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Dr. Fegg’s Encyclopaedia of All World Knowledge, Terry Jones and Michael Palin (Peter Bedrick). Two Monty Pythons parody popular culture--from anthems (“Gambia: The one six-lettered nation / Where Gambians abound!”) to travel itineraries (“Across the Andes by Frog”). Absurd, but often biting, as in the authors’ sketch of “a man of the future”: The eyes and ears are a television set, the brain a VCR unit, the head a “receiver capable of up to 30 decisions.”

The War in Nicaragua, Gen. William Walker (Arizona University). One of the first norteamericanos to invade Nicaragua and rule by dictatorship, Walker symbolizes, in the eyes of many Central Americans, the arrogance and power of the United States. Writing in 1859, a year before his execution by a firing squad of English and Honduran sailors, Walker lays out his plans to ensure “the necessary dominance of the white race” over “the old society.” While the general writes more about strategies than motives, his adventures illuminate the parallels and differences between our two ages.

Vanessa Bell: A Bloomsbury Portrait, Frances Spaulding (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich). Supplements the standard portrait of Vanessa--Virginia Woolf’s sister--as a serene mainstay of normalcy within the bizarre and talented Bloomsbury group. Bell’s marriage to art critic Clive Bell was happy, but ephemeral. And, when it ended, Bell, like the rest of the Bloomsbury group, waivered between freedom and domesticity, at one point trying to rear two children while pursuing a seductive homosexual man.

Tough Guys Don’t Dance, Norman Mailer (Ballantine). Tim Madden awakens with a hangover, brandishing a new tattoo on his arm, blood all over the passenger seat of his Porsche and a severed female head in his marijuana stash. “Is Madden a killer?,” asks Mailer, raising the possibility of divine intervention. While criticized for its speculations on the occult, the book won acclaim as a thriller.

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The West Bank Story, Rafik Halabi (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich). The author, an Israeli Arab and broadcaster for Radio Israel, condemns both Israeli policy in the occupied territories (Gaza and the West Bank) and the PLO’s “murder and sabotage.” Halabi unravels the motivations behind the bloodshed and the obstacles to compromise, concluding that the Israelis “are a fiercer, sadder people now, strong on indignation, but often short, I regret to say, on human sympathy.”

Exuberance: An Affirmative Philosophy of Life, Paul Kurtz (Prometheus). Unlike the author’s earlier, weightier philosophical treatises, such as “In Defense of Secular Humanism,” this book forwards Kurtz’s personal suggestions on how to escape the “pessimism of the present”: Learn to live with ambiguity, take responsibility for your own destiny and exalt in the challenges of life. To Kurtz, “fulfillment” is defined as creative achievement; in his eyes, Prometheus triumphs over Christ, the activist over the passivist, the skeptic over the believer.

A Child of the Century, Ben Hecht (Donald I. Fine). Acrobat, magician, poet, newspaperman, screenwriter--Hecht covers his many careers in this autobiography, 633 pages of vignettes taking readers from Chicago to New York, H. L. Mencken to Dorothy Parker.


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