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NON-FICTION

Editor’s Note: The following reviews represent the best books of 1997 in the judgment of our contributors. Their original reviews have been edited and condensed for reasons of space.

ALFRED KAZIN

REQUIRED READING: Why Our American Classics Matter Now. By Andrew Delbanco . Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 226 pp., $24

Although he is a professor of English in full standing, Andrew Delbanco happily reads and teaches our American literary classics with intense excitement. I heartily approve of a critic who is not afraid of “Lyrical Dreiser” and who knows that Richard Wright (not just for “Native Son”) gave us the strongest, most courageous story of the perils of being black in America. His strong point is his delight in language and his ability to read the originality of a writer’s mind from the idiosyncrasy and complexity of his style. I know nothing better on Melville’s “Billy Budd” than Delbanco’s saying of the cabin scene in which Capt. Vere tells his beloved Billy that he must die: “The scene cannot be written but it is nevertheless heard.”

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LAWRENCE W. LEVINE

HISTORY ON TRIAL: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past. By Gary B. Nash, Charlotte Crabtree and Ross E. Dunn . Alfred A. Knopf: 336 pp., $26

“History on Trial” is an important and accessible book about what transpired when three California professors--Gary B. Nash, Charlotte Crabtree and Ross E. Dunn--helped from 1992 to 1996 to create national standards for the teaching of history. The story of how the authors and their colleagues worked to create standards that would gain the support of diverse groups, from the American Federation of Teachers to the American Historical Assn., makes fascinating and instructive reading. If the authors did no more than give us an account of the creation of and reaction to the national history standards, “History on Trial” would be essential reading. But they do much more. It is a wonderfully clear and concise overview of the changing ways in which Americans have, since the beginning of the republic, perceived and argued about our past. The authors demonstrate irrefutably that “important works of history and new schools of scholarly inquiry have repeatedly triggered controversy.” “History on Trial” is one of a handful of recent books that finally allow us to understand the contemporary culture wars in a larger perspective. This is a deeply informed, balanced and compelling book that deserves a wide audience. It will both stimulate and equip its readers to think for themselves.

GENE BLUESTEIN

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LADYFINGERS AND NUN’S TUMMIES: A Lighthearted Look at How Foods Got Their Names. By Martha Barnette . Times Books: 214 pp., $20

In an earlier work, “A Garden of Words,” Martha Barnette provided a fascinating study of what can be called “ethnobotany,” the folklore of flowers and plants. Now, in a tour de force, she has expanded her vision to discover the sources of the names of foods: foods named for what they look like, foods named for their religious associations and mystical traditions, foods named by mistake, foods named for people and places and foods named for what’s done to them and for what they do to us. In short, “Ladyfingers and Nun’s Tummies: A Lighthearted Look at How Foods Got Their Names” is a sometimes ribald and always intriguing study of the folklore behind the names of foods.

RICHARD WRANGHAM

THE ORIGINS OF VIRTUE: The Evolutionary Purpose of Altruism. By Matt Ridley . Viking: 296 pp., $24.95

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So, are people basically nice or nasty? In “The Origins of Virtue,” Matt Ridley argues for a new answer to this old question. The great merit of “The Origins of Virtue” lies not in its politics nor even in its fine biology but in its taking seriously evolution’s impact on the social sciences. It is an early, excellent example of what will surely be a wave of such efforts. In a world with the promise not just of human cloning but of solid evidence of our natural history, we need new, more confident guideposts to replace old spiritual myths. “The Origins of Virtue” heralds an uplifting of the stark visions of deep theory into a stronger intellectual basis for the sunny side of life.

AGHA SHAHID ALI

IN LIGHT OF INDIA. By Octavio Paz . Translated from the Spanish by Eliot Weinberger . Harcourt Brace: 210 pp., $22

Throughout “In Light of India,” one finds an India revealed by a passionate disinterestedness. Never harsh, never judgmental, when Octavio Paz is stark in his realism, it is ever so gently. “This book is not for the experts. It is the child not of knowledge but of love,” he writes. And I can’t help but be grateful. As should be all readers of this book. Paz the poet intoxicates; Paz the thinker ensures that this is not at the cost of reason and fairness. He intoxicates with reason.

