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Short Takes

Committed: Men Tell Stories of Love, Commitment, and Marriage
Edited by Chris Knutsen and David Kuhn
Bloomsbury, 225 pp., $24.95

The neurotic, needy whiners are the most fun in this collection of stories and essays on love and marriage. Tad Friend in ''The King of Banter," Nicholas Weinstock in ''How Not to Score," and David Grand in ''Love to Hate Me" describe their fears and failures, then are gratefully surprised and bewildered to find that a bright, beautiful, and sexy woman actually wants them. Rick Moody learns to love his girlfriend's old and ailing cat, and from there it is a short step to the altar and the possibility of getting a new kitten.

Colin Harrison in ''Incision" writes movingly of his parents' long and complex marriage. David Owen delights in his naïve good luck in finding the right woman early and going ahead and marrying her.

These men often can't figure out how to be with one person, but when they do, they are astoundingly happy. John Burnham Schwartz says, ''For who can fathom the illogical reasons, the terrifying depths of commitment, the brazen farsightedness that might lead a whole person to passionately bind her soul to a broken one? I am here today to tell you that I was once the recipient of such a bestowal, which can only be called love."

Nice Big American Baby
By Judy Budnitz
Knopf, 304 pp., $23

From her portrait on the book jacket, Judy Budnitz looks like a prim New England prep-school girl, but she has the imagination of a haunted Eastern European political prisoner. Her stories, set in an uncanny and often uncaring world, gesture toward political discontent but resist outrage.

In ''Where We Come From" a desperate pregnant young woman repeatedly attempts to crash through the US border from an unnamed country. Caught and returned over and over again, she carries her baby in utero for four years, trying to ensure that it will be born a citizen, grow big and fat and healthy. ''Nadia," a mail-order bride from Eastern Europe, tries to adapt to her new country but is never fully alive with her husband. After surviving a dramatic drowning, she admits that she has been living a near-death experience all of her life. ''Saving Face" recounts the strange sequence of events by which the image of an innocent girl replaces the ominous gaze of the prime minister in a series of looming portraits. The artist responsible for the portrait loves his model and is rewarded for his constancy. But the artist and model, and their relationship to the government, remain a taunting conundrum.

The Swimmer
By Zsuzsa Bánk
Harcourt, 278 pp., $23

After their mother picks up and leaves Vat, a small town in Hungary, in 1956, Kata and Isti are left with their neglectful father. He barely notices them, lost in his own reveries and miseries, as he moves them from one relative to another. Kata, the elder, must take care of herself and watch out for her little brother, who becomes more and more distracted and detached from the world. Checking train schedules keeps him tethered to the solid reality of life for a while, but soon he hears the sounds of the waves in the lake and is uncertain if he is awake or asleep.

Once Isti learns to swim, the water calls to him, a more comfortable medium than air. Kata does her best to protect him, but it is clear that he will slip away. Kata manages to keep herself afloat in the constantly changing stream of her life by patiently watching and worrying over Isti. ''I didn't want to go to new houses, new yards, see new faces that wouldn't mean anything to me at first and then would come to mean too much," says Kata in the simple, plaintive voice that guides this lovely novel.

Barbara Fisher is a freelance critic who lives in New York.See ''Bookings," Page D8, for information on a local appearance by Judy Budnitz.

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