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MARCH 6, 2000: 

A Home in the Heart of the City by Kathleen Hirsch (North Point Press), paper, $13

Kathleen Hirsch writes from the point of view of a poet: part philosopher, part reporter, and part visual artist. The reporting works best with this subject matter. Hirsch and her husband moved into the somewhat run-down, aggressively urban environment of Boston's Jamaica Plains neighborhood in search of a nice old house and a sense of community. Her profiles of various neighborhood personalities, along with her strong visual evocations of the buildings and natural setting, almost make you want to move there.

Almost, but not quite.

Hirsch is honest in addressing her worries about the schools and street crime, and only occasionally falls into smugness while discussing her own choices. She is a little self-congratulatory when she gets into the multiculturalism of the area; it is one thing for residents at her income level to "choose" the inner city, but her lower-income neighbors don't have a lot of choice in the matter. Part of what she experienced happens to anyone who has a child: You find out you have something in common with complete strangers. It may surprise her to know that not everyone can afford to take their children out to eat once a week, even to the charming and inexpensive local tavern. Her language and diction are rather awkward for someone who makes a living manipulating English, but that may be a deliberate aspect of her style. The last section includes some interesting but highly unrealistic recommendations for building community in the public schools. All in all, though, Kathleen Hirsch's heart is in the right place. -- Dorothy Cole

Reap by Eric Rickstad (Viking Press), hardcover, $23.95

Eric Rickstad's first novel, Reap, is a haunting, dark story that seethes with acute human emotion and vivid imagery. Set in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, Reap presents the story of Jessup Burke, a precocious 16-year-old boy, and his interactions with the disenfranchised Cumber family, former farmers struggling to make a living who end up growing and selling marijuana to make ends meet.

Rickstad's powers of description make the Vermont landscape luminous with color and immediacy. Turning each page is almost like opening the door to an open field. It is rare to come across an author who is able to make readers actually see a setting, rather than merely prompt their latent imaginations to passively grasp transparent outlines. The author's power of developing dialogue, which strikes one as awkward in the initial chapters, seems to blossom into stark realism, sparse phrasing and authentic accents that would leave any accomplished novelist or aspiring creative writing student writhing with jealousy.

Reap offers characters who speak volumes, not only in their near monotone, weary voices, but also in the thoughts that churn inside their troubled and often feverish minds. Absent fathers, family secrets, emotional isolation, violence, and financial hardships are explored through the interactions and reflections of Jessup, his mother, and his increasingly dangerous friends Reg, Marigold, and Hal Cumber. The realistic pacing of the novel draws the reader in to such an extent that you feel more like an immediate eyewitness than a detached reader. -- Amy DiBello

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