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TODD GITLIN

WHY PEOPLE BELIEVE WEIRD THINGS: Pseudoscience, Superstition and Other Confusions of Our Time. By Michael Shermer . W.H. Freeman & Co.: 306 pp., $22.95

Michael Shermer has written a valuable primer debunking many of the crackpot obsessions of our time--alien abductions, creationist science, Holocaust refutal, the statistics-bespangled racism of the bell curve and pseudoscientific theology among them. Shermer catalogs the misunderstandings of science that run rife among people still eager to cash in on science’s prestige. Append the word “science” or the suffix "-ology” to a root term and your fancy picks up prestige points. The cult of fascination with charts, graphs, measurements and meters bespeaks an age when the irrational pays tribute to science by borrowing its vocabulary. Shermer’s directly written book is the perfect handbook to thrust on anyone you know who has been lured into the comforting paranoias that circulate amid the premillennial jitters.

TED LIBBEY

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SELECTED LETTERS OF BERLIOZ. Edited by Hugh Macdonald . Translated from the French by Roger Nichols . W.W. Norton: 480 pp., $35

In his preface to this new collection of Berlioz’s letters, editor Hugh Macdonald points out that “truth, if it is to be found at all, is surely more readily assembled from a man’s private writings than from the judgments of his peers and contemporaries.” This book contains nearly 500 letters, roughly one-eighth of the composer’s surviving correspondence. And the ring of truth can be heard on every page, from the soaring, Romantic, self-conscious missives in which the young man portrays himself as an artist to the pathetic cries for help of the sick and dying 65-year-old that come feebly at the end. Macdonald has made Berlioz the work of a lifetime, and his selection of the letters in this volume is well judged. In addition to his lucid preface, about as fine a sketch of Berlioz’s career and character as exists in English, he contributes numerous helpful footnotes and occasional explanatory paragraphs that serve to link events in the composer’s life and travels with the letters that follow. As the translator, Nichols has done an admirable job.

BILL BERKELEY

TO TIMBUKTU: A Journey Down the Niger. By Mark Jenkins . William Morrow: 240 pp., $25

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Early in his arduous, often fascinating, sometimes surreal descent by kayak down the Niger River, Mark Jenkins and his traveling companions--"four white guys from Wyoming paddling through black Africa"--find themselves gliding headlong into a “gigantic wall of debris.” They are gouged, slammed and nearly decapitated as a rushing current drags them through a maze of mangled trees. Jenkins’ description of this experience neatly captures the spirit of his adventure and the tone of his record of the trip, “To Timbuktu: A Journey Down the Niger.” Here is a lust for rigorous adventure--"it’s hell and I love it"--not for the faint of heart or stomach. A writer for Men’s Health, Backpacker, GQ and other magazines, Jenkins displays a Whitman-esque openness to experience. He has the descriptive and narrative skills to bring off a vivid and gritty portrait of a little-explored corner of the world. We can be grateful to Jenkins for having both the nerve and the talent to bring us thigh to thigh with this all-too-neglected corner of the globe.

ROBERT C. BERWICK

THE SYMBOLIC SPECIES: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain. By Terrence W. Deacon . W.W. Norton: 528 pp., $29.95

“The Symbolic Species” retells Darwin’s story but does so from a new perspective, buttressed by the immensely more sophisticated contributions of modern neuroscience and molecular biology. Anyone who’s trekked a thousand miles to eat whale blubber, to get a peek at whether an obscure whale brain’s convolutions differ from ours, deserves a certain measure of respect. One must be versed in the tricks of so many trades that Deacon’s expertise reads like a university course catalog: physiological mechanics (to understand how something the size of a basketball folds up when stuffed into a space the size of a large grapefruit), embryology and the transplantation of one animal’s growing nerve cells into another’s (in order to understand brain development), molecular genetics, neurophysiology, archeology and so on. Deacon’s research, involving everything from understanding the molecular-biological details of nerve growth to knocking out single genes to pinpointing the intricate regulation machinery building brains, holds out possibly the best hope we have to understand the mystery and miracle of language and how it is that we became creatures able to walk the walk and talk the talk.

