kirkus reviews

When it comes to love, everything is personal

Think back on "Love Story," that saccharine melodrama in which Al Gore — scratch that, Ryan O'Neal — finds true love, only to have the mean old Grim Reaper spoil the fun. Now, take the best parts of that movie and mash them up with "High Fidelity," a much superior yarn qua yarn even if Nick Hornby's original Britpop comedy didn't fully translate across the water. You've got Rob Sheffield's "Love Is a Mix Tape" (Crown, $22.95), an engagingly spun memoir in which a young couple's burning love for pop music and for each other puts the rest of the world in the distant back seat — one covered with albums and cassettes, those artifacts from another era.

Those older than 40 might feel a touch like artifacts themselves given some of the wondrous postmodern arcana with which the young couple entertain themselves. But no matter what the age, you have to like a book that hazards that Micky Dolenz, late of the Monkees, "was what happened if you smoked pot — you made screwy faces, you talked too loud, you bugged everybody." Sheffield's right. There's even a happy ending tucked in among the sorrow, and some new listening, too.

Andre Aciman's "Call Me by Your Name" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, $23) joins the wonder of first love to themes of exile and wandering. One could be arrested in certain parts of the world for the first love in question, which involves a bookish 17-year-old musician and a 24-year-old scholar with one foot in the world of the classical Greeks and another in whatever demimondes an Italian seaside village can offer. Oliver has cruelly good looks and looks cruelly at the world, and he's easily capable of using anyone who presents a convenience. Slathered in suntan oil, bronzing in the Mediterranean sun, he sends young Elio into a swoon.

Possibilities worthy of Patricia Highsmith loom, but though Oliver has his dangerous side, Aciman never quite dispenses with innocence. Elio's love has a certain chaste quality to it, and Oliver isn't without his emotions. The real hero of the story, though, is Elio's father, a thoughtful man of unsuspected depths, who counsels: "Right now there's sorrow. I don't envy you the pain. But I envy you the pain." That pain yields a happy ending of a sort, too. With shades of Marguerite Duras and Patrick White, it's a literate, beautifully written love story.

In 1925, novelist Willa Cather published a well-mannered story, "The Professor's House" (Vintage, $12.95), that turns out to have unsuspected depths of its own. On the surface, it deals with a middle-aged teacher who has become set in his ways, a little out of sorts and grumpy as well; there's some suggestion that his health isn't the best, and an ending worthy of M. Night Shyamalan hints that the professor might inhabit a different plane from the rest of us. Certainly his best student, killed in war, does, though Tom Outland has left behind a considerable fortune and a story within a story that would challenge the best screenwriter.

Whatever his faults, our professor remains in love with his wife and, indeed, with life itself; think "Love Story" meets "The Door in the Floor" meets "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" and you'll have at least something of this elegant novel's twisty contours. Some wise soul once remarked that Cather eventually would become more highly esteemed than Ernest Hemingway, and "House" provides a solid argument for the case. It would make a terrific film, too.

The unfortunate — and unremunerative, to judge by the reported boxoffice — "What the #$*! Do We Know!?" might well have spoiled the market for cinematic explorations of quantum physics, but if there's room for another tale it ought to emerge from the pages of versatile screenwriter and playwright Michael Frayn's "The Human Touch: Our Part in the Creation of the Universe" (Metropolitan Books, $32.50). We were born to gaze at the stars and wonder, and when we do, most of us tend to be humbled by the vastness of the universe vis-a-vis our tiny little selves. Be not daunted, Frayn counsels; instead, take courage in the fact that "the world has no form or substance without you and me to provide them, and you and I have no form or substance without the world to provide them in its turn."

That's a sentiment worthy of some head-scratching, as are other questions of the sort that used to keep college students awake at night: How do we know that we know? Do we ever really make decisions? Why do we say that there is a present when the present is already the past? Back in the day, "2001: A Space Odyssey" filled hushed theaters night after night. This inviting introduction to modern cosmology might well do the same thing. It's a mystery worth exploring.