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Atlantic Monthly renews its energy Dull no more: Yawns used to abound in venerable journal, but October issue is worth reading.


I was about to cancel my subscription to the Atlantic Monthly when the October issue came in. For years, I've looked to this venerable mag to provide a meaty mix of reportage, commentary and good fiction, but lately it's been drowning in dullness. Whither the articles of yesteryear, the quirky and wonderful pieces on the likes of mosquitoes and tornadoes? Now we get cover stories on reinventing government, abortion -- the Big Subjects of the day. Nothing wrong with that, certainly, but these articles' prodigious length has been enough to put the most die-hard reader to sleep. Even the second-tier stories have been listless. Happily, this month's issue surfaces with renewed energy.

The cover story, "If the Economy is Up, Why is America Down?" does teeter on treatise-length, but it's a fast read. And because it explains some arcane economic stuff in lay terms, you don't have to be Alan Greenspan to get it. It's a vindicating article -- our pockets really are emptier than the pundits keep telling us they are.

Almost every story here is worth reading. There are lively pieces by Ian Frazier and Wendy Kaminer, and an affecting, if flawed, short story by John Barth. But the must-read is a report by Linda Burstyn on female genital mutilation. Also known, inaccurately, as female circumcision, FGM has been proliferating throughout this country in recent years as more of its practitioners immigrate from the African countries that claim it as a tradition. Ms. Burstyn profiles Ethiopian Mimi Ramsey, who is crusading to prevent newly immigrated parents from subjecting their daughters to the same mutilation she suffered at the age of 6, and for which she is unable to forgive her mother. Ms. Burstyn writes that, like incest and child abuse before it, FGM is a taboo subject difficult to document and therefore to address as a public health issue. But the anecdotal evidence is all around, as Ms. Ramsey can attest, and her accounts in this article will make your hair stand on end.

More on Moore

Vogue for October puts Demi Moore on the cover as an Audrey Hepburn wannabe who now commands $12 million a movie. It's a flattering profile that covers the usual territory -- tough survivor triumphs over adverse childhood and gets everything she wants -- and proof that you can bend your image every which way if you just have enough money.

Literary lights Paul Theroux and Jane Smiley contribute to this issue, he with a confessional essay about the male libido, she with a tribute to bathtubs. Entertaining pieces both, if skin-deep; but then, this is Vogue. More serious fare includes a report on a model rape-treatment program in Oklahoma wherein victims are examined and counseled with acute sensitivity in a custom-designed hospital setting that assures both privacy and a thorough gathering of forensic evidence. So far, the results are promising -- some rapists have actually been caught and put away.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese political activist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 while under house arrest in Rangoon, has resumed her fight for democracy since being freed in July after six years of incarceration. Barbara Bradley looks here at the personal costs of Ms. Suu Kyi's fight, hinting between the lines that Ms. Suu Kyi's commitment to her politics exceeds that to her husband and sons; if you listen hard enough, you might hear an authorial tsk-tsk in the background.

Another side of Suu Kyi

Ms. Suu Kyi also shows up inside the October Vanity Fair, in a less judgmental, newsier profile that focuses on the activist's politics. Neither story has a whole lot of quotes from Suu Kyi herself, though, which makes you wonder how much access these reporters really had.

Elsewhere in VF, the usual celebrity worship abounds -- Julie Andrews, Carol Channing and Greg Kinnear get the glossy treatment, as does Denzel Washington in a hype-filled cover story. A blow-by-blow account of the infighting that's been plaguing media empire Time Warner will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about beleaguered chairman Gerald Levin and the vultures circling for the kill. And for a prime example of sleaze in the press, check out M. A. Farber's piece on Mike McAlary, a New York Daily News columnist who, after distorting some off-the-record police remarks, accused a rape victim of fabricating the crime. Hubris knows no bounds, apparently.

Ms. chides talk shows

Speaking of sleaze, the current Ms. takes talk shows to task, reminding us in its cover story that Geraldo, Ricki and the rest turn women's issues into trash. As Jeanne Albronda Heaton and Nona Leigh Wilson write, "The shows support the mistaken notion that the only power women have is to complain, and that they cannot effect real changes." The talkmeisters and their guests keep stereotypes alive by pigeonholing men as liars and fTC cheats, women as traumatized victims, all of whom will sell their consciences in the name of ratings and 15 minutes of fame.

There's nothing revelatory here, but it's satisfying nonetheless to see these opportunists lined up for a well-deserved drubbing.

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