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FRITJOF CAPRA

THE RESURGENCE OF THE REAL: Body, Nature and Place in a Hypermodern World. By Charlene Spretnak . Addison Wesley Longman: 278 pp., $22

As our century draws to a close, it is becoming increasingly clear that we are going through a fundamental change of world view and values, a change of paradigms as radical as the Copernican Revolution. Instead of seeing the universe as a machine composed of elementary building blocks, scientists have discovered that the material world, ultimately, is a network of inseparable patterns of relationships and that the planet as a whole is a living, self-regulating system. Written with great fluency, carefully researched and richly annotated, this is a superb book. Challenging and engaging on every page, it is a book I can wholeheartedly recommend to everyone concerned with the fundamental problems of our time and interested in “the big picture,” the decline of an outdated paradigm and the emergence of the postmodern, ecological vision of reality that will be crucial for the survival of humanity in the 21st century.

TED LIBBEY

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MUSIC, THE BRAIN, AND ECSTASY. By Robert Jourdain . William Morrow: 320 pp., $25

Many of us know from our own experience that music can evoke ecstasy. But it takes a rather remarkable sum of talents to account for how vibrations in the air actually do this, without leaving the lay reader behind in a cloud of phenomenological, musicological and neurophysiological dust. In “Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy,” Robert Jourdain achieves this and more with the sweet ease of a virtuoso, introducing us to the miraculous workings of our own minds with a wonderfully sure and felicitous touch. One comes away from “Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy” with the same feeling of exhilaration one gets from reading Walker Percy. In Jourdain is a writer with a similar gift for language and imagination. And there is certainly a touch of Mozart in the way Jourdain makes complexities easy to grasp and even delightful to ponder.

BENJAMIN R. BARBER

ONE WORLD, READY OR NOT: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism. By William Greider . Simon & Schuster: 528 pp., $27.50

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William Greider completes his survey of global capitalism by returning to the crisis of democracy. The implicit lesson he teaches, the last to be learned in our epoch when free markets are everywhere mistaken for free societies, is that capitalism needs democracy to survive and that this dependency, which market mythology refuses to acknowledge, is only exacerbated as capitalism pursues the manic logic of its disastrous global ambitions. This lesson alone makes “One World, Ready or Not” one of the most important books of the year and leaves Greider as that most peculiar of journalists: an American Cassandra, who, like Lincoln, is able to coax hope from despair and who continues to demand against all odds that the democracy that wild capitalism is undermining must somehow contrive to save capitalism from itself. If people actually pay some heed to Greider, who knows? Maybe it even will.

EDWARD McGLYNN / GAFFNEY JR.

THE HIDDEN ENCYCLICAL OF PIUS XI. By Georges Passelecq and Bernard Suchecky . Translated from the French by Steven Rendall . Introduction by Garry Wills . Harcourt Brace: 320 pp., $25

The publication of a document never issued by the leader who commissioned it is normally not very big news in diplomatic history. But it becomes a major publishing event when the text deals with racism and anti-Semitism, when the time of its commission was the late 1930s (when Jim Crow was the law of this land and when Nazi and Fascist racial purity laws turned toward the elimination of the Jews in the Shoah) and when it was the pope who commissioned the text. Perhaps this English translation of “The Hidden Encyclical of Pius XI” will spark more serious conversation on the many questions that this book raises but does not resolve.

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ELLEN WILLIS

WOMEN AND THE COMMON LIFE. By Christopher Lasch . W.W. Norton: 196 pp., $23

“The Culture of Narcissism” contains a poignant description--a radical feminist could not have written it better--of male-female relations after consciousness-raising. The woman craves true equality; the man, to her bitter disappointment, resists. The result is a gulf of mutual fury and estrangement that would once have been bridged with resignation, humor, chivalry, philosophical bromides. For Christopher Lasch, feminism shatters the common life by raising hopes that can never be fulfilled. In “Women and the Common Life,” he is mourning the losses of men.

