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November 11, 2001|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

WHY DID I EVER, By Mary Robison, Counterpoint: 176 pp., $23

"Why Did I Ever," written in 527 numbered sections, each about a paragraph long, takes us into the lively, furious mind of a middle-aged script doctor named Money Breton. She's been married three times ("the light was bad") and has two children. Daughter Mev is a failed attorney addicted to methadone ("What happened to that BMW, Mev?" "I spent it.") Son Paulie is the victim of a violent crime who is currently in police protection waiting for word of his HIV status.

In this age of talk shows and memoirs, you are thinking, what is so fascinating about the mental wanderings of a script doctor? What elevates it from the world of navel gazing to the world of social commentary?

I refer you to sections 128, 374, and 459. No. 128, titled "This Must Be America": "Battier's convenience stop has no food, no coffee, no cigarettes, no sodas, no gum and nobody who wants to wait on me anyway. So this is turning out to be a great day." No. 374: "Stores! Stores! So what is there to go in and buy? A yellow something? Another briefcase? Licorice? Look at these phony people, driving four-and-a-half miles per hour in the school zone. Theirs is the same Chevy I saw in the alleyway, zooming ahead to hit a dog." No. 459, in which Money attends an important meeting of producers whose cufflinks cost more than her bungalow. Her boss carries a tote bag full of items swiped from hotels, salons and nightclubs. "'I too,' I say, 'am the same way. I regularly see things that I want to steal.' 'Don't pushue this,"' says a coworker with a lisp. "'I'm in the middle and cannot stop. I say, 'In Fairbanks, in the Interior, those signs that read, NO SHOOTING FROM THE HIGHWAY. Now those, I would have stolen. Those I wanted to steal."'

Often, in inappropriate moments, Money cannot stop the words from coming out: an adolescent but also political response to the shallowness and cupidity and greediness of the people she works for: "horoscope/cowl neck/car mileage.... Belinda stops me with a wave ... we've ascended to the next level and can start the final wee-reet, I mean rill-write ... rear-while. Ridiculous! Why can't I say that rurd?"

Mary Robison, almost as an afterthought, has created a novel that speaks volumes about life in Los Angeles: its stopping and starting, its rushing and emoting, its whimsy and its suspicious, subversive humor: not the irony of New York, not the deadpan of Chicago, but the manic insubordination of Los Angeles.

LYDIA CASSATT READING THE MORNING PAPER, By Harriet Scott Chessman, The Permanent Press: 164, $24

By contrast, "Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper" is such a sweet, pretty little novel, so earnest and discreet, with its delicate reproductions of Mary Cassatt's paintings of her sister, Lydia, and its faithful efforts to climb inside the mind of the subject of those paintings that the reader wants to climb inside them as well, carry a parasol, read a book in the afternoon, embroider. In 1881, at 41, Lydia was discovered to have with Bright's disease and spent the next year dying and posing for Mary, her sister, then 34. The entire family has moved from Philadelphia to Paris; Mary Cassatt has grown close to Edgar Degas; their circle includes painters like Berthe Morisot and a few wealthy expatriates. Lydia gets weaker and paler in the paintings, as Mary reveals her approach to death, her resignation and also Mary's fears of losing her sister.

Harriet Scott Chessman's story is a bit precious, but it adds to our understanding of these paintings and to our understanding of the painter's life. One feels the author's magnifying glass over their lives, with its genteel distortions and the enormous eye of the writer.

RARE ENCOUNTERS WITH ORDINARY BIRDS, Notes from a Northwest Year, By Lyanda Lynn Haupt, Sasquatch Books: 192 pp., $21.95

Sparrows, swallows and crows. Who has not taken them for granted? Lyanda Lynn Haupt confesses that in her competitive efforts to complete her "life list," a birder's record of every species she has seen, the more ordinary birds had become either invisible or an annoyance--until she looks more carefully, often through the eyes of her toddler, Claire. "Once I saw a pair of crows near a garbage can in a McDonald's parking lot," she writes. "They were dipping fries in honey mustard sauce before eating them." Haupt describes the fascinating research of Bernie Krause, an ornithologist who coined the term "biophony," to describe the range of voices birds use to communicate and how those voices evolve from the very landscape the birds inhabit. "Birds fly above our upturned faces," Haupt writes, enraptured, "softly feathered, vital, and wild, every single day."

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