Forgive Me
By Amanda Eyre Ward
Random House, $24

Nadine Morgan is a fictional journalist created by Amanda Eyre Ward for her novel Forgive Me. Thousands of novels feature a journalist as their protagonist. Many of these fictional scribes are forgettable - they serve as the engine that drives the plot, but they never seem alive, let alone realistic. Ward's Morgan, however, seems very much alive and, for the most part, realistic. In her mid-30s, she travels the world as a freelance writer for newspapers and magazines, seeking out dangerous stories in dangerous places, from Mexico to Haiti to India to South Africa.

Morgan lost her mother at a young age and has minimal contact with her father, who is employed at a fish market on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. It seems she is always running toward stories while simultaneously running away from family, friends, and the possibility of any romance that could lead to marriage and children. In South Africa, when she was a young journalist, Morgan fell in love with a photographer. But when he died on assignment, she became even more peripatetic, even more wary of personal commitments.

Forgive Me opens in Mexico, where Morgan is beaten almost to death while on assignment. Against her will, she ends up back in Massachusetts, under the care of her father and his well-intentioned but overbearing female friend. The doctor caring for Morgan is a pleasant person who falls in love with his temporary patient. Though Morgan feels comfortable with him, she bolts for South Africa without telling him when she learns about an unfinished story there that she wants to write.

The majority of the novel is set in South Africa during the racial violence of the 1980s and during the start of the nation's healing in the 1990s. A couple of subplots are difficult to follow because of an irregularly recurring diary device used by Ward, an Austin writer who has published two previous novels. But the novel's positives far outweigh its negatives. Not the least of those positives is the refreshingly accurate portrayal of a journalist. - Steve Weinberg

By Philip Roth
Vintage, $13

Many people say they'd like to die peacefully in their sleep. No one adds the further hypothetical condition, simply and obviously, that the death they'd desire would be before the years of degeneration and, in truth, decomposition that accompany old age. While you may exercise, eat right, and feel great, your body is slowly killing you, and there's nothing you can do about it.

If Philip Roth's latest, a compact tale titled Everyman, has a thesis, it's this: You're going to die, and it's not going to be a barrel of laughs. As you age, one medical problem will snowball into more and more problems; your visits to the hospital will be as frequent as those to the toilet; and, of course, all your friends and acquaintances will die before you, so you'll be alone, cold and bitter. You'll learn that fancy doctors these days can take a vein out of your leg and stick it in your heart, as if you were some lonesome, miserable Rubik's Cube. You'll learn that a stent can be inserted to expand your coronary arteries in order to diminish high blood pressure. You'll learn that your bones have the consistency of Funyuns. What, then, is the purpose of a lifetime of healthy living?

The protagonist of Everyman, whose namelessness draws a plentitude of reader-supplied monikers (mine was Olden Coughfield - feel free to use it), is himself dead. The book opens at his funeral, takes a leap back in time to the beginnings of his medical problems, and then worms its way back to his corpse. If this smacks of familiarity, recall Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich, which opens at Ivan's funeral, takes a leap back in time to the beginnings of his medical problems, and then worms its way back to his corpse. The major difference here is that purely Rothian secular morality and sugarless wit. One of the great lines in the book occurs when Coughfield, who teaches a painting class at the nursing home, explains to one eager student, "Amateurs look for inspiration; the rest of us just get up and go to work." Is Everyman an exposition on The Unbearable Lightness of Being's evil grin, or is it a 182-page argument for assisted suicide? We'll leave you to decide. The big question, though, is: Will you go out with some dignity? - J.D. Reid