By Irina Reyn (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 244 pages, $24)

First-time novelist Irina Reyn skillfully draws on her experiences as a "sausage immigrant" in New York City's Russian-Jewish Rego Park enclave for her engrossing "What Happened to Anna K.," a modern update of Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina." Sexy, romantic, black-curled book editor Anna, single "on the wrong side of 35" because of a reckless predilection for unworthy writers, marries a much older fellow emigré businessman, much to her parents' delight. Living in great style and comfort, she has a son and proceeds to be miserable, still longing to be a muse. Enter David Zuckerman, a frustrated English professor and her cousin Katia's boyfriend. They embark on an affair even those who haven't read Tolstoy can tell is doomed. Compounding the tragedy is that Anna, while longing to be immortalized on the page by a lover, doesn't just think to write a book herself. While Reyn overdoes the train references a bit, this is one literary ride you won't want to miss.


The art of the personal letter

By Margaret Shepherd with Sharon Hogan (Broadway Books, 218 pages, $16)

I got a letter from my high school English teacher the other day. It was everything a personal letter should be, with news clippings and holiday greetings from another time zone and another season of my life. I used to often get long letters in the mail, with photos and swatches of wallpaper and fabric. I used to spend hours writing them, too -- serious ones, with pages of theological questions and personal reflections, and silly ones, covered in stickers. I miss them. And this book sharpened the pangs.

Shepherd gives a brief, fascinating history of social status and stationery and explains that long ago, the recipients, not senders, paid the postage. (This is why writers once densely filled both sides with tiny writing, often crisscrossing the lines and covering the inside of the envelope.) This beautiful book includes examples of letters for all occasions, including "Dear John" letters, followed by the "Can we try again?" notes. The advice for "Letters to the future" was practical and poignant and made me want to go buy archival paper and fancy pens. She concedes that technology has changed the world of calligraphy and ink pots, and she also gives computer advice, including how to format e-mail to make it legible and how to avoid crashing a friend's computer with a clumsy attachment.

Shepherd stresses that writing is about connecting, and she doesn't rant about technology, even while clearly favoring old-fashioned letters that you can hold in your hand and read over and over. "Writing a personal letter is like home-cooking a meal -- it's one of the everyday human pleasures that sometimes rises to the level of sacred ritual," she writes.

May the ritual never die.