A hundred or so brief and biting minibiographies of the celebrated, arranged chronologically from Samuel Pepys to Diane Ackerman. West (Lord Byron's Doctor, 1989, etc.) brings his novelist's skills to bear in these short-short essays (and one poem), limned in punchy, sometimes perverse prose that eats at its subjects like acid, aiming to reveal the truths beneath the legends. On Virginia Woolf: "I wanted a wedding cake made of snow, ice cream made from yaks' milk and pink. I wanted the bright beautiful refulgent day, not the sullen undertow that told me only: You are a woman and you will have to die." On Paganini: "Eyes like red-hot coals; face attenuated and gruesomely concave; my lips, two mating earthworms: the clichÇs of my diabolical appearance have still not died away. I must have been intolerably vivid." And if some of the entries stretch (on PelÇ: "I am that holy rubber eel, the missing link who shoots to kill and cries out Love. Love. Love") and others seem written mostly to please friends or colleagues (on Carl Sagan: "Face of a Guatemalan poÇte maudit with a flash of Cossack in his stare. . ."), more often than not West's portraits shimmer, each accompanied by an evocative black-and-white sketch by Joe Servello.