Magazine article The New Yorker

Briefly Noted

Magazine article The New Yorker

Briefly Noted

Article excerpt

Why Did I Ever, by Mary Robison (Counterpoint; $23). Money Breton is struggling to keep it together: she detests her job (which she is in danger of losing) as a Hollywood script doctor; her daughter is a recovering heroin addict; her son was the victim of a violent crime; her boyfriend isn't so sharp; and she watches a great deal of TV with a man who's almost--but not quite--a perfect companion. If all this sounds grim, it is, and yet there's grace and humor in the slippage between the ideal and the real: sure, we fall short, Robison seems to say, but more often than not a shrug and a quip save us from desperation. The author, who is known as a minimalist, here creates a narrative out of fragmented paragraphs, and the book works best when she strips Money's most explicit fears away. At these moments, a simple sentence fragment--"Canoe, moon, ukelele"--seems a close to perfect expression of lost beauty.

The Subject Steve, by Sam Lipsyte (Broadway; $23.95). Steve is the subject of a medical study: he is dying of a disease that no one has ever seen before. His doctors, "freakshow impresarios" who could pass for deeply psychotic nephews of the Marx Brothers, dub it PREXIS: Preparatory Extinction Syndrome. But Steve is not ready to become extinct, and his adventures in resisting the inevitable make up the bulk of the book, as he looks for help from a generally unsympathetic cast, ranging from the sadistic, parable-obsessed cult leader Heinrich to Steve's near-genius daughter Fiona. A book about mortality is a risky prospect, but Lipsyte is very funny, and his stylistic high-wire act--a rowdy prose that is by turns shocking and lyrical--is equal to his daring premise.

Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82, by Elizabeth A. Fenn (Hill & Wang; $25). When smallpox broke out during the American Revolution, conditions for contagion were ideal. …

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