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Short Takes

The Cleft
By Doris Lessing
HarperCollins, 260 pp., $25.95

Arriving about 30 years too late to catch the Zeitgeist Express comes "The Cleft," Doris Lessing's baffling take on the perennial rift between the sexes.

As elemental tribal rivalries go, the Clefts and the Squirts (Lessing's inelegant nomenclature for the gals and the guys) have nothing on the Shiites and the Sunnis, or even the Sharks and the Jets. This science-fictional origin myth imagines an all-female family tree rooted in the sea mists of time. The Clefts, primitive mothers of humanity, reproduce parthenogenetically, bringing up their daughters but mutilating and discarding the occasional "Monster" they bear. One day they discover that these castoffs have survived to found their own tribe, the aforementioned Squirts. Sexual reproduction ensues, as does sexual violence and sexual division of labor, followed shortly by the invention of nagging.

This incoherent, quasi-Celtic legend is narrated by an elderly Roman historian at the time of Nero, whose civilization, glimpsed only fleetingly, is nevertheless more interesting than Lessing's female but far from feminist prehistory. The author's venerable reputation may sell the book, but it's hard to imagine anyone finishing it who isn't paid to do so.

The Gonzo Way: A Celebration of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson
By Anita Thompson
Fulcrum, 112 pp., $14.95

The chronology of Anita Thompson's marriage to the colossus of gonzo journalism, Hunter S. Thompson, speaks for itself. She went to work for him as a young assistant in 1999, they wed in April 2003, and Thompson committed suicide in February 2005. A widow now longer than she was a wife, Anita Thompson has devoted herself to tending her husband's legendary flame. This sketchy volume, more a book outline than a book per se, is the anticlimactic result.

There's some impressive muscle power hauling on the ropes, trying to keep this balloon aloft. Historian and Thompson crony Douglas Brinkley provides a foreword as well as a catchy description of his old friend as "a bull that carried his own china shop around with him." Politicians Gary Hart and George McGovern pay their nostalgic respects alongside journalistic superstars Tom Wolfe and the late Ed Bradley. Ralph Steadman, whose splotched and spiky artwork was the visual doppelganger to Thompson's madman reportage, contributes the graphics.

Next to the colorful phrasemaking of Thompson's carousing buddies and contemporaries, his young widow's tributes sound shallow and naïve. Our hearts go out to her, but she seems like a woodland pixie trying to wrap her arms around a mountain.

Sunstroke and Other Stories
By Tessa Hadley
Picador, 192 pp., paperback, $13

Several of the stories in this incisive collection by the British author Tessa Hadley take place at the shore, and her prose shares that capacity of beach light to cast a languid scene into sudden, startling detail.

Two families' country vacation in Wales is tipped out of balance as a discontented single man engages in serial flirtation. A mopey teenager visiting her older sister, a university student, is disgusted by the situation she finds her sister in but is ultimately cheered by a vision of the independence that will soon be hers to use more wisely.

The collection closes with a narrative of mother-daughter reconciliation decades after what the daughter recalls as a traumatic childhood incident, an event her mother denies ever happened. Whatever the truth, the damage done is all but elided, tucked discreetly away in a few matter-of-fact sentences that acknowledge how we live at the capricious mercy of others, not just children at the mercy of their elders but the plain and insecure at the mercy of more glamorous extroverts. Hadley is as attentive to the inner lives of minor characters as she is to her protagonists. They come from the articulate classes, and her dialogue rings with their intelligence, their irony, and their narcissism.

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

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