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JULY 28, 1997:  Birdsong
by Sebastian Faulks (Vintage, paper, $13)

With alarming recantations and heartbreaking detail, Faulks brings to life the chaos of WWI. Through the story of Stephen Wraysford--whose life is filled with loss, loneliness and a numbing resolution to live--Faulks describes the violence that took place in the trenches. Then, generations after the war in which Wraysford fought and proved himself a hero, his granddaughter Elizabeth Benson deciphers his memoirs to discover the larger meaning of her life and heritage. Through these two interwoven stories, Faulks captures a tragedy that transcends understanding and literal description. Although the book is at times predictable, the magnitude of events is not lost. The tragedies of WWI are incomprehensible, but remembering them is paramount, and Faulks effectively memorializes the impact and senselessness of this war. (TLC)

In Awe
by Scott Heim (Harper Collins, cloth, $24)

Scott Heim's first novel, Mysterious Skin, was a minor classic: beautifully written, charged with sexuality, containing a subplot of alien abduction. And like Mysterious Skin, Heim's second novel, In Awe, tells of small town avant-gardes coping with small-minded prejudice. Teenaged Boris is dying of love for redneck Rex; Sarah wants to become a horror show movie star; elderly Harriet mourns the loss of her son to AIDS. But where the plot of Skin churned and boiled, In Awe meanders and wanders through the depressing landscape of Kansas with little direction. What could have been an excellent short story falters upon expansion. Heim remains a disturbing and haunting stylist--In Awe undoubtedly shows his growing prowess in creating word imagery--but he can't overcome the mundane pace of his own plot. (AD)

Loving Wanda Beaver
by Allison Baker (Chronicle, paper, $11.95)

Wanda Beaver supervises the young girls who detassle corn during harvest each summer. And each year, Oleander Joy looks forward to this season, when she takes leave from her position as the processing clerk at the Library of Desire to work in the corn fields. It is her desire for Wanda that provides the basis for this opening story in Loving Wanda Beaver. In this collection of six short stories and one novella, Allison Baker delivers a hodge podge of modernized urban fairy tales. Their strongest suit is definitely the characters--with names like RayBob, Carl the Human Dog, Velveeta and Bear. All sensual, simple and often a bit crazy, Baker's stories are proof that sometimes you have to break all the rules of logic to create a story that most accurately portrays life in America. (JE)

Leave It To Me
by Bharati Mukherjee (Knopf, cloth, $23)

Calcutta-born, now an American citizen, Mukherjee has written insightfully in the past about the clash of Eastern and Western cultures. Leave It To Me incorporates that theme into the story of Debby DiMartino/Devi Dee, adopted from India into a white-bread American family, who goes to San Francisco in search of her mysterious roots. The novel seems to bite off more than it can chew, escalating into a Tarantino-style series of violence (slicing of extremities and all), while at the same time trying to maintain the suspense of the search-for-the-"bio-mom" mystery, comment on the Haight's hippie-turned-yuppie crew and draw from both the classic Electra story and the traditional tale of Devi the war god- dess. The result is unconvincing: Debby/Devi's voice seems overworked, a mixture of poetic hyperbole and American tough-girl speak; and the mystery falls flat. (JB)

--Tracy L. Cooley, Angie Drobnic, Jessica English and Julie Birnbaum

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