JOHN ALLEN PAULOS

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THE MEASURE OF REALITY: Quantification and Western Society 1250-1600. By Alfred W. Crosby . Cambridge University Press: 258 pp., $24.95

In this thoroughly fascinating monograph, Alfred W. Crosby, a professor of history at the University of Texas, asks a fundamental question: How and why did it come to pass that Europeans, seemingly backward bumpkins in medieval times, became so successful as imperialists? The short traditional answer is science and technology. Crosby points to certain prior habits of mind, in particular to Europeans’ obsession, acquired gradually between 1250 and 1600, to split the world into bits and pieces that they could then count, classify, measure and manipulate. “The Measure of Reality” is coherent and even witty and should captivate anyone interested in finding out how clocks, calendars, maps, musical scores, astrolabes, accounting ledgers, Mercator projections and perspective painting changed our mental landscape forever.

JEFF MADRICK

EVERYTHING FOR SALE: The Virtues and Limits of Markets. By Robert Kuttner . Alfred A. Knopf: 362 pp., $27.50

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Robert Kuttner has brought many years of experience and wide reading to his new book, “Everything for Sale,” and produced the best survey of the limits of free markets that we have. Kuttner believes in the power of markets to distribute goods and services efficiently. But he argues that social, political and psychological influences are too pervasive for unfettered markets and laissez faire politics to provide answers to all our problems. Kuttner’s intention is not to promote a liberal ideology to balance the prevailing one, though some may read him this way. His is a much-needed plea for pragmatism: Take from free markets what is good and do not hesitate to recognize what is bad. Kuttner’s is not the sort of book that alone will start the political pendulum the other way. But when it does finally reverse direction, “Everything for Sale” will be one of its touchstones.

DALE A. RUSSELL

DINOSAUR LIVES: Unearthing an Evolutionary Saga. By John Horner and Edwin Dobb . HarperCollins: 244 pp., $24

T. REX AND THE CRATER OF DOOM. By Walter Alvarez . Princeton University Press: 186 pp., $24.95

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These two books, “Dinosaur Lives” and “T. Rex and the Crater of Doom,” will become classics. In “T. Rex and the Crater of Doom,” Walter Alvarez argues for catastrophic loss of habitat resulting from the impact of a comet or asteroid. The title of his book is no doubt inspired by the title of the movie “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” and, indeed, something of a Jones mystique clings to Alvarez, who for 20 years has led the chase from the grave of Tyrannosaurus rex to a mighty, extraterrestrial killer responsible for the destruction of dinosaurs and their world. The book is very well written and so engrossing that a reader with little or no background in the earth’s geologic history will enjoy an easy and vastly entertaining summary of how we came to our present understanding of the past. In addition to offering his own theory, Alvarez provides an excellent summary of the competing theories regarding dinosaur extinction. Alvarez’s journey south along the Rocky Mountain front, across the tidal wave deposits bordering the Gulf of Mexico and on to the Crater of Doom, lying off the Yucatan peninsula, is a high drama of prediction and discovery, carried out in the heat of inspired but collegial competition. It is a wonderful adventure in science.

SERGIO MUNOZ

MEXICAN POSTCARDS. By Carlos Monsivais . Edited and Translated from the Spanish by John Kraniauskas . Verso: 202 pp., $18, paper

“Mexican Postcards” offers a rare opportunity for an American audience to grasp the real nature of things Mexican, sans cliche and stereotypes. In a country where many public practitioners have turned lying into an art form, Carlos Monsivais tells the truth in an unassuming and funny way. Devoid of sentimentality, his chronicles mock the solemn attitudes and stiff speeches of government and private business officials. The “official” version is his target. No other country in the world affects daily life in the United States as does Mexico. And even though most Americans believe they know our Southern neighbor well, that is not the case. Monsivais’ “Mexican Postcards” helps bridge that gap. It is an honest chronicle of life in a land that is all too often for Mexicans, as it is for Americans, an enigma.

