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July 19, 1998|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS | Susan Salter Reynolds is an assistant editor of Book Review

OBJECT OF YOUR LOVE: Stories. By Dorothy Speak (St. Martins: 196 pp., $21.95)

Short stories have a way of containing the ticktock of daily life in an ominous, shattering way. Novels seem to need a little more vista, a little more perspective, some gentleness. Stories can be unrelenting, cruel to the last drop, and get away with it.

Dorothy Speak is from Ottawa, Canada. Her stories are like windows breaking in another room. Someone hits a high C; someone throws something. You are sitting in the living room, the main part of the story, chatting with one of her characters and, crash, you hear it. The hysteria in these stories takes place outside the plot.

And they are all studies in self-destruction. In "Eagle's Bride," Stella has gone to live in an Inuit settlement with a stone-cold man still in love with the wife who left him. In "A River Landscape," Hedda tries periodically to kill herself until her sons and her husband abandon her. In "Object of Your Love," Jean runs away from home, believing that her employer, Dr. Beveridge, will leave his wife and join her. The smallness in people, the meanness, the coldness, the banality of their sins makes the plots containing these stories burst at their steely seams.

THE NIGHTBIRD CANTATA. By Donald Rawley (Bard/Avon Books: 246 pp., $23)

L.P., short for Lindsay Paul, is a poor little rich boy growing up in Phoenix in the '60s with his glamorous, wealthy, overbearing grandmother ("a tarantula in mink") and his floundering mother. The summer of his 10th year, his mother drives off to San Diego to get married, and he is sent to live with his grandmother's maid, Betty, and her husband, Frank. "They tried their best to make a white boy feel comfortable; in return, I was expected to . . . be a boy, something I had never thought of." He learns that summer that he is a boy who prefers boys, but more important, he begins to pack that suitcase in which a person carries the memories and allegiances that give us dignity and strength. Before, he had only the trappings of bitter women--names of perfumes, names of movies stars, reference points that are enhanced by Betty, by the Colored Ladies Bowling League of South Phoenix, by Betty's love for her citrus trees. L.P. has a long way to go to promising adulthood, but Rawley sends him on his way in this coming-of-age novel.

A GERMAN PICTURESQUE. By Jason Schwartz (Alfred A. Knopf: 134 pp., $21)

"Consider that the older goblet had been immured, with certain persons, and with a hand bell and a poniard, at a nunnery in Worms." OK, now try this: "Well, the pall in the bother--the gnaw and the mewl, so to speak, in the wool. The terrifying stoop, the color at the windows, an odor. Mercy, how it was stopped (and settled)." You're trying, aren't you, to understand what these quotes refer to, and I am here to tell you that they do not refer to anything. And to everything. If you let them, and if you have a reasonable image bank in your mind from movies, books, paintings, plays or music, the nouns will be the bones, the adjectives the cartilage or skin and the verbs will be the organs. A reader really does have to blow the spirit into these little stories, to inspire the work. It is easier with the longer pieces in the second section, and more fun when the author does not interject himself, as in: "Let me describe this," or "Permit me an aside." I love the story "Octave," which begins: "The leaves deceive us. Likewise the knives" and ends, several paragraphs later: "The rug curls back at the corners. The leaves keen. I depart the room rather charmlessly."

AHMED'S REVENGE. By Richard Wiley (Random House: 320 pp., $23)

"We live our lives in three acts: the first, to know we are alive; the second, to try to understand; the third, to work and grow." Strange, isn't it? An oddly brittle little formula, one that reveals the quixotic temper of this novel in three acts.

Nora and her husband, Julius, have a coffee farm in Africa, 80 miles west of Nairobi. This colonialist thriller, a mysterious tale of tusk smuggling and a tangle of relationships, could take place only in a world of privacy, secrets and inattention. Nora discovers, after her husband's death from a gunshot wound, that her husband and her father (the ex-minister of wildlife) have colluded in a joke--poaching artificial tusks and selling them in Europe. Except that the joke is on them because the tusks turn out to be real. Nora is one of those rare characters whose emotional chilliness alienates even her readers, leaving a novel long on plot and a pleasant, if slightly bloodless, evocation of Africa.

ZARAFA: A Giraffe's True Story, From Deep in Africa to the Heart of Paris. By Michael Allin (Walker: 216 pp., $22)

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