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May 20, 2007|Susan Salter Reynolds

The Secret Lives of People in Love

Simon Van Booy

Turtle Point Press: 156 pp., $14.95 paper

ONE worries, after reading a debut short-story collection this breathtaking, what Simon Van Booy could possibly do for an encore. Write something longer? Take up haiku? Wander the world like a sadhu for a few decades and send us another book as chillingly beautiful, like postcards from Eden?

Maybe it's the pain of love, of loving kindness, that shoots through these brief stories and fixes them in a reader's memory. In "Little Birds," a 15-year-old orphan raised by Michel, an ex-prisoner who found him in a train car, has known nothing but love all his life despite his unlikely guardian. ("What happens on the Pigalle, stays on the Pigalle," Michel tells the boy, of his night life.) In "Where They Hide Is a Mystery," little Edgar's beloved mother has just died. His father slides into silence. Disconsolate, Edgar wanders into a park and meets a man who explains the impermanence and permeability of death. " 'My own wife,' the man said with a mouthful of orange, 'is the blend of light in late summer that pushed through the smoky trees to the soft fists of windfallen apples. Would you like some orange?' " They go to Edgar's mother's favorite Chinese restaurant and visit places he and his mother went together. In an evening, the man transforms Edgar's sorrow into something less lonely. City streets in Paris and New York, couples in love, park benches are backdrops. Van Booy's stories are somehow like paintings the characters walk out of, and keep walking.

**

Darwin's Origin of Species

A Biography

Janet Browne

Atlantic Monthly Press: 174 pp., $20.95

THIS little volume, one in Atlantic Monthly Press' series on "books that changed the world," is rather like a refresher course on Darwin and how his 1859 treatise, "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection," changed the way we think of the world and our place in it.

Author Janet Browne ("Voyaging," "The Power of Place," a two-volume biography of Darwin) is impressed by the personal style of his work, by the many ways in which it does not "fit the usual stereotype of what we nowadays expect science to be." She refers repeatedly to Darwin's steadiness and likability in many contexts, his five years on the HMS Beagle, his 40 years in the village of Downe and his gentlemanly conduct in the scientific community, even when he was being attacked for his ideas.

Browne tries as well to make sense of Darwin's relationship to religion as it changed throughout his lifetime: As a young man, he considered a career in the clergy; as a father whose beloved child Annie (age 10) had just died, he questioned the existence of God; as a scientist, he maintained a healthy respect for a concept in which he no longer truly believed.

In the end, Browne shows great respect for the purity of Darwin's intellectual, moral and spiritual endeavors. She believes in, and conveys, the lasting power of his legacy -- to science and to human culture.

**

Awkward

A Detour

Mary Cappello

Bellevue Literary Press: 238 pp., $16.95 paper

FINALLY, there is a study of awkwardness in all its many forms: speech, touch, breathing in public, clumsiness.

Author Mary Cappello writes of situational awkwardness; of immigration and its attendant awkwardness; of how it pops up between family members, even nations; and of the important place it has assumed in the lives of creative people (Emily Dickinson, Henry James and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, to name a few).

In "Awkward," Cappello has written the book she wanted to read. It is an unplanned manifesto against the shiny smoothness of thought, movement and desire. "Let us turn away. Let us turn awkwardly and see where we arrive. Toward an alternative system of ardor and gist, of ebullience and drift, of being and bearing. Toward speaking with the breath held. Un-toward."

*

susan.reynolds@latimes.com

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