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RICHARD ELLIS

THE PERFECT STORM: A True Story of Men Against the Sea. By Sebastian Junger . W.W. Norton: 228 pp., $23.95

Sebastian Junger investigated the lives and deaths of six fishermen who went down with their fishing boat, the 72-foot Andrea Gail, off the coast of Nova Scotia; he tracked the course of the storm, investigated other vessels caught in the storm, researched the training of rescue jumpers and interviewed meteorologists. The scale of the subject matter overpowers us: not only the vastness of the ocean as compared with the puny works of man but also waves and winds that roar outside the range of our comprehension. Waves as high as a 10-story building! Winds that can destroy any instrument designed to measure them! What is surprising is not that the Andrea Gail went down but that any man--or, for that matter, anything made by man--could possibly survive such a violent merging of the elements. “The Perfect Storm” is a wild ride that brilliantly captures the awesome power of the raging sea and the often futile attempts of humans to withstand it.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS

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THE ART OF THE IMPOSSIBLE: Politics as Morality in Practice. By Vaclav Havel . Alfred A. Knopf: 274 pp., $24

Close your eyes. Try to imagine an American politician beginning a speech with this sentence: “Allow me therefore a few observations on the subject of hope and death.” One can only hope that others who aspire to political power listen to what Havel has to say. His words are a sorely needed antidote to the grandiosity that infects so many who practice politics and the apathy that characterizes so many who live in our society but ignore the duties of citizenship. Like the samizdat smuggled to the East during the Cold War, Havel’s speeches have the power to sustain hope and inspire action even when the prospects of success seem dim. Read them. Pass them on.

ARTHUR MILLER

THE COURAGE TO STAND ALONE: Letters from Prison and Other Writings. By Wei Jingsheng . Edited and translated from the Chinese by Kristina M. Torgeson . Viking: 286 pp., $23.95

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The Chinese government has decided in its wisdom to draw the soul out of a man and then try to jam it back into him with totally different opinions and views of himself and the world. Having failed to accomplish this extraordinary feat with a prison sentence of 15 years, they slapped him with another sentence, of 14 years. Thus, if he won’t accept a new soul, the solution is to murder the one he was born with by depriving him of proper food and medical care. And that is what they have been doing. I have worked in China as the director of “Death of a Salesman” and learned to respect and value greatly my friendships with Chinese people. I am convinced that for most of them by far, this horrifying treatment of this man is a travesty of the revolution and a denial of the norms of civilized society. Wei Jingsheng’s agony is the agony of every man and woman who understands that to be human is to be free to speak one’s thoughts. Whether protests can move Beijing or not, it is vital that the man’s incredible courage not be greeted by indifference. I believe Wei Jingsheng speaks for all of us in his insistence, at the risk of his life, that truth is not a trivial, dispensable, disposable thing. In our most unheroic of times, a hero has risen again.

MARTHA BARNETTE

THE DISHEVELED DICTIONARY: A Curious Caper Through Our Sumptuous Lexicon. By Karen Elizabeth Gordon . Houghton Mifflin: 162 pp., $15

TORN WINGS AND FAUX PAS: A Flashbook of Style, a Beastly Guide Through the Writer’s Labyrinth. By Karen Elizabeth Gordon . Pantheon: 256 pp., $23

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Karen Elizabeth Gordon, whose quirky cult classics “The Deluxe Transitive Vampire” and “The New Well-Tempered Sentence” established her as the Edward Gorey of pop grammarians, is back with two more gleefully gothic books about language. “The Disheveled Dictionary” offers an eclectic collection of the author’s favorite words, while “Torn Wings and Faux Pas” tackles the tricky problems of usage, style and other grammatical bugaboos. “The Disheveled Dictionary” celebrates what Gordon calls “the music of language, the sound and sensuality of words, the rhythms and cadences they embrace, affecting us on several levels at once.” Meanwhile, “Torn Wings and Faux Pas” is surely the steamiest style book ever to sit on a reference shelf. As Gordon puts it, “The book itself is an orgy, in fact--an orgy of orthography, shifting positions, inter-species fraternizing, naughtiness given safe conduct by stylistic panache and grammatical gravitas.”

