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Short Takes

The Sabotage Café
By Joshua Furst
Knopf, 253 pp., $23.95

An unstable mother begets an unstable daughter. Or perhaps the daughter is merely a projection, reenactment, or reincarnation of the mother's instability. We are inside Julia's head as she imagines in precise detail her 16-year-old daughter Cheryl's flight from home onto the streets and back alleys of Minneapolis.

Following Julia's dramatic breakdown, Cheryl takes off. She heads for the area where the runaways, punks, anarchists, losers, and junkies go, and ends up at the Sabotage Café. Once there, she has herself pierced and tattooed, goes home with a shy lonely boy, then hooks up with a tough-talking kid. Aching to be transformed into a new being, she adapts to this world and its rules -- drinking, drugging, stealing, crashing. The gritty world of riot, rebellion, alienation, and despair is perfectly rendered or remembered by Julia. "She was my daughter, and doomsday thoughts came quicker than optimism, fantasy came easier than logic, and the urge to fill the gaps in her knowledge with morbid delusions overwhelmed her." Julia and Cheryl struggle against sickness, madness, and a mistrust of their emotions. As readers, we constantly struggle against a mistrust of the admittedly unhinged narrator, and this struggle lifts the story above the familiar tale of leaving home.

Love Life
By Ray Kluun
Translated, from the Dutch, by Shaun Whiteside
St. Martin's, 320 pp., paperback, $14.95

"Unsentimental" is one way to describe the tone of this novel (based on personal experience), but "unfeeling" is more accurate. Dan, a 30-something yuppie, has had no reason to grow out of his adolescent life. When he learns that Carmen, his beautiful buxom wife, is going to die from a virulent form of breast cancer, he is unable to get his mind around the news. He continues to drink, drug, club, and bed-hop.

During the two years between Carmen's diagnosis and death, Dan stays resolutely in tune with himself and in touch with his own needs. His wife's feelings hardly impinge on him, and his 1-year-old daughter's feelings seem beyond his imagination. He is unapologetic about his need for other women, even coining a word for his habit: "monophobia: a morbid fear of a sexually monogamous life, leading to a compulsive need for infidelity." His one other coined word, "wrample: a fragment of music or text inserted into a passage of writing," one of which appears at the beginning of each brief chapter, refers to his other consuming interest -- pop lyrics. While his wife loses her hair, one of her splendid breasts, her mobility, her dignity, and eventually her life, Dan pursues his pleasures, taking on a serious mistress, Rosa, toward the end. As Carmen bravely says goodbye to her friends, makes tapes and scrapbooks for her daughter, plans her funeral, Dan observes with admiration and pride. At the very end, when nothing more can be done for Carmen and she is no more than a bare scrap of humanity, Dan takes pity. And when she decides to end her life with medical assistance (a legal option in Holland for "a hopeless situation involving inhuman suffering"), he finally comes into a bit of his own humanity. I admit I was moved when he was able to approach his wife's lifeless body with tenderness. For many this may be enough, but for me it was too little too late.

Embryo Culture: Making Babies in the Twenty-first Century
By Beth Kohl
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 288 pp., $24

Beth Kohl has three healthy children, the products of in vitro fertilization from her own eggs and her husband's sperm. Here she chronicles her experience, from her first suspicion of her own fertility difficulties through the birth of her second and third children, twin girls. Along the way, she gives statistics, cites studies, explains medical techniques and terms, and discusses ethical, moral, and religious dilemmas.

Most compelling is her personal story, the long waits, the worries, doubts, decisions. Beth, a young and healthy woman, was a good candidate for ART, assisted reproductive technologies. And she was lucky -- she was affluent, lived in a major American city (Chicago), and was well educated. While she tolerated the medications, procedures, and physical, mental, and marital stresses without much difficulty, she nonetheless failed to become pregnant after her first attempt at fertilization. But on the second try, she succeeded and, following an uneventful pregnancy, delivered a healthy baby.

Having a number of good embryos waiting in the freezer, loath to waste them and uncertain what else to do with them, she decided to go through the whole process again. On the first try, she conceived, and eventually delivered, prematurely, her twins. Beth is a sympathetic character and her story a good one, but the narrative, chopped up chronologically and interrupted with technical jargon and spiritual dithering, loses suspense and tension and eventually a reader's concern.

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