The Sex Doctors in The Basement
by Molly Jong-Fast
(Villard)

Disappointment Artist
by Jonathan Lethem
(Doubleday

My Life So Far
by Jane Fonda
(Random House)

Twenty-six-year-old Molly Jong-Fast (Normal Girl) is the daughter of Erica Jong (Fear of Flying) and granddaughter of late commie pulpster Howard Fast (Spartacus), and was reared on Manhattan's Upper East Side and in the Connecticut suburbs. It's probably not going too far to think her road to authordom was less cumbersome than most. However, it only takes a few pages of The Sex Doctors in the Basement to learn she has talent. Maybe even a lot.

Sex Doctors is less a straight narrative than a collection of essays about coming of age. For much of Jong-Fast's childhood mom was involved in a string of poorly thought out romantic entanglements, while her own vices--food, addiction, addiction to food and substances less conventionally edible--provided more than their share of misery.

But even if we can't feel Jong-Fast's pain, we can share her giggles. In fact, this funny book could stand to be more serious (a rare problem for any memoir) as there's much to be said for struggling for your own identity in the shadows of famous mothers and others. JOHN DICKER

At age 13, during the summer his mother was dying of cancer, Jonathan Lethem watched Star Wars 21 times. Later, he dropped out of college and hitchhiked to California to become an envelope-licker for the Philip K. Dick appreciation society. In his essay collection, Disappointment Artist, Lethem foregrounds items like Cassavetes, Marvel Comics, and John Wayne's The Searchers and then illuminates them with both a studied critique and his personal experiences with them.

Lethem doesn't depict his pop-cultural obsessive tendencies kindly, such as smoking a joint alone before a campus film society screening wearing his black-rimmed glasses to intentionally appear "nerdishly remote and intense." The creative icons he worships, Kafka, Kubrick and Eno, are those who aren't afraid to make their audience uncomfortable. With descriptions of self-imposed isolation through media, Disappointment Artist can provoke a similar uneasiness.

These essays seem like the research on which Lethem built his ambitious and best-selling novel Fortress of Solitude. Those wondering how autobiographical Lethem's fiction is and curious about his writing process will find their answers here, but these essays also stand on their own and represent an unusual approach; call it confessional cultural criticism. BEN BUSH

Jane Fonda has reclaimed her vagina. Indeed she has reclaimed many things: her film career, her spirituality, and her independence (post-Ted Turner). But her snatch is the most essential item--discussing it/her "can represent an important owning of ourselves" and has evidently helped Fonda address some of her childhood traumas. I, for one, knew nothing about Fonda's born-again cunt-centricity before picking up My Life So Far.

Hefty sections of this hefty book (which clocks in at 600 pages) are devoted to Fonda's relationship with her father, her notorious visit to Vietnam, and her husbands (Roger Vadim, Tom Hayden, Ted Turner). Behind-the-scenes information about certain film shoots (namely, On Golden Pond and Coming Home) is revealed, but the book is less of a tell-all than a confession. Fonda has lived a remarkable life, and could have easily filled 1000 pages (for instance, Agnes of God is never mentioned). Remarkably, she seldom sounds preachy or conceited.

Fonda, without the assistance of a co-author, writes well (for someone who's not a writer by trade, of course). Her prose is stilted, but somehow it's unnoticeable, perhaps because you realize Jane Fonda does, in fact, speak that way. When you come to the line, "Vaginas are, after all, very talented and versatile," you immediately think: Only Jane Fonda would say that. WILL GARDNER