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February 02, 1986|ALEX RAKSIN

Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam, edited by Bernard Edelman (Pocket: $6.95). Moral and ethical issues behind the war continue to trouble our political conscience even amid today's new patriotism. Yet the stories of those who actually fought in Vietnam often have been clouded by cardboard character media images of drug-crazed veterans or "Rambo"-style commandos. True, in the early days of the war, some of the combatants were brash and naive: In one letter, for instance, a soldier tells his brother, a priest in America, "I know I'm after souls, but I get all excited when I see a VC, just like when I see a deer. I go ape firing at him." But the poignant letters collected here demonstrate that writers in America were not the only ones fighting a moral and emotional battle in the 1960s. Most eloquent, perhaps, are the letters and notes of an American major held for 7 1/2 years as a prisoner of war. At first, he promises his wife that he will soon return. Then, when optimism fades, he tells her, "I'll remember your youthful and lovely face always." Finally, a week after he's released, he composes two "dream sheets," printed here in his own handwriting and full of hundreds of plans, from "establish a philosophy/religion" to "dining policy: make it beautiful, fancy." But something goes astray, and, Bernard Edelman's notes tell us, the major commits suicide only a few weeks later.

Conversations With American Writers, Charles Ruas (McGraw-Hill: $7.95) were first held when Charles Ruas was arts director of a New York City radio station. True to radio reporting, each of the interviews opens a detailed portrait of the contemporary writers ("When Eudora Welty is absorbed in a moment of thought, her expression is that of someone completely absent, but when she speaks, her eyes become luminously intelligent. . ."). Well aware that "the art of the literary interview is transforming a particular interrogation into a universal dialogue," Ruas probes his subjects to find out how they work, why they work and what they see in themselves. The 14 interviews collected here with Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, Gore Vidal and others were first published in 1984.

Love, Leo Buscaglia (Fawcett: $3.95) was written in 1972, before celebrity struck "the love doctor" from USC with full force in the early 1980s. Some comments in the book might not be for the fainthearted ("the best M&M in the world is a warm, pulsating, non-melting human being--YOU!"), but Buscaglia's ideas are less superficial than this adage or TV talk-show appearances might suggest. Love, for instance, implies responsibility, Buscaglia tells us, offering a story about how his fascination with fall leaves prompted him to leave his garden unattended. The neighbors complained, but Buscaglia found a compromise, cleaning up the leaves and then dumping them over his living room floor. "I had yielded to the culture, for I enjoy and need neighbors, but I also met my own needs. I enjoy and need fall leaves." This belief in the importance of recognizing our need to be connected with others suffuses all of Buscaglia's books, from "Love" to "Bus 9 to Paradise," to be published by Morrow on Feb. 14.

Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950-1980, Charles Murray (Basic: $10.95) once again forwards the conservative view that money won't make social institutions more effective. Yet Charles Murray's polemic against the programs of the Great Society is more convincing than most because he acknowledges that poor Americans do not have ideal access to health care, housing and jobs. Moreover, Murray hesitates to endorse unpopular views from the New Right, such as the conviction that the poor want it that way. Instead, Murray, a social scientist at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, bases most of his arguments on statistics. Citing declining student test scores in the 1960s, for example, he argues that our nation's schools were "doing quite well" until money was pumped into them between 1965 and 1980. Murray admits that the percentage of unenrolled black students dramatically declined between 1950 and 1980 (from 1 out of 4 to 1 out of 18), but insists that the change occurred between 1950 and 1965, before Great Society programs were fully implemented. For those nagging social problems that still remain, Murray suggests that we should dole out rewards "discriminately . . . attaching a pat on the back to some transfers and giving others begrudgingly."

Crime Free, Michael Castleman (Simon & Schuster: $7.95) agrees with the survivalists that crime prevention rests with the individual. Michael Castleman, however, believes that we should arm ourselves with information, not guns. Tips in the book range from how to evaluate self-defense programs and devices to how to recognize and cope with domestic violence. Strategies are given for businesses--we learn, for instance, how 7-Eleven reduced armed robberies by 56% by making its stores more visible from large streets--and for individuals. Guidelines on how to prevent auto burglary are especially helpful, since auto theft is the least likely to be challenged by passers-by. In fact, says one study quoted in the book, passers-by, police officers included, are more likely to help the burglar than to question him.

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