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Short takes

By Michael Ruhlman
Viking, 243 pp., $24.95

At first this seems to be another tale of ardor and angst surrounding the purchase and restoration of a beautiful but neglected old house. But soon the personal memoir -- spending too much, distrusting contractors, running out of baseboard molding -- is interrupted by historical references to the birth of the suburbs in America and specifically to Cleveland Heights, Ohio, where the author grew up and has now nostalgically returned with his wife and two young children.

Despite some bumpy spots in the work and the marriage, Michael Ruhlman feels happy to be grounded in one spot, rooted. He worries about the usual complaints leveled against suburban living -- provincialism, conformity, and worse. Then he grows fascinated by the history of the house, the arrival of the electric streetcar, the construction of elegant houses with modern devices such as central heating, indoor plumbing, running hot and cold water, electric light and power. He constructs for himself a vivid sense of the community's past. The ruthless contempt that has been heaped on suburban life has obscured the sweet reality of living on a graceful curving street in a four-room colonial, having friends nearby, watching your own and the neighborhood children play together in the twilight. These were real and attainable pleasures, and Ruhlman makes you remember and long for them even if you never had them.

A Circle of Sisters: Alice Kipling, Georgiana Burne-Jones, Agnes Poynter, and Louisa Baldwin
By Judith Flanders
Norton, 392 pp., illustrated, $27.95

Daughters of an unremarkable provincial Methodist minister, four of the five surviving Macdonald sisters made remarkable marriages, two producing great sons -- Nobel Prize-winning author Rudyard Kipling, and Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin.

The eldest, prettiest, and wittiest, Alice, after many engagements married the poor and unpromising John Lockwood Kipling and removed immediately to Bombay. Georgiana married the respected Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Byrne-Jones and endured the humiliations of his many affairs. Agnes married the ambitious academic painter Edward Poynter, and Louisa made the most advantageous match, into the Baldwin family, already wealthy from iron, tin plate, and metal. The fifth sister, Edie, who never married, remained to care for her mother and assume the burdens of the spinster aunt.

While there is a wealth of fascinating domestic detail here, there is a corresponding dearth of psychological speculation. Nowhere does Judith Flanders attempt to explain how these girls had the daring and foresight to make such interesting choices. Nor, while concentrating on the sisterly affection, does she address the vexing questions of sibling loyalty, rivalry, and inexplicable distance and neglect.

The Angel of Forgetfulness
By Steve Stern
Viking, 403 pp., $24.95

This is an ambitious attempt to soar through fiction and history into myth. Sprawling, exuberant, incantatory, the three-part story leaps through time, space, and spheres from the Lower East Side of 1910 New York to a synagogue in Prague and beyond.

Saul Bozoff, a shy wanderer, scholar, virgin, becomes obsessed with Jewish lore and is bequeathed the task of completing the story, begun a half-century earlier by Jewish Daily Forward reporter Nathan Hart, about a fallen angel named Mocky. Reasonably wary of taking on this legacy, Saul takes flight -- first to his parental home in Memphis, where, committed to a mental hospital, he meets a group of druggies and hippies who persuade him to join them on a commune in the Ozarks. After this experiment fails, Saul visits swinging London, then Prague. Eventually, he becomes a reclusive scribe and fabulator in the Berkshires. And at last, after tirelessly researching the great Yiddish tradition, he takes on his long-delayed task, to complete Hart's book, called, not unexpectedly, ''The Angel of Forgetfulness."

Barbara Fisher is a freelance critic who lives in New York.

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