AND THE BAND PLAYED ON Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic <i> by Randy Shilts (Penguin Books: $12.95) </i>

An important, masterful piece of investigative reporting, more chilling as the number of AIDS cases continues to rise. According to Randy Shilts, an American is “diagnosed with AIDS on the average of once every 14 minutes . . . (and) the scale of the response (is) not even remotely commensurate with the scale of the problem.”

Epidemiologists from 140 countries attended the 1988 conference on AIDS, Shilts reports in an afterword to this new edition. But “what remained most noteworthy about AIDS in America during 1987 and 1988 was how . . . very little had fundamentally changed.”

Last year’s largest AIDS spending package was ushered through the Senate by liberal Democrat Edward Kennedy and conservative Republican Orrin Hatch. Yet ultraconservative Sen. Jesse Helms lobbied to attach an amendment decrying homosexuality.

“The fact that AIDS had been perceived as a gay disease had everything to do with how it was dealt with by various institutions in the early years,” as in the Reagan Administration’s refusal to commit funds to research, “but that phase (is) now effectively over.” In fact, “gay men make up an increasingly smaller proportion of its cases . . . as the disease spreads rapidly in the underclass.”


A SOUTHERN FAMILY by Gail Godwin (Avon Books: $4.95)

A brother’s ill humor comes as no surprise to anyone at a family gathering. Married, divorced, with a 3-year-old child and recently cast off by a girlfriend, Theo feels entirely justified in making disparaging remarks about women.

When Julia Richardson, a family friend, tries to leave the party early, Theo follows her outside to make amends, to talk: “It’s just that I sometimes wonder how I’m going to go on. . . . What if (life) doesn’t add up to anything?” Julia responds with blandishments: “It’s all going to work out. Just . . . have faith in yourself.” But, by the next day, Theo’s dead, having shot his estranged girlfriend, then himself.

Theo’s half-sister, Clare, a novelist, attempts to come to terms with this tragedy through her writing. She talks to every member of the family, collecting perspectives to piece together the brother and son that none seemed to know completely.


WHITE PALACE by Glenn Savan (Bantam Books: $4.50)

Max Baron, a 27-year-old adman widowed for two years, gets some ribbing for his celibacy at a bachelor party. After the party, Max decides the thing to do is to get drunk: “a low-down dirty drunk in a low-down dirty dive.”

He runs into a waitress he’d argued with earlier that night at a White Palace establishment. She persuades him to buy her a drink, then, “giving off her complex atmosphere of cigarettes, cheap perfume and loamy womanhood,” talks him into driving her home. Thus begins an unlikely love affair, packed with steamy sex, between a fastidious, former English professor and hard-drinking, chain-smoking 41-year-old Nora. An engaging satire.

A SONG OF LOVE AND DEATH The Meaning of Opera by Peter Conrad (Poseidon Press: $9.95)

A fascinating, immensely readable survey of the world of opera.

According to Peter Conrad, opera “is the song of our irrationality,” whose reprehensible characters obey “neither moral nor social law,” giving voice to “the underground unconsciousness.”

In Conrad’s view, the origins of opera can be found in the “resurrection of Greek tragedy” during the Italian Renaissance. He traces the transformations of classical figures into operatic heroes, or anti-heroes, with discussions of Orpheus, Mephistopheles, Dionysus and Eros (manifested in characters “for whom existence is an erotic career--Don Giovanni and Carmen”).

Conrad presents operatic history from early Classical Opera (Monteverdi through Mozart), through changes and evolutions in the 19th Century, with individual chapters on Verdi, Wagner and Strauss. In the 20th Century, however, Conrad concludes that opera is “preoccupied with its history, wondering if it’s an art whose time has run out.”


THE ARABS Journeys Beyond the Mirage by David Lamb (Vintage Books: $8.95)

“To a large extent the Arabs are misjudged in the West--and caricatured,” David Lamb writes. And he sets out to correct the simplistic characterizations.

Most Palestinians, “rather than being gunmen and refugees . . . are educated, middle-class, economically successful and politically moderate; Israel . . . must share with the Arabs the blame for creating turmoil and making peace impossible.”

As Middle East correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, Lamb covered the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Beirut’s Sabra and Chatilla refugee settlements, “where I walked among the corpses of 800 Palestinian women and children,” and Space Age cities along the Persian Gulf. Lamb has “earned a fine reputation covering a complex and faction-ridden beat with authority and balance,” James Adams wrote in his review. “ ‘The Arabs’ is . . . perhaps the best effort to examine the Middle East.”