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Short Takes

Good Women: Three Novellas
By Jane Stevenson
Mariner, 232 pp., paperback, $12

Sly, crafty women get what they want in Jane Stevenson's three clever novellas. Best of all, they don't need to take responsibility for wanting and arranging to have their desires met. Triumph without gloating or guilt is the special gift these women give themselves. They also often wind up with the good real estate.

In ''Light My Fire" a bombshell of a woman needs to blow up the small Scottish castle her husband, an architect, has restored especially for her in order to blast herself out of her marriage. The recent widow of ''Garden Guerrillas" makes genteel war against her son and daughter-in-law to save her garden and salvage her life. Her final act of revenge through vegetation is brilliantly civilized and brutal at once.

In the subtlest story, ''Walking With Angels," an unappreciated older woman starts to see angels. They appear to her, golden and glowing, helping her to channel her energy and rearrange her furniture. Developing her spiritual side, she discovers her head for business. She also inadvertently manages some useful heavenly business.

On Michael Jackson
By Margo Jefferson
Pantheon, 146 pp., $20

As the jacket of her book attests, Margo Jefferson is a ''Pulitzer-Prize winning critic for The New York Times." But her book is a tedious jumble of cliches, generalizations, folk wisdom, pop psychology, and stargazing.

Michael Jackson endured a miserable childhood, rehearsing for endless hours to please his abusive and tyrannical father. He adored his protective mother and competed for the spotlight with his many brothers in the Jackson Five. When he emerged as a star, he patterned himself on ''supermodel Diana Ross," later on ''palely exotic Liz Taylor," and finally on ''the ethereal Jackie O." Having never had a childhood, he chose to live among children. Jackson has altered his physical self -- his color, his features -- through surgery, makeup, hairstyle, and costume to such a degree that ''we look. We shiver. We want to turn away." After giving voice to her sense of our discomfort, Jefferson poses these questions: ''What is it: Self-hatred? Fear and loathing of human beings? . . . The desire for a kind of perfection most of us cannot see and that he will not share with us? A will to change reality that is a postmodern version of hubris?" She provides a brief sketch of Jackson's trial for child molestation, then concludes, ''Mental illness distorts and maims, but it does not have to be criminal." In her final line, she writes, ''Michael Jackson speaks to and for the monstrous child in us all." He doesn't speak for me.

The Dream Life of Sukhanov
By Olga Grushin
Putnam, 354 pp., $24.95

As a young man with an undeniable artistic talent and an understandable need for security, Anatoly Sukhanov chose to become an art critic and party hack. Rising to become editor in chief of the Soviet Union's most influential art magazine, he trashed art that ''pervert[ed] the sacred purpose of art -- that of leading mankind to new triumphs, to the greater and fuller realization of its potential" and proclaimed the virtues of social realism. The surrealists Salvador Dali, Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso, were harmful peddlers of irrationality and meaninglessness.

In this novel, 25 years later, the choice between art and respectability becomes his again, as he recognizes what the original decision has cost him. Having complacently accepted the perks and power of his position, he avoided inquiring into the nature of his work, the love of his family, the loyalty of his friends. Once he looks at visions, dreams, alternatives, he discovers that little was what he assumed it to be.

Only in the former Soviet Union was art taken as seriously as it is here. Olga Grushin's engaged yet dreamy novel makes one nostalgic for a world where a man can lose his soul for writing an article with the title ''Surrealism and Other Western 'Isms' as Manifestations of Capitalist Insolvency" and save it by praising the flying beasts of Chagall.

Barbara Fisher is a freelance critic who lives in New York.

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