poetry." Though Creeley was "at the height of his powers" in the

1960s, Jarman believes that he's recently written poems that are among his best. "In the Age of Ashbery, one wishes more attention were paid to a poet, like Creeley, who weighs not only every word but often every syllable."

For too long, I've mostly avoided reading poetry essays. But Jarman's insightful book has changed my mind. Carlos Reyes

year of wonders
by Geraldine Brooks
(Viking, 308 pages, $24.95)

Geraldine Brooks reads at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Monday, Sept. 10.

1666 was a remarkably difficult year in England: The Great Fire and a war with the Dutch were the lowlights, not to mention an outbreak of bubonic plague. In her debut novel, Geraldine Brooks, whose nonfiction includes Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women, turns her journalist's eye on a 17th-century village struggling with the Black Death.

At that time in history, medicine was administered by either leech-toting barber/surgeons or herb-growing female healers often branded as witches. So when the plague infiltrates a small rural village, all the residents can do is let it run its course. But this town takes the approach of quarantining itself from the rest of the world in order to stop the disease's spread.

Exploding pustules, full dead-carts, unrelenting grief--there's nothing cheery about the plague. But Brooks manages to tell a compelling, historical tale about humanity in crisis. The story is narrated by an intrepid maid named Anna, who loses her entire family. Yet she perseveres, relying heavily upon her pact with the rector's wife to find a way to treat the dying, as the isolated community grows smaller.

Brooks offers a revisionist, feminist view of 1666, which may or may not be accurate. Women were very likely the ones who held England together during those dark days, and Brooks' account is believable if not exactly provable, even though it is set in Eyam, a real English hamlet that is still known as the Plague Village.

Year of Wonders is carefully plotted, exceedingly detailed and quite wonderful to read, despite the horror. In the end, the story is uplifting. Life does go on, after all. Susan Wickstrom