Johnson's virtues as a book critic--common sense, quiet intelligence, a lack of self-indulgent display--are more impressive on a review-by-review basis than in an unflattering collection like this one; still, among these pieces from The New York Review of Books and The New York Times Book Review, you'll find some refreshing contrasts to the flashier sort of book-chat so popular these days. Best here is Johnson on Donald Barthelme: she has the ability to bring him down to size, shake off his mystique, yet without denying the real power of his ""possibly parables."" On Joan Didion and E. L. Doctorow, too, Johnson is open-eyed, if less than inspired: ""Didion's writing is high protein, but leaves the reader a little hungry for the starchy pleasures of the inner life."" Less successful, however, are the reviews that lead Johnson into the iffy roles of social critic or moral philosopher: on Susan Brownmiller, on black writers, on Brooke Hayward (a particularly obvious, limp piece), on Friendly Fire and Patty Hearst. ("". . . You got the feeling that here was Miss Teenage America on trial, for telling the nun to go to hell, for not being a virgin. . . ."") And if Johnson is only occasionally original or illuminating enough in her ideas to measure up to hard-cover compilation, her workaday prose (perfectly fine for a review of the moment) is even more ill-served in this gathering: the word ""interesting,"" for example, is allowed to reappear with almost comic frequency. (In the space of two pages: ""this interesting book. . . the most interesting section of the book. . . Some interesting light is shed. . . ."") Not particularly stylish, then, and only sporadically penetrating (most of the important work in question here has been more richly analyzed elsewhere)--but sturdy, agreeably plain examples of book-reviewing at its most direct and sensible.