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March 25, 2007|Susan Salter Reynolds | susan.reynolds@latimes.com

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My French Whore

A Love Story

Gene Wilder

St. Martin's Press: 180 pp. $18.95

THIS is actor Gene Wilder's delightful fiction debut -- a novel so witty, dramatic and romantic that the reader is left with an indelible mental movie, a twofer in the universe of words and pictures. Paul Peachy is a conductor on the Milwaukee-Chicago line who acts a little in a local theater on the side. The year is 1918; everywhere couples are kissing and men are going off to war. Much of the passion has left Peachy's marriage; he writes his wife a note, steps off the train, enlists and soon is bound for France. Arriving at the front, his company captures a German soldier. Private Peachy, fluent in German, interrogates the prisoner, who turns out to be world-famous German spy Harry Stroller. A few cognacs later, Stroller has told Peachy enough to enable Peachy, when he's captured by the Germans the next day, to convince them that he's none other than Stroller. He's driven in style to the stately home of a German officer, who gives him the finest room in the place, all the Champagne he can drink and a French whore of his very own. Peachy, still smarting from his failed marriage, treats her with a consideration she has never before experienced. They fall in love. Sooner or later, the jig will be up but not before Peachy dazzles the enemy, and the reader, with his raw, actor's cunning. The love is sweet, the adventure keen, and Wilder's bubbly prose captures Peachy's unforgettable charm.

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Falling Boy

A Novel

Alison McGhee

Picador: 208 pp., $13 paper

ALISON McGHEE is a voice channeler. You picture her going into a trance and writing in tongues. Joseph, 16, has a summer job in a bakery. He's paralyzed, confined to a wheelchair. His fellow worker, Zap, 17, has noticed that asking questions about the accident forces Joseph (a.k.a. "the beekeeper," because bees don't seem to sting him) into some faraway place. But Zap's 9-year-old sister, Enzo, decides to find out what happened. The rumor is that Joseph leapt from a cliff to save his mother, and many of the local children believe he's a superhero who can fly.

The bakery is a temporary refuge from suffering. Enzo, traumatized because her parents have banished her beloved brother from their house, wants desperately to believe in Joseph's superhero status. It's not until the end of the novel that we learn, after Joseph has peeled back layers, clouds and all forms of magical thinking, what really happened. It takes enormous restraint and careful planning for McGhee to lead us through the labyrinth of Joseph's mind. We want nothing but happiness for him and Enzo and Zap. And we want it badly.

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Better

A Surgeon's Notes on Performance

Atul Gawande

Metropolitan Books: 276 pp., $24

"WHAT does it take to be good at something in which failure is so easy, so effortless?" asks Atul Gawande, surgeon at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital. In his field, success requires far more than competence. The three ingredients of good doctoring, according to the author, are "diligence," "doing right" and "ingenuity." He cites examples from a wide range of life-and-death situations to illustrate how these three key attributes save lives. He describes the diligence and ingenuity of doctors treating casualties from the Iraq war, and the procedures and technologies (Kevlar vests, helicopter transport) that have decreased lethality in war. He discusses the delicacy needed in examining patients of the opposite sex to preserve their dignity and avoid accusations of wrongdoing.

He writes about the dilemma faced by death-row doctors, there by choice, who find themselves in breach of the Hippocratic oath.

Literary books by doctors are few, and they are important, given the complicated nature of the doctor-patient relationship. Gawande's insightful book illuminates the challenging choices members of the profession face every day.

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