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PANDAS GO TO PARIS, AND LEBOWITZ COMES OUT OF HIDING

MR. CHAS AND LISA SUE MEET THE PANDAS
By Fran Lebowitz
Illustrated by Michael Graves
Knopf
60 pages; $15
THE FRAN LEBOWITZ READER
By Fran Lebowitz
Random House
333 pages; $13, paper
LEAVE 'EM wanting more -- that could have been Fran Lebowitz's motto all these years.

Two books of essays -- whose deadpan wit had an Oscar-Wilde-meets-Dorothy-Parker quotability -- made her famous in the late 1970s.

Since then, she's been almost as silent as J.D. Salinger.

Yes, she's appeared on David Letterman lots of times -- exuding dyke chic, breathing clouds of cigarette smoke and tossing off sardonic bon mots.

But writing? Nothing doing.

"I don't write fast enough to require a word processor," Lebowitz once told the Paris Review.

Now, her notorious bout of writer's block has eased -- a little. (Word is that she's been working on a novel all these years; believe that when you see it.)

She's written her first children's book, which may seem like an odd venture to those who know Lebowitz as strictly counter-cultural. After all, she looks upon most heterosexuals as a secondary life form; has elevated sleeping late to an art and once wrote a searing treatise against house plants.

But for children, she's had kind words.

"Children," she once wrote, "are usually small in stature, which makes them quite useful for getting at those hard-to-reach places." (The essay, "Children: Pro or Con," presented the other side, too: "Children are rarely in the position to lend one a truly interesting sum of money.")

This book -- because it's charming, original and because it grasps the way children think -- suggests that, on balance, she's pro-kid.

Her human characters are Mr. Chas and Lisa Sue, a couple of 7-year-olds who live in an upscale apartment building in New York City. They are joined by two animal characters, panda bears, whose names are Pandemonium and (vintage Lebowitz here) Don't Panda to Public Taste.

The four of them become great friends and concoct a money-making scheme to solve the book's dramatic crisis: The pandas want to move to Paris and they need to raise cash to buy plane tickets.

Not every child will cotton to Lebowitz's style. Those who have the vocabulary and sophistication to deal with it, though, may find that they have a new favorite author. (It's pitched at 6 to 10 year olds.)

Many of Lebowitz's well-known quirks -- for example, her scorn for anything non-urban -- make their way into her children's book.

"We want a real city life," one panda explains.

"We want to go to restaurants and cafes. We want to go to movies and museums. We want to stroll around and have conversations. We want to meet in hotel lobbies and go to nightclubs and dance."

The book is full of Lebowitz's strengths: irreverence, word play, love of books, fun -- and the occasional sentence that can make you laugh out loud.

Not for a moment does Lebowitz talk down to her readers; never does she, well, panda.

But maybe the best thing about this development is that Random House decided to publish "The Fran Lebowitz Reader" to celebrate the newfound chink in Lebowitz's writer's block.

Here we find the best of her two previous books of essays, "Social Studies" and "Metropolitan Life." On re-reading, some material ("Disco Hints") seems dated; and it's not clear why, based on so little, Lebowitz became such a legend.

Then again, the woman is funny and wry and her voice is very much her own. For instance:

On laziness: "I love sleep because it is both pleasant and safe to use. Sleep is death without the responsibility.

For teens: "Wearing dark glasses at the breakfast table is socially acceptable only if you are legally blind or partaking of your morning meal out of doors during a total eclipse of the sun."

And finally, back to children: "Never allow your child to call you by your first name. He hasn't known you long enough."

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