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LIVES

IT'S NOT ABOUT THE BIKE: My Journey Back to Life,

by Lance Armstrong with Sally Jenkins (Putnam, $24.95)

In case you missed it, Armstrong was a world-class cyclist who in 1996 was diagnosed with testicular cancer that had spread through his body. Against the odds, chemotherapy scoured his disease away. He has remained cancer-free and he went on to an awe-inspiring victory in the 1999 Tour de France.

Armstrong's memoir is made more interesting (at times unintentionally) by his self-centered immaturity. He taunts opponents, abuses friends, and treats his family as supporting cast _ or "domestiques," the term for bit players on a cycling team. He acknowledges these faults but seems slyly proud of them. Yet the descriptions of his sport, especially of his Tour victory, are gripping.

More than his physical survival, Armstrong's psychological healing and the birth of a son bring him some wisdom. He concludes that if he had to choose now between being a cancer survivor or a Tour winner, he would take the former for what it taught him. At nights, he holds his baby in triumph and listens to him cry: "It sounds like the wail of life to me."

LIFE SO FAR: A Memoir,

by Betty Friedan (Simon & Schuster, $26)

This zesty autobiography destroys preconceptions about the author of The Feminine Mystique, co-founder and first president of the National Organization for Women. For Friedan, the prime focus was always equal opportunity, especially economic. She criticizes later feminists who radicalized NOW into "man-hating," with overemphasis on abortion rights and lesbianism.

Friedan, born in 1921, grew up as a lonely Jewish girl in oppressive Peoria, Ill. She awoke to the "life of the mind" at Smith College and became active politically. She married, had three children and succeeded as a freelance journalist, yet felt restless. (Her allegations that her ex-husband beat her _ which he denies _ have gotten the lion's share of the book's publicity.)

Her study of the unfulfilled lives of American women resulted in The Feminine Mystique in 1963, which in turn helped give rise to NOW. She considers it a mainstream movement and fought rear-guard actions against more radical elements (some of whom, she suggests, were FBI plants to discredit NOW). Later she co-founded the National Abortion Rights Action League and the National Women's Political Caucus. Author, lecturer, organizer and world traveler, she regrets not having "a real career." Of course, she did and does.

AMERICA REBORN: A Twentieth-Century Narrative in Twenty-six Lives,

by Martin Walker (Knopf, $29.95)

Walker, a British author living in France, began this collection as a "love letter to America." From Teddy Roosevelt (ambition) to Bill Clinton (free trade), each mini-bio is tied to a larger theme that shaped the American century.

The other subjects: Emma Goldman, Black Jack Pershing, Henry Ford, Woodrow Wilson, Babe Ruth, William Boeing, Duke Ellington, Winston Churchill (remember, he was awarded U.S. citizenship) Frank Lloyd Wright, Lucky Luciano, Franklin Roosevelt, Katharine Hepburn, Walter Reuther, John Steinbeck, Albert Einstein, George Marshall, William F. Buckley Jr., Richard Bissel, Billy Graham, Walt Disney, Richard Nixon, Martin Luther King Jr., Betty Friedan and Alan Greenspan.

That is a lot of ground to cover in 368 pages, so at times the picture is quite broad, and the generalizations come fast and furious. But it is fun and affectionate, sort of potato-chip biography. Walker concludes that America at the dawn of a new century is reshaping the world, a nation "the Founding Fathers might just have recognized, could frequently have deprecated, but most certainly would have enjoyed."

Howard Troxler is a Times staff writer.

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