Mario Vargas Llosa, , trans. from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer. . Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $16 (144pp) ISBN 978-0-374-11916-4

Now based in London and teaching at Georgetown University in the U.S., Peruvian novelist and erstwhile politician Vargas Llosa's novels (In Praise of the Stepmother, etc.) and essays (Making Waves). Though the "Letters to a Young—" concept has recently been franchised by another publisher (applying it to everything from golf to rabble-rousing), Rilke's slender and sage Letters to a Young Poet remains the standard after 100 years. Vargas Llosa's 12 Letters to a generalized interlocutor drift in and out of Rilke's league, rich with insight into Western literature and with commentary on the urge that overtakes its practitioners—"The literary vocation is not a hobby, a sport, or a pleasant leisure-time activity. It is an all-encompassing, all-excluding occupation, an urgent priority, a freely chosen servitude that turns its victims (its lucky victims) into slaves." Yet Vargas Llosa is also somewhat wryly withholding, as if to thicken the plot: "Writing novels is the equivalent of what professional strippers do when they take off their clothes and exhibit their naked bodies on stage. The novelist performs the same acts in reverse." His examples of good and great novelists, whom he discusses while making larger philosophical points about concepts like style, time or representation, are pretty hard to take issue with: Woolf and James; Dos Passos and Hemingway; Flaubert (Madame Bovary is a particular favorite), de Beauvoir and Robbe-Grillet; Borges and Cervantes. Neither a survey course in what to read nor a practical guide to writing, the book finally is a meditation on writing and its proper relationship to life. "Good novels, great ones, never actually seem to tell us anything; rather, they make us live it, and share in it, by virtue of their persuasive powers." Particularly given the excellent translation here by PW contributing editor Wimmer, the same could be said for letters like these. (June)