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Short Takes

By Amanda Heller
Globe Correspondent / September 19, 2010

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THE ATLAS OF LOVE
By Laurie Frankel
St. Martin’s, 321 pp., $23.99

It takes a village to raise a child, or so we’ve been told. This madcap debut novel offers a corollary to that proposition: It takes a village to create a dysfunctional family.

When Janey Duncan’s fellow grad student and best friend Jill becomes pregnant by a boyfriend singularly uninterested in sticking around for the blessed event, Janey decides that she and Jill and their other best friend Katie should all move in together and raise the baby jointly. Janey ought to know that this is a crackpot scheme, inherently unstable and susceptible to heartbreak. Nevertheless, more giving than the neurotic, acerbic Jill, Janey and Katie plunge in. But as schedules and personalities collide and emotional crises erupt, three mommies, plus the assorted others they press into auxiliary service, turn out to be too many and yet not nearly enough.

Laurie Frankel channels a breezy, engaging style through Janey, who keeps reminding us that she’s an “unreliable” narrator, though “oblivious” seems closer to the mark. Perhaps the problem is just that, for graduate students, these women don’t seem very bright. The novel doesn’t exactly make a case for conventional arrangements. But it certainly doesn’t make a case for unconventional ones either.

DAWN LIGHT: Dancing with Cranes
and Other Ways to Start the Day

By Diane Ackerman
W. W. Norton & Co., 256 pp., $15.95

In this collection of essays subdivided by season, Diane Ackerman, author of “A Natural History of the Senses” among other popular books, greets daybreak with a chorus of exquisite metaphor. In springtime in south Florida, “the low lights of dawn filter in like news from a far country” while “a gold doubloon levitates in the sky”; at her home in upstate New York, a summer sunrise reverberates with “voice-dueling birds” raising “a divine ruckus of warring songs.”

Intoxicating in its rush of imagery, charming in its whimsical anthropomorphism, “Dawn Light” is also a time-traveling treasury of obscure information. Ackerman whisks us from pre-Christian Britain to medieval Japan and from light-starved northern Norway to north Australia as a “cloud glory,” a fogbank hundreds of miles long, rolls toward the coast. She knows why sunflowers bend, where the Easter bunny comes from, what kind of web a spider weaves when tripping arachnid-style on LSD.

Alert and inquisitive, she urges us with all her powers of articulation to do as she does, to open our senses to the “thisness” not just of each new day but of all the hours and seasons of our fleeting lives.

YOU WERE WRONG
By Matthew Sharpe
Bloomsbury, 192 pp., paperback, $14

When we first meet Karl Floor, a virginal 26-year-old high school teacher, he is having a very strange day. On the way home from school, he is mugged by two of his own students. He staggers home to find a beautiful intruder who introduces herself as a burglar. And his day is about to get a lot stranger.

Out of loyalty to his late mother, Karl lives in a state of miserable tension with his sarcasm-spewing stepfather, Larchmont Jones. This relationship is apparently the key to the bizarre adventures suddenly befalling Karl. But short on will and slow on the uptake even by his own admission, he stumbles along without a clue, following wherever those adventures lead.

Matthew Sharpe sets himself some high hurdles to clear in a novel that can cautiously be characterized as offbeat. Sullen, sluggish, and self-involved as any teenager, Karl is not a natural hero. To raise the ante, Sharpe uses an edgy, ironic narrative voice that keeps us guessing where to place our emotional bets. With craft and wit he meets the challenge, producing one of the weirdest love stories we’re likely to read anytime soon.

Amanda Heller, a critic and editor who lives in Newton, can be reached at ahellerst@gmail.com.