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Short Takes

Stealing Buddha's Dinner
By Bich Minh Nguyen
Viking, 256 pp., $24.95

Bich Minh Nguyen's hunger to be accepted is absolutely literal. As a refugee from Vietnam in 1975, she wants to eat her way into American life. Disdaining her grandmother's shrimp stews and chicken curries and her Latina stepmother's Mexican rice and tortillas, she wants to dine on pork chops and mashed potatoes, snack on Pringles and Doritos, and treat herself with sweets from "Little Debbie, Dolly Madison, Swiss Miss, all the bakeries presided over by prim and proper girls."

Living in Grand Rapids, Mich ., with her Vietnamese grandmother, father, two uncles, and sister, her Latina stepmother and step-sister, and her half-Vietnamese, half-Mexican half brother, she wants to be like her neighbors, the Vander Wals: white, blond, and Christian. In grade school, she becomes a star student and an avid reader, but more than anything else, she is an eater. She even reads to eat. "I wanted all the dinners from Little House on the Prairie, all those biscuits and salt pork, grease seeping into the fried potatoes." When her tastes change, her appetite remains unappeased. She is always hungry. Late in her perfectly pitched and prodigiously detailed memoir, Bich discovers her mother and visits her homeland, but she is now an American girl in a blended family as much as a Vietnamese refugee, and thus not fully at home anywhere. Told from a different angle, this could be a satire on the consumer culture of 20th-century America, but for Bich the brightly packaged plenty of America is bliss.

Mr. Wrong: Real-Life Stories About the Men We Used to Love
Edited by Harriet Brown
Ballantine, 272 pp., $24.95

Raphael Kadushin , the one male contributor to this droll collection of essays, defines Mr. Wrong as "someone who teaches you what you need to know, when you need to know it." The two dozen female contributors concur, as they tell their tales of obsession, danger, longing, delusion, disillusion. Mr. Wrong was the guy who, as he crushed her body, misunderstood her mind, or ignored her soul, exposed her vulnerabilities, revealed her perversities, and directed her elsewhere.

In the most surprising essay, "My First Husband's Girlfriend and Me," Caroline Leavitt tells of the relationship she developed after her husband cheated on her and then left her for another woman. Approached by the other woman, she finds herself engaged as a confidante and confessor. Using the other woman's experience to reflect on her own, Leavitt moves on. In the funniest essay, Susan Jane Gilman catalog s all the old myths that keep women from loving the right men. My favorite description of the perfect guy: "He will be the cowboy in the white Stetson -- tough, unflinchingly masculine, and edgy -- but never in any way that makes him emotionally remote or truly dangerous. Ultimately, Mr. Right is a stereotypical gay man -- but straight. . . . He will be a fairy tale come true -- part fairy, part tail." In one of the most disturbing essays, Joyce Maynard recalls the love letters -- containing "a kind of animal passion and fearlessness " -- that sustained her through a punishing divorce. Maynard is a sucker for the prisoner's loneliness and longing. She refuses to investigate why this paragon is behind bars. When she discovers the nature of his crime, she is shocked by her own foolishness and neediness.

By Carmen Laforet
Translated, from the Spanish, by Edith Grossman
Modern Library, 244 pp., $22.95

Originally published in 1945, this Spanish classic delicately describes the loss of innocence. Andrea, an 18-year-old student, is sent to Barcelona to live with members of her family. They are a volatile, violent, hysterical lot. She understands nothing of their shrieking, slapping, crying. Every day in her family's grim house on Calle de Aribau, "the morning smelled of clouds and damp tires. . . . Lifeless yellow leaves fell from the trees in a slow rain." But over the course of a year, the haze that envelops the city and the torpor that enervates her dissipate.

Uncle Juan berates and beats his wife, Gloria, in front of their infant son. Uncle Roman, a charmer, seducer, and failed musician, retreats to his private chamber. Aunt Angustias takes off for a convent after being attacked and accused. Grandma defends her spoiled and useless sons. Andrea's friend from university, the beautiful Ena, is drawn to the craven Roman. Eventually, all of these mysterious melodramas will make some sort of sense. Life rearranges itself in Andrea's mind. The reordering occurs so gently, in such a fine jostling of impressions, that she herself hardly notices it happening. When she leaves Barcelona in the clear morning air, she believes she is taking nothing with her -- nada -- but she has taken a whole new perception of herself and the world.

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