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Fat Girl: A True Story
By Judith Moore
Hudson Street, 196 pp., $21.95

If you like tales about ugly ducklings who grow up to be swans, go read someone else's memoirs, says Judith Moore. This is the story of an unhappy fat girl who grew up to be an unhappy fat woman, and if you can't stand to read it, imagine what it's been like to live it.

Her parents' misery of a marriage shattered when Judith was just a toddler. She was dumped on her maternal grandmother, an Arkansas farmer, who raised her as if she were a piglet being fattened for market. At 6 she was reclaimed by her disgusted mother, who put her on a starvation diet of dry toast, threats, and beatings. It didn't work. By third grade, tubby Judith needed boys' shoes and women's underwear. She developed sneaky, self-destructive habits. Teachers recommended a visit to the family doctor. ''We didn't have a family doctor," writes Moore. ''We didn't have a family."

Leading this Dickensian lifestyle did not teach her forbearance. It taught her self-protective wit and righteous indignation, which make for a much more interesting read. By the end of this gloriously splenetic rant Moore may still be fat, but she has surely taken her revenge.

Seize the Daylight: The Curious and Contentious Story of Daylight Saving Time
By David Prerau
Thunder's Mouth, 256 pp., $23

Waggish Ben Franklin expressed astonishment that, although the sun came up before 6 a.m. in London, the inhabitants rose hours later, stayed up well after dark, ''and yet often complain, a little absurdly, of the duty on candles." It would take over a century before a new era, concerned with efficiency, profit, and leisure, devised a serious solution to Franklin's puckish problem, and another century for it to be accepted so broadly that now, even Antarctica, with its 24-hour summer days, observes daylight saving time.

For most of the 20th century, this engaging history tells us, to save or not to save daylight was a troublesome question, creating a patchwork of controversy and chaos, frustrating farmers, perplexing passengers, even foiling terrorists who neglected to synchronize their watches. Partisans pro and con lined up for the perennial political tug of war, as the irresistible liberal force, the argument for legislating the general good, came up against the immovable conservative object, outrage at defying the laws of God and nature, otherwise known as standard time, created not on the first or even the sixth day but in the late 19th century by fiat of British Rail.

Drives Like a Dream
By Porter Shreve
Houghton Mifflin, 272 pp., $23

Porter Shreve, whose first novel, ''The Obituary Writer," received a warm critical welcome, seems to be stuck in first gear in ''Drives Like a Dream."

His heroine, Lydia Modine, has built her life around family. Even her career -- she is a historian of the automobile industry -- is a tribute to her father, a pioneering car designer. Suddenly she finds herself at a crossroads. Her husband has left her for a younger woman. Her grown children have scattered to distant parts of the country. Even her father, she discovers, may not have been the automotive hero she always believed him to be. Depressed and fearful of a lonely old age, she gets her children's attention by claiming to be caught up in a whirlwind romance, a charade she must go to humiliating lengths to maintain when the lie brings her children running.

Played as screwball comedy -- even with a 61-year-old matron as the foil -- the credibility-straining plot might have worked; but Shreve's approach is too prim and sentimental for farce. Nor does he attack like a feminist avenging angel, à la Fay Weldon. His intentions are a muddle. Lydia may take a wrong turn, but it's the author who seems to have gotten lost.

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

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