Picks and Pans Review: Like Life

updated 05/21/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/21/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Lorrie Moore

Typical of the characters in this ruefully funny, sweetly cynical book of short stories is Zoë, a college history professor who meets an intrusive man at a party and is reminded of reading something—she's not sure if it was an article or a poem—called "Professional Women and the Demographics of Grief." Then again, she's not positive about the title either; it might have actually been "Space Gypsies: Girls in Academe."

Not-at-all-girlish career women whose attitudes toward men can best be described as enthusiastically hesitant are a favorite topic of Moore's. But she's not monomaniacal about it. One striking story in this collection is about a playwright working on a play based on his "funniest family anecdotes, the most painful details of his adolescence, and the wrenching, yet life-affirming death of his great-aunt Flora, Fussbudget Flora, whose dying word had been 'cripes.' "

Moore is so effective with indirect approaches that it's disconcerting when, in the title story, one of her characters explicitly addresses the issue of suicide by thinking: "Life or death. Something or nothing. You want something or nothing?"

That kind of jarring, artless approach is rare for Moore. Her stories are usually thick with insight and laugh-first, think-later humor, such as the exchange between Odette, a poet who goes on a hunting trip, and her boyfriend, Pinky: " 'It's nice out here. You don't suppose we could just watch nature instead of shoot it."

" 'Without hunting the deer would starve,' said Pinky.

" 'So maybe we could just cook for them.' "

If that isn't disarming prose, what is? (Knopf, $18.95)

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