For those who like a good mystery, a travelogue or a brush-up on history, "The Second Best Bed," by Gaye Follmer, is a fascinating book. It is a novel about the mystery of Shakespeare. The main character is an adventurous American woman, Beryl Vredenberg, who goes to England on sabbatical to research who really wrote the Shakespeare plays. The book will remind you of half-forgotten plays and poems by the Bard, and perhaps will pique your interest in rereading them.
Beryl comes to believe that the plays were not written by "the actor from Stratford," and she develops a theory about who the author really was. Meanwhile, she is pursued by an amorous ex-husband and by a handsome professor who also has an interest in Shakespeare. A good read.
SARAH JOHNSON, Los Angeles
"Herschel: The Boy Who Started World War II," by Andrew Marino, is a biography of Herschel Grynszpan, the 17-year-old Polish-German Jew who, in protest of what the German government was doing to Jews, murdered an official of the Germany Embassy in Paris in November 1938, thus giving the Nazi goons the excuse they wanted to unleash the long-planned Kristallnacht.
Over the course of its 199 pages, the story is replete with the kind of plot twists, characters, ironies and political machinations that, if they appeared in a novel, well might stretch a reader's ability to suspend disbelief. Unbeknownst to Grynszpan, the official he killed was not only anti-Nazi, but probably was a double agent helping the French. A well-known American writer helped raise the money to pay for Grynszpan's defense. The lawyer who was hired was a Corsican whose operatic personality masked a Mafia mentality. And Grynszpan--though held in French prisons until 1940 and then in German confinement (as a VIP) until at least 1943--was never brought to trial, for reasons that are amazing and complex. Especially amazing: At one point, he refused freedom proffered him by his French jailers.
What eventually happened to him is the final puzzlement. Marino gives us our choice of plausible endings.
C.J. WRIGHT, Venice
"Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England" was published in New York by George F. Putnam in 1852 and consists of parts of a diary the young Frederick Law Olmsted wrote in the form of letters to be sent home to friends. The book is illustrated with line drawings.
Traveling by sailing vessel with two friends, Olmsted [the landscape architect who later planned Central Park] describes the other passengers, the crew, the captain, storms and food. Once ashore in England, he is fascinated by the English and Irish people, ancient villages, costs of accommodations, wages, food, crops, agricultural machinery, fences and hedgerows. He describes British clothing and tries to gauge the degree of poverty apparent in each town.
He makes a careful study of British girls and women, remarking on their appearance and beauty and the variety of their occupations. "English women, generally, appear more bold and self-reliant," he writes, "their action is more energetic. . . ."
The three young men tramped from village to village carrying backpacks, searching out pubs and inns. Olmsted's youthful enthusiasm and bright observations abound throughout, his interest in buildings and gardens immediately apparent.
MOLLIE BOWLING, Los Angeles
Elizabeth Berg's novel "What We Keep" deals with family complexities that can create lifelong misunderstandings. When Ginny Young and her sister were children, they were separated from their mother without any explanation. Now, although Ginny hasn't spoken to her mother in 35 years, she is flying to California in an attempt to understand what happened.
Berg manages to avoid even a grain of sentimentality as we catch glimpses through a child's eyes of a baffling and maddening mother. Only as an adult does Ginny discover what agonizing decisions were behind the family's fragmentation. The story is like a piece of glass that gradually becomes clearer and clearer, until we can see the world through it. What more can we ask of a book?
DIANE STEVENS, Cambria
"Oliver's High Five," by Beverly Swerdlow Brown, is an uplifting story with an important, contemporary message. The plight of Oliver the Octopus and his struggle to become an accepted member of the work force in the "world above the sea" is conveyed with warmth in this beautifully written, creatively illustrated book. Oliver's perseverance, despite rejections based on his appearance rather than his abilities, is potent testimony to the strength of his own self-image. Discrimination is portrayed in all its ignorance, honestly and in a contemporary setting, making the book mandatory reading for all grade-school educators and child therapists.
MICHAEL STEPHENS, Los Angeles
Editor's note: Several columns ago, a reader reviewed a novel called "Lillian" by Jill Gascoine, and, ever since then, we've been hearing from readers who are having a hard time tracking it down. Lisa Stefanson of Beverly Hills tells us she was able to get a copy through Book Soup in West Hollywood. It's only available as a British import, though, and takes about six weeks to arrive.
* What's that book in your beach bag (or carry-on, or on your night table)? Is it any good? Send us a review! We're especially interested in hearing about fiction that you don't find reviewed in The Times, but feel free to send us your opinions of whatever it is you are reading. Keep the reviews short (200 words, tops), and send them (with your phone number) to Readers Reviews, Life & Style, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053, or fax them to (213) 237-0732. We'll print the most interesting ones every other week. Sorry, but no submissions can be returned.