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genetic selection pressure on humans is pretty low, memetic selection is going stronger than ever, forcing us to invent ever more highly refined meme-spreading techniques: better computers, faxes, photocopiers, telephones , televisions, movies, CDs, etc. The idea of an evolutionary force similar but not identical to genetic evolution is an exciting one that deserves attention regardless of whether one buys Blackmore's argument in its entirety. Some readers will be deUghted, others appalled, by Blackmore's more far-reaching speculations . There is no such thing as an "inner," "true" self, she argues. That self is an illusion, just a coUection of especially vigorous mêmes that maintain themselves in our minds by convincing us that we are them. If The Merne Machine is speculative, though, it is honorably so: Blackmore doesn't try to disguise the foundational weaknesses ofher theories, though she may be inclined to take them too lightly. The Meme Machine is pleasurable reading. It covers a lot of ground fast and skirts some controversial points, but it is engaging. Some 150 years ago the theoretical revolution that started with Darwin gave us the tools to begin thinking about life on earth without recourse to supernatural explanation. Memetic theory, a generalization and extension of the basic Darwinian idea, attempts to analyze the human condition in ways that are neither mystical nor completely reducible to biology. (JB) For the Reliefof Unbearable Urges by Nathan Englander Knopf, 1999, 205 pp., $22 Twenty-eight-year-old Jerusalemite Nathan Englander has produced a striking if inconsistent coUection of short fiction. The stories in For the ReliefofUnbearable Urges examine the lives of Hasidic Jews in the Old and New Worlds, following a roughly historical progression beginning in eastern Europe of the '40s and moving to America's inhospitable melting pot in the decades following, then on to contemporary Israel. Englander, a secular Jew, avoids the easy trap of exoticizing his subject, managing to provide intimate glimpses of the private and mysterious world of Hasidim that feel more compassionate than exploitative. Englander's work does invite the easy comparisons to Malamud, Singer, Bellow and Philip Roth that have been bandied about in early reviews of his book. However, he possesses a self-assurance and a distinctive voice that prevent his work from feeling derivative. The strongest stories in the collection show a young writer of striking range and virtuosity. The opening story, "The Twenty-Seventh Man," concerning an unpubUshed dilettante mistakenly imprisoned and sentenced to die along with a group of subversive writers, resembles an eerie collision of Kafka and Isaac Babel as it builds to its breathtaking finish. "The Tumblers," a story of desperation and survival in the Holocaust in which hunted refugees pose as circus acrobats, is equally harrowing and resonant. "The Wig," set in America, is another exceptionally well-realized piece, focusing on a Hasidic hairdresser's struggle with vanity, covetousness and sensuality in a community that abhors these impulses . 212 · The Missouri Review Not all the stories are this strong. Englander sometimes seems unable to elevate a story beyond a clever premise. Despite its wry humor, "The GUgul ofPark Avenue," about a middle-aged gentile who suddenly "reaUzes" his past-life Jewishness, ultimately feels like second-rate PhiUp Roth. "Reb Kringle," which examines a disgruntled Hasidic department-store Santa, verges on sentimentaUty. And the title story, concerning a Hasidic husband's marital problems and his rabbi's unsettling solution, ends in easy irony, avoiding the emotional complexity the subject matter seems to demand. Time and future publications will determine if Englander has what it takes to become the literary star he is already touted as being. The best stories of this inaugural collection suggest ifs a decent bet. (JT) White Oleander by Janet Fitch Little, Brown, 1999, 390 pp., $24 What is amazing about this first novel is how Fitch deftly avoids melodrama in what could so easily become a hackneyed story. The protagonist is a young girl, Astrid, whose mother is a briUiant poet with an acerbic worldview bordering on psychopathic. When Astrid's mother poisons her lover and is sentenced to life in prison, Astrid is shuffled into foster care and faces all of the perils one would...


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