MARTIN DUBERMAN

A COUNTRY OF STRANGERS: Blacks and Whites in America. By David K. Shipler . Alfred A. Knopf: 610 pp., $30

David Shipler’s moving, open-hearted book lays bare the terrifying agility of American racism. It has deftly adapted to changing circumstances and invented new rationales to resist every new remedy for achieving racial parity. Shipler has already won one Pulitzer. For this book, he deserves another.

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RICHARD WRANGHAM

NEXT OF KIN: What Chimpanzees Have Taught Me About Who We Are. By Roger Fouts with Stephen Tukel Mills . A Living Planet Book/William Morrow: 420 pp., $25

“Next of Kin” is more than a book about the theory and practice of science. It’s a love story. What Roger Fouts has learned from chimpanzees is that Descartes was wrong. Other animals do have minds. The reason chimpanzees are chosen for experiments is that they are so like us; our compassion should be greater. That argument isn’t new, but in “Next of Kin,” it is based on an unparalleled depth of understanding and on a uniquely personal involvement in the battles over congressional legislation and laboratory management. You cannot read this book and stay neutral.

RICHARD SENNETT

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IMPRESSIONISM: Reflections and Perceptions. By Meyer Schapiro . George Braziller: 360 pp., $50

The publisher’s blurb for “Impressionism” rightly calls this a “classic work.” Not a word is wasted. And the words are rich; Meyer Schapiro’s prose possesses an unequaled power to wake up the reader’s eye. This is probably the only book ever to relate Impressionism to Egyptian sculpture, Roman wall paintings, Chinese landscape scrolls, Immanuel Kant, Karl Heinz Helmholz and Gustave Flaubert as well as to Pollock. Yet Schapiro never displays his learning as if he’s waving a flag; he quotes and refers only to strengthen the reader’s visual experience. What makes this book so compelling, though, is his depiction of Impressionism as a way of life as well as of art, an embrace of one’s sensual experience and of the people and places that arouse it.

LINDA JAIVIN

GRAVITY: Tilted Perspectives on Rocketships, Rollercoasters, Earthquakes, and Angel Food. By Joseph Lanza . Picador USA: 216 pp., $22

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In this tasty souffle of a book, full of buoyant, anti-gravity prose, Joseph Lanza treats us to a light yet far from insubstantial look at the weightiest subject of all. The spectrum of “Gravity’s” rainbow reaches from King Kong to Stormin’ Norman, the inspired robotics of the modern kitchen to the macabre eroticism of the fun-fair ride, Michael Jackson’s moonwalk to Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon. It is a giddy guided tour of pop culture as seen through the “tilted perspective” of the roller coaster fanatic.

PETER BISKIND

WHO THE DEVIL MADE IT. By Peter Bogdanovich . Alfred A. Knopf: 850 pp., $39.95

The interviews in “Who the Devil Made It” (the title is borrowed from a phrase of Howard Hawks, who preferred movies that bore the personal stamp of the director) encompass nearly the entire span of motion picture history, from the early days of Allan Dwan, who began working in the D.W. Griffith era, to Sidney Lumet, who is still active. In between, we hear from blue-chip directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Hawks, George Cukor, Josef von Sternberg and Fritz Lang as well as from a smattering of the so-called Hollywood professionals like Robert Aldrich, Raoul Walsh and Don Siegel; the “kings of the Bs” like Joseph H. Lewis and Edgar G. Ulmer; and such wild cards as legendary animator Chuck Jones, the formidable Otto Preminger and Jerry Lewis’ favorite director, Frank Tashlin. For the general reader, they provide an invaluable one-volume view of cinema history from a director’s point of view that serves as a reminder that movie-making did not begin with “Wayne’s World.”

