SOUL OF THE TIGER by Jeffrey...

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SOUL OF THE TIGER by Jeffrey A. McNeely and Paul Spencer Wachtel (Doubleday: $19.95)

The new travel writing featured on several young publishing imprints often seems less interested in probing other cultures than in offering fly-by-night adventures, vicarious wish-fulfillment for urbanites with fantasies of fleeing corporate culture. “The Soul of the Tiger” is a welcome departure from this trend, a book that travels through space--from the upbeat bustle of Bangkok to rich traditions in the Malaysian countryside--as well as through time, charting significant “ecocultural revolutions” that have shaped Southeast Asia. The first three revolutions--the harnessing of fire, the domestication of plants and animals to make cultivation possible, and new techniques of irrigation--dramatically increased population but did not significantly undermine the strength of traditional knowledge, mythology and folklore.

The fourth revolution--the spread of the world marketplace--has had a more jarring impact on the region, damming rivers to provide electricity for growing cities, converting rain forests into plantations and encouraging dependency on expensive chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The authors, conservationists who have spent a combined 25 years in the region, discuss the practical problems of development in detail, showing, for example, how the nations are being forced into debt to “pay for progress.” The authors’ more mystical conclusion is this book’s most captivating feature, however. During a fifth revolution, the authors predict, growing environmental damage caused by the First World’s “technological arrogance” and spiritual impoverishment brought about by secularism will motivate many in the West to seek out rich traditions similar to those preserved in Southeast Asia. In the region, the authors believe, Westerners will find a culture that reunites man and nature, the sacred and the secular, “making the best of today while preparing for the unknown conditions of tomorrow.”


NUCLEAR FEAR A History of Images by Spencer R. Weart (Harvard: $29.50)

The author’s notion that fear of nuclear power is founded less on actual dangers than on suspicions about progress and hopes for magical, liberating transformations is sure to provoke the ire of anti-nuclear activists. And while “Nuclear Fear” succeeds splendidly on other levels, the activists have a point: Spencer Weart, a historian with a Ph.D. in physics, is too quick to discount disasters such as Chernobyl. Nuclear power plants are relatively harmless compared to, say, coal-fired plants, Weart argues, because they can be designed safely. Similarly, Weart writes, “nuclear weapons deserve less attention than they have received, for today, war between advanced nations could be intolerable even if they used only their non-nuclear weapons.”

While internally logical, these arguments are unrealistic: Power plants are not always designed and operated perfectly and weapons have not always been used responsibly. Weart contends that “the objective physical consequences of nuclear technology” are relatively insignificant, citing damage to the atmosphere caused by burning fossil fuel and comparing the figure of 30 killed immediately after the explosion at Chernobyl to the 2,000 dead and 10,000 injured during chemical leakage at the Union Carbide Plant in India. Weart’s verdict seems premature, however, for the long-term effects of low-level radiation are still unknown: Hundreds of thousands of Soviets could have their life spans significantly reduced by Chernobyl, most scientists believe.

To dismiss this book for its underestimation of nuclear dangers, however, would be to miss its extraordinary value as a detailed, probing study of American hopes, dreams and insecurities in the 20th Century. Weart has a poet’s acumen for sensing human feelings, from fears that God will be displaced to an almost primal need for “transmutation,” a passage from destruction to rebirth. It’s unfortunate that he rules out the political value of human emotions, for romantic visions of fairylands governed by science and fueled by the atom helped garner support for basic research, just as “irrational” fears helped check nuclear proliferation. “Nuclear Fear” remains captivating as history, however, and original as an anthropological study of how nuclear power, like alchemy in medieval times, offers a convenient symbol for deeply-rooted human feelings.

FIFTIES STYLE Then and Now by Richard Horn (Running Press, Philadelphia, Pa.: $14.98)

Many of the books published during today’s wave of 1950s nostalgia merely recapture the era’s tang by reproducing photographs of homey clutter, sleek, monster-size cars, bizarrely patterned tableware and jauntily syncopated logos. In this brightly perceptive, colorfully illustrated guide, however, the text is more than an afterthought to the photos. Richard Horn, a writer and editor specializing in design and architecture, vividly recaptures ideas as well as images from the 1950s, offering consistently original, though never overly indulgent, interpretations. Optimism was the dominant design mood of the decade, Horn writes, because America had emerged as the most forward-looking nation in the world and Americans were demanding a host of new design looks to erase memories of deprivation due to wartime shortages.


Most 1950s designs conveyed this sanguine spirit directly--from quirkily shaped silverware (lending a note of levity to casual dinners) to gigantic images of food or beverages (“promising all the instant gratification you could handle”). But to young people of the 1980s, Horn writes, these symbols carry a meaning that is altogether different: Thirty years ago, writes Horn, “Capri pants, cat’s eye sunglasses, and other 1950s regalia so voguish today were worn with no thought to campiness or rebellion. They had a certain casualness and preppiness about them that was thoroughly in keeping with American postwar optimism. Today . . . fashionable young people don clothes recalling an era of naivete with a decidedly ironic air . . . The keeping-up-with-the-Joneses mentality in clothes as in other consumables strikes (today’s) New Wavers as a laughable if not altogether pathetic response to blatant media manipulation.”

WITHIN OUR REACH Breaking the Cycle of Disadvantage by Lisbeth B. Schorr with Daniel Schorr (Doubleday: $19.95)

Faithful supporters of social welfare programs have written dozens of books in recent years to voice their frustration over the Reagan Administration’s budget cuts. Unfortunately, most of these books are too somber to be addressed during this year’s upbeat presidential election, where anger can turn into action. Gov. Michael Dukakis, trying to convince voters he is not Jimmy Carter, is sounding an inspirational message, while Vice President George Bush, like Reagan, is showering attention on success stories, such as Jamie Escalante’s much-heralded classroom at Garfield High School. A brighter future, however, might await “Within Our Reach.” Lisbeth Schorr’s focus on “the helplessness and hopelessness . . . of our country’s poor and disadvantaged children” is not new, of course. But her original arguments should persuade Americans who “have soured on ‘throwing money’ at human problems that seem only to get worse. They are not hard-hearted but don’t want to be soft-headed either.”

Rather than trying our altruism with stories of inner-city desperation, Schorr, a manager of public assistance programs, offers proof that government aid can combat serious social problems affecting both rich and poor. She shows, for instance, that nations with social welfare programs more generous than ours--such as West Germany, France, Sweden and Britain--all have sharply lower rates of teen birth and crime. Schorr’s arguments are especially strong because they consider conservative views at length. She offers statistical evidence, for example, to counter the view that aid to poor children would discourage young families from working. Surveys cited by Schorr also suggest that Washington’s funding priorities might not reflect those of the American people: According to a 1986 Lou Harris poll, 75% of Americans say they are prepared to pay higher taxes to provide more day care and education, while 88% say they want government to provide more health coverage and day-care services for children of the poor.