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Short Takes

In Case We're Separated
By Alice Mattison
Morrow, 226 pp., $23.95

These beautifully crafted stories are connected on the surface by kinship. They revolve around several generations of a Brooklyn Jewish family. Also on the surface but easy to overlook are the repetitions of words, which imitate the repeated tropes of a complicated poetic form, the double sestina, and connect the stories with small details.

The poetic form is introduced in ''Brooklyn Sestina," which focuses on sisters Ruth and Lillian. Ruth is exuberantly alive while Lillian repeatedly attempts suicide. Despite 13 attempts, Lillian lives to attend her sister's second wedding, brightly dressed in pink and looking more like the bride than Ruth. In the title story, Bobbie (aunt of Ruth and Lillian) accepts the suggestion of her sister, Sylvia, that her lover is married and will never leave his wife. Although Sylvia immediately retracts the statement, it takes hold in Bobbie's mind.

Sisters and aunts are especially tender toward each other. Their solid relationships are reflected in subtle kindnesses, shared secrets, small gestures, polite omissions. The stories, told out of chronology and with a shifting focus from one family member to another, hold firmly together. They cohere in seen and unseen ways, suggesting that family makes its own poetry.

Sleep With Me
By Joanna Briscoe
Bloomsbury, 224 pp., $23.95

When Richard and Lelia, a nicely matched couple, meet Sylvie at a London dinner party, she is so mute and mousy that they neither register her at the time nor remember her later. But she will soon come to dominate their lives.

First, Richard becomes obsessed with her. He finds her drab appearance more and more attractive, and her detachment more and more enticing. Initially caught up in Richard's obsession, a reader is gradually turned toward Lelia's perspective, where Sylvie holds past significance and present peril. Richard fills the tantalizing void that Sylvie presents with longing, passion, and excitement, while Lelia confronts the buried past history that Sylvie reports.

Richard's feverish mental state is the most compelling part of the novel, but the complications that occur and then escalate when his obsession meets Lelia's vulnerability and Sylvie's manipulation create intense and creepy narrative tension.

On the Sea of Memory: A Journey From Forgetting to Remembering
By Jonathan Cott
Random House, 214 pp., $24.95

Jonathan Cott lost 15 years of his memory as the result of numerous electroshock treatments administered to him in 1998-99 to alleviate a severe depression accompanied by suicidal thoughts. Along with the amnesia came other deficits: losing track of what had just been said to him or by him, inability to retrieve a word or phrase, gradual erosion of new memory. At the risk of being unkind, I must say that Cott's collection of essays demonstrates these losses. They are oddly chosen, poorly organized, and insufficiently edited.

Cott reports his own history with ECT and presents a grab bag of anecdotal material, from neurologist Oliver Sacks to film director Christopher Nolan (''Memento"). Twelve interviews with a variety of people are intended to reflect Cott's ''journey into the worlds of forgetting and remembering." David Shenk in ''On Alzheimer's Disease" movingly describes the relationship between memory and identity. The last third of the book veers toward the spiritual, with interviews of Sogyal Rinpoche on the Tibetan Buddhist perspective of remembering past lives, Robert Frager on the Sufi tradition of divine remembrance, and Lawrence Kushner on the Jewish tradition of remembering God. Living in the moment, the chosen way of life for some and the enforced way for those without memory, may offer its consolations, but good writing is not one of them.

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

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