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All This Heavenly Glory

by Elizabeth Crane (Little, Brown)

Cast of Shadows

by Kevin Guilfoile (Knopf)

Looped

by Andrew Winston (Agate)

ALL THIS HEAVENLY GLORY | Elizabeth Crane

Charlotte Anne Byers is no loser; she's just what your mom might describe with mild concern as "undirected." She says she laid on the booze in college, but those years are spottily examined in this collection of stories about her life, so her decision to join AA seems more an attempt to straighten her slouch than a response to serious substance abuse. In this and other respects--a mother lost to cancer, a move from NYC to Chicago--Charlotte Anne is cut from the same cloth as a number of the narrators in Crane's first book of stories, When the Messenger Is Hot (2003). But thankfully, just as Lorrie Moore's protagonists are likably alike in their wry humor, Crane's smart, sweet sensibility is one I'm happy to see return in multiple incarnations.

All This Heavenly Glory chronicles the vicissitudes of Charlotte Anne's friendships and dalliances with boys, with all the bumps and snarls that come with such territory. It also charts the development of her city-girl-to-the-max attitude, which allows her to be both full-on charming and fully prepared for, say, a proposition from a creepy soft-porn filmmaker. A full dose of this quarter-life-crisis narrative could be wearying, but happily Crane spends equal ink on the adventures of young Charlotte Anne, whose 1970s Upper West Side childhood is fleshed out with kid's-eye observations of seventh-grade fashions, favored haircuts (the "China Chop"), and the slights she receives in list-form notes from friends ("Reasons Why I Don't Want To Be Friends With You: 1. you're uptight you should try pot it might help").

Set against her later missteps and unfortunate encounters, the stories from Charlotte Anne's youth highlight just how few steps children are removed from their adult selves. A dateless teen, she still hasn't seen much satisfying relationship action by the time she's 30. But she's well educated, pretty, and hardly impoverished, and though her parents are divorced, it's not a source of great trauma. Hers is a basically happy childhood that nevertheless results in adult drift--a common enough progression in the real world, but rare in fiction, where grownup troubles usually have clear antecedents in dysfunction. It's refreshing to see a less tidy cause and effect on the page.

Crane's stream-of-consciousness style is also consistent with her first book: imagine David Foster Wallace, but with the footnotes embedded in the text. It's been called "breathless," but a better description would be "relentless." Thoughts nest one inside another inside another; parentheses abound, often separated by miles from their mates; commas far outnumber periods. The approach doesn't allow for much in the way of full-blown scenes or dialogue, and, as in the first collection, these are a few points where she ditches traditional narrative entirely in favor of an extended list or outline. Though all of this occasionally tries my patience, it should secure Crane's reputation as a stylist--one who makes her readers work--and keep the book safely out of the pink ghetto of chick-lit. --Susannah J. Felts

Elizabeth Crane

When: Wed 4/6, 7:30 PM; Thu 4/7, 7 PM

Where: Barbara's Bookstore, 1100 Lake, Oak Park (Wed); 57th Street Books, 1301 E. 57th (Thu)

Info: 708-848-9140; 773-684-1300

CAST OF SHADOWS | Kevin Guilfoile

It feels wrong to come down hard on a writer for being too ambitious, but Kevin Guilfoile's reach far exceeds his grasp of the issues raised in his first novel. Cast of Shadows begins in a familiar future seemingly just a couple minutes ahead of our own time. Davis Moore is a fertility specialist in Chicago's north suburbs, using DNA from recently deceased anonymous donors to clone babies for childless couples. When his own teenage daughter is raped and murdered, Moore clones semen taken from the crime scene and places the resulting child with an unsuspecting pair of parents--believing that, once the child grows up, he'll be able to see what the killer looked like.

