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Short Takes

By Mary Morris
St. Martin's, 230 pp., $21.95

Who is doing the using and who is being used? That is the question in this tautly plotted novel, genteel fiction with the anxious heartbeat of a psychological thriller.

Andrea Geller, a young artist, has been an emotional wreck since her father's death, which she insists her stepmother deliberately caused. Andrea's neighbor in the college town where they lead very different lives is Loretta Partlow, a sleekly successful and highly prolific novelist. Intrigued by the proximity of a celebrity, Andrea dips into some of Loretta's books. Even from the depths of her self-absorption she can see that Loretta, creatively speaking, has lately been spinning her wheels. Andrea decides to cultivate the older woman, hoping, by confiding in Loretta, to inspire a roman clef that will expose her stepmother's guilt.

Loretta may be suffering from writer's block, but she's no fool. The friendship develops, but on her own unpredictable terms. As hidden truths surface, Andrea, we realize, has replaced one unhealthy obsession with another. But that is not where the story ends. Mary Morris keeps the psychological balance of power shifting right up to the ironic finale.

Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?
By Harold Bloom
Riverhead, 284 pp., $24.95

Staunchly holding the fort against the miniaturization of literary criticism, Harold Bloom casts his capacious mind across the entirety of the Western canon and singles out a dozen or so of his favorite texts and authors, alternately zooming in for penetrating close-ups and pulling back to compare and contrast in magisterial overview.

Plato and Homer. Cervantes and Shakespeare. Emerson and Nietzsche. The quality they have in common is summed up by Bloom in the phrase ''wisdom literature." What is wisdom literature? Not philosophy, for in the ancient contest between philosophy and poetry, Bloom sides firmly with the latter. These are works that, in the words of Dr. Johnson, another Bloom favorite, ''let new light in upon the mind," works that, to borrow the title of an earlier Bloom volume, advance ''the invention of the human."

As the author himself, now aging and weakened by illness, is only too aware, few will be equipped to engage with these essays as deeply as they deserve, for who now reads Montaigne, Bacon, Goethe -- even the Bible as Bloom reads it, as the word not of God but of man, eligible for critical unpacking. That does not prevent this disingenuously self-described ''schoolteacher" from urging us one more time to sit at his feet and learn.

The Saint of Incipient Insanities
By Elif Shafak
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 368 pp., $25

It is a paradigm of the new American melting pot, the Somerville apartment where much of this voluble, high-energy novel takes place, a vat in which nothing melts but only gets mulled and muddled in contact with all the other exotic ingredients.

Here we find the lapsed Muslim mer, a graduate student from Turkey working his way through every woman and every bar from Harvard Yard to Davis Square and wondering where he mislaid his identity; Abed, a scientist and worrywart from Morocco; and Piyu, from Spain, a phobic dental student oblivious to the neuroses of his Latina girlfriend, Alegre, and intimidated by her multigenerational matriarchal clan. Rounding out the menage is Gail, a depressive vegan feminist and sometime lesbian with whom mer has fallen in love, a woman more radically out of place in her native America than all the hyphenates and psychically jet-lagged immigrants put together.

Shades of Zadie Smith's multicultural carnival (the narrative even mentions someone's ''white teeth," perhaps not entirely by coincidence), though here it's not the polyglot characters but the Turkish-born author, Elif Shafak, whose idiom is interestingly out of register. She celebrates her foreignness with baroque flourishes of insight issuing from somewhere through the looking glass.

Amanda Heller is a critic and editor who lives in Newton.

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