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Short Takes

A Way From Home
By Nancy Clark
Pantheon, 345 pp., $25

''A Way From Home," Nancy Clark's arch sequel to ''The Hills at Home," finds American ex-pats Alden Lowe and his disaffected wife, Becky, in Prague, living in a rented castle and instructing the newly liberated Czechs (the year is 1991) on the care and feeding of capitalism.

Suddenly, after 20-odd years of marriage and four children, Becky takes an unaccountable leap into the void and runs off to be with William, the man she believes she should have married in the first place. William, a disgraced Foreign Service officer, has gone un-extraditably to ground in Libya, where, unmolested by the regime, he is restoring a Mediterranean villa that dates from the Roman Empire while cherishing his lifelong obsession with Becky. In fact, William strikes us as not entirely sane, and Becky seems as mad as he to risk all for middle-aged romance.

Clark is American but writes British (prototypes from Waugh to Coward come to mind), or at least in the High Yankee style we associate with Katharine Hepburn movies. The protagonists may fail to convince, but Clark's minor characters, and especially her set pieces, are brilliant, from the weekend idyll when a young Becky and William first fall in love to William's Libyan retreat revealing its Roman frescoes to the astonished eyes of Arab handymen.

The Rescue Artist: A True Story of Art, Thieves, and the Hunt for a Missing Masterpiece
By Edward Dolnick
HarperCollins, 288 pp., $25.95

In February 1994, literally on the eve of the Lillehammer Olympics, thieves broke into Oslo's National Gallery and made off with Edvard Munch's neurotic masterpiece, ''The Scream." Humiliated in the global spotlight, Norway had lost more than a national treasure.

Edward Dolnick has fun recounting this true crime caper, and his enjoyment is infectious. Contrary to the glamorous Hollywood myth, he assures us, most art thieves are bumblers out of Elmore Leonard. They steal a brand-name artwork, a Rembrandt or a Picasso, and are amazed to find they can't cash it in as easily as a hot Rolex. The hero of the ''Scream" story is Charley Hill, the ultra-colorful Scotland Yard detective who mounted the sting operation that reunited the painting with the hapless Norwegian authorities.

Two postscripts: First, just as the book was going to press, a second version of ''The Scream," a fraternal twin to the one at the National Gallery, was stolen from another Oslo museum. The least surprised man on the planet was Hill, who considers ''museum security" an oxymoron. Second, Hill is now pursuing the Holy Grail of unsolved art heists, the 1990 break-in at Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. We eagerly await developments.

Brain Work
By Michael Guista
Mariner, 192 pp., paperback, $12

True to its title, this collection of stories focuses on the mind, in a number of senses: intellectual (some involve an academic setting), psychological (several depict mental illnesses or disorders), and spiritual. Some of the characters are hung up on guilt, either free-floating or chillingly specific; some are dependent on psychoactive drugs (the names Topamax, Paxil, Celexa hum mantra-like through the narratives) to keep them a step ahead of total dysfunction.

Several of the more eccentric stories present people for whom religious faith is more -- far more -- than a matter of course. A psychiatrist declares himself to be a seeker after the soul, which is made no less sacred for him by what he knows to be its neurological component. A woman, heeding divine guidance, moves the bedroom furniture to the front yard. Her husband seems unfazed by her explanation. Is this folie à deux or a metaphor for sectarian belief? In treating the American Gothic strain of spirituality in short fiction, Michael Guista does not approach the gold standard set half a century ago by Flannery O'Connor. His stories nevertheless pique our interest, and a few cut deeper than that.

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

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