That smashing idea raises all sorts of interesting questions, which Guilfoile proceeds to bury beneath story lines until it feels like at least three different novels have been crammed into one. A private eye noses around a small Nebraska town. Another P.I. parlays her experience into an investigative reporting job at the Tribune. On the north side, a serial killer works his way through a string of young women, and a suburban housewife drinks and drugs herself into despair and beyond. Then there's the religious fanatic traveling the country attacking doctors and fertility clinics, while everyone else is logged on to an Internet game called Shadow World. Life is complicated, sure. And when a doctor plays Frankenstein it becomes more so. But Cast of Shadows never shakes itself awake into a real page-turner--it's hard to call the book a thriller, techno- or otherwise.

What Cast of Shadows wants to be is a novel of ideas, but Guilfoile, a former adman, McSweeney's humorist, and author (with John Warner) of the Dubya-bashing parody My First Presidentiary, abandons his probe into the fundamental nature-or-nurture question at the heart of his tale. In particular, the repeated forays into Shadow World, an alternate digital universe where much of the second half of the novel takes place, dilute his original inquiry and snuff whatever narrative drive he's been able to generate. And upon return to this flesh-and-blood existence, one notices how thinly drawn the characters are, more game pieces than people.

Twenty years into the story, Guilfoile finally provides a genuinely surprising plot twist, then pulls off a couple further stunners, although the first is revealed in a pedantic and out-of-character speech. That goes on for pages. Until all surprise is sucked dry. If only I could've read a muscular cautionary tale on the hubris of science. Or a snappy gumshoe caper. Or a cyberpunk meditation on the nature and limits of consciousness. Oh, if only I could've read something less...ambitious. --Patrick Daily

LOOPED | Andrew Winston

Andrew Winston's first novel, Looped, is a Tales of the City-style web of stories tracking the comings and goings and couplings of a multicultural array of Chicago residents over the course of a year. It's a creative, challenging premise, but though Winston tries admirably to weave a sprawling narrative out of the many disparate plot threads, he never quite finds his stride.

The main players stake out their territory early. First are Brad and Alice, bandmates and coworkers in a Wicker Park cafe-cum-flower shop. Then, in quick succession, Winston introduces aspiring filmmaker Ellen; Florence, a 73-year-old widow who lives in a Belmont Avenue high-rise; Art Institute employee Nathan and his caterer boyfriend, Robin; south-side mailman Alphonse; and finally Greek diner owner Elias and Uptown high school student Ng.

As individual story lines play out across the remaining 400-plus pages, Winston piles on the exposition: Brad, encouraged by a scene whore, ditches the band and Alice for New York. Florence struggles with the loss of her husband. Ng, a promising artist, is continually harassed by Argyle Street toughs. Nathan buys flowers from Alice; Alice gets a crush on Nathan; Ellen gets a crush on Alice. There's not much time to get involved in one story before you're whisked off to another, and I never got emotionally engaged enough with any of the characters to really care what happened to them. Alphonse, the mail-hoarding postman, is the most sympathetic--and least self-centered--character; despite the strain of his daughter's drug use and his son's flirtation with gangbangers, he faces his troubles with as much dignity as he can muster. Others adhere to stereotype: Quick-with-a quip Robin and semicloseted Nathan--whose relationship is tested by the visit of Nathan's uncle, a priest--come off as caricatures better suited to cameos on Will & Grace. And Brad and Alice's hipster bandmates--who spend a lot of time pursuing gigs at "the Fusebox"--often come off as just plain lame.

The novel is strongest in its episodic depiction of city life and the daily trials and tribulations of urban residents, whose paths cross erratically as they attempt to connect with others emotionally, socially, and physically. ("It is so complicated to make friends, getting close enough to strangers to see the troubles they have," thinks Ng, at one point.) The Chicago of Looped doesn't have big shoulders and it's not a city on the make, but Winston, a former editor of the Chicago Review, knows the terrain. --Jerome Ludwig

Andrew Winston

WHEN: Thu 4/7, 7:30 PM

WHERE: Borders, 4718 N. Broadway

INFO: 773-334-7338

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