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WALTER LAQUEUR

NAZI GERMANY AND THE JEWS: The Years of Persecution, Volume 1. By Saul Friedlander . HarperCollins: 436 pp, $30

On Nazism and the Jews a great deal has been written--personal accounts and learned monographs--but there are very few full-scale, general works and, as far as the prewar period is concerned, Saul Friedlander’s work (the first of two volumes) is not just a fine book, it is the only one we have so far. He covers the period from Hitler’s rise to power to the outbreak of World War II, and he describes both how decisions were taken by the Nazi top leadership to solve the “Jewish question” and how the Jews of Germany (and later also Austria) reacted. A survivor of the Holocaust, Friedlander--with his training as a historian, his knowledge of sources and languages and his moving and forceful literary style--was in a unique position to write what is likely to be the definitive work.

ALFRED W. CROSBY

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GUNS, GERMS, AND STEEL: The Fates of Human Societies. By Jared Diamond . W.W. Norton: 480 pp., $27.50

Why did Christendom enthusiastically and permanently adopt the wheel, the key element in most machinery, while the Islamic societies largely discarded it? What happened when syphilis first appeared, as compared to what is happening today with the appearance of AIDS? What is happening to society in the highlands of Jared Diamond’s home-away-from-home, Papua New Guinea, where people have hurtled from the technology of the stone ax to that of the computer within a lifetime? Diamond’s lesson is this: Think big like our astronomers, who begin their training by trying to understand not the nervous gyrations of the members of the asteroid belt but the simple and stately movements of the major planets over the years, decades and centuries. Think big. “Guns, Germs, and Steel” is a provocative start. This is a wonderfully interesting book.

MICHAEL CRICHTON

MONSTER: Living Off the Big Screen. By John Gregory Dunne . Random House: 206 pp., $26

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“Monster” is John Gregory Dunne’s nonfiction account of the eight years that he and his wife, Joan Didion, worked as writers on the film “Up Close and Personal,” released in 1996. The book is a remarkable narrative--part memoir, part diary, part confessional--that tells more about the experience of writing for Hollywood than any other book ever written. It is also a very funny horror story. In fact, “Monster” is one of the few books about “The Business” that accurately reports the way the business really works--both in detail and in tone. This blow-by-blow case history of a single film conveys more of the daily experience of writing for movies than other books have done. In “Monster,” Dunne has told the truth about the way the modern screenwriter works in the movies, and he may take some flak for it, particularly from wide-eyed cinema aesthetes and journalistic hangers-on. Contradicting these purveyors of fantasy, he gives us a detailed example about how the business really works. It’s a cheerful, human, funny and very informative account.

RICHARD HOWARD

CHRISTOPHER ISHERWOOD DIARIES: Volume I: 1939-1960. Edited & introduced by Katherine Bucknell . Michael di Capua Books/HarperCollins . 1,014 pp., $40

“Except for Isherwood, I can think of no contemporary literary figure who has kept, for most of a lifetime, a journal.” In that aside 15 years ago, Gore Vidal revealed the existence of this book, of which the first installment, superbly introduced, edited and annotated by Katherine Bucknell, offers an enormous and exhaustive articulation of a life already much chronicled, mined out to display one of the most eloquent and attentive specimens in our modern menagerie harboring what Vidal again (who better?) calls “that rarest of creatures, the objective narcissist.”

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JOHN FELSTINER

FRENCH CHILDREN OF THE HOLOCAUST: A Memorial. By Serge Klarsfeld . Edited by Susan Cohen, Howard M. Epstein, Serge Klarsfeld . Translated by Glorianne Depondt and Howard M. Epstein . New York University Press: 1,882 pp., $95

What do we know of the million Jewish children murdered by Nazis? How can we possibly “know” such a thing? “French Children of the Holocaust” will help us if anything can. It tells the story of the children deported from France and portrays them in a host of touching photos, plus brief biographies and quotes from their letters. “French Children of the Holocaust,” more vividly than any other source I know in any language, presents the human personhood of the catastrophe.


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