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October 13, 1985|ALEX RAKSIN

In the Days of the Comet, H. G. Wells (Hogarth). Whether espousing Utopian socialism in his writing or embracing free love in his personal life, H. G. Wells was bold and intemperate. He pitched his vision of a new, just world based on logical positivism as if it were snake oil: Such a society would not only do away with repressive Victorian social, moral and religious attitudes, it would, he wrote, mitigate heartache and jealousy. Nevertheless, this 1904 novella, about the creation of an earthly paradise "fit to match the glories of the sky and sea" after Halley's comet passes in 1914, presents a vivid, bright alternative to the conflict and commercialization that launched the industrial era. When the comet streaks through the sky, soldiers heading to battle are suddenly inspired, becoming skeptical about the war's causes. " 'The Emperor!' they exclaim. 'Oh nonsense! We're civilized men. . . . Where's the coffee?' " The real passing of the comet in 1914 didn't quell the fires of world war, of course, but the message of this book--"idealism" is not a dirty word--still has much to offer those who wait for the comet's return.

One Writer's Beginnings, Eudora Welty (Warner). "I am a writer who came of a sheltered life," concludes Eudora Welty in this book, yet "a sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within." Welty, who won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, explores her childhood in this collection of three talks delivered in 1983, underscoring in the process the importance of curiosity: "In writing, as in life, the connections of all sorts of relationships and kinds lie in wait of discovery, and give out their signals to the Geiger counter of the charged imagination, once it is drawn into the right field."

The Haight-Ashbury: A History, Charles Perry (Vintage). This intimate portrait of an isolated time and place, sympathetic to the moment, will be welcomed by those weary of ambiguous overviews of student protest and 1960s conflict. Charles Perry begins in 1965: Writer Ken Kesey has just hit the road in his bus (multicolored with Day-Glo paint), Watts is about to explode in a riot and a Time cover story heralds "The Turning Point in Vietnam." While understanding his subjects' "spiritual revolution," Perry is careful to acknowledge excesses. He is critical, for instance, of one "acidhead" who spends several minutes asking for a glass of water: "I--or rather this person, this one who speaks--wants; that is, expresses a need, its cells that metabolize. . . ."

The Brotherhood of Oil: Energy Policy and the Public Interest, Robert Engler (University of Chicago). Oil permeates every level of international politics, writes Robert Engler, arguing that even the blockade against Cuba, American policy in Asia and the arms race in the Middle East are governed in good part by the flow of oil. This book, which convincingly proves its points through an in-depth study of the 1973-74 energy scare, first appeared in 1977, after the author's critically acclaimed 1961 work, "The Politics of Oil." Engler proposes that energy crises and environmental pollution can be avoided by instituting "economically just and ecologically sane" international regulations and by eliminating "private advisory bodies . . . nesting cozily within the public bureaucracy" in the United States.

The Last Place on Earth, Roland Huntford (Atheneum). While the North Pole has for millennia been dismissed as a frozen wilderness, the situation changed dramatically on Nov. 1, 1911. That was when Capt. Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen set out on a wild race through 1,500 miles of frozen wilderness to be the first to conquer the North Pole. Roland Huntford's 544-page chronicle of their voyages, reprinted to accompany a TV series of the same name airing on PBS this month, looks at the agonies, the feuds and the joys of the expeditions.

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