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February 09, 1986|ALEX RAKSIN

The Canadians, Andrew H. Malcolm (Bantam: $9.95) does an exceptional job of covering the second-largest nation in the world, partly because the author grew up in Canada but mostly because he's a veteran journalist who knows when to get the political lowdown in Ottawa, when to gather statistics in the library and when to take a sleigh ride in the north. Andrew Malcolm looks at everything from the economy to the country's intimidating geography: lakes and bays larger than U.S. states, a forest six times the size of France, herds of caribou so numerous that they take a day just to pass one rock. However far-reaching, though, "The Canadians" isn't even-handed, for Malcolm's heart clearly lies with the natives--Inuit women who store up fresh seal meat at home while buying pizza and licorice at the general store, schoolteachers in Resolute, Northwest Territories, who import leaves to teach their Inuit pupils about those strange things called "trees," an Eskimo artist who completes a soapstone carving of a northern bird preparing to soar, turns to Malcolm and says, "Now it is free." Of course, these people are many steps removed from the political and economic forces that shape the south. But in the north, Malcolm finds a heritage that is distinctly Canadian; the nation's southern cities, in contrast, are still struggling to find their own identity. Rural Canada, in fact, reminds Malcolm of his own heritage, a childhood in which "Canada meant swarthy Indians living just down the dusty, curbless road, or crawling up in the lap of a bosomy grandmother in a wicker rocker that creaked beautifully on a screened front porch during those warm summer evenings when even the crickets clicked slowly."

"Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" Adventures of a Curious Character, Richard P. Feynman with Ralph Leighton. (Bantam: $4.50). Richard Feynman is perhaps best described as the man who won a Nobel Prize in physics after deciding to give up his career in science and start "playing around" with ideas--watching, for example, how a plate wobbles in the air. Feynman's decision was telling, for, while he's currently a professor of physics at Caltech, his attitude toward most formal academic institutions is, to say the least, irreverent. In this offbeat 1984 biography, he blasts everything from science textbooks ("Have you got science? No! You have only told what a word means in terms of other words") to biology courses (they taught him "how to hold a test tube and take its cap off with one hand . . . . Now I can hold my toothbrush in one hand, and with the other hand, hold the tube of toothpaste"). Yet while Feynman might be less than patient with established institutions, his curiosity about nature knows no bounds. Here, he recounts his discoveries of new ways to pick up women in bars, crack high-security safes, build ant ferries and win the Nobel Prize.

Shiloh and Other Stories, Bobbie Ann Mason (Perennial: $6.95), are set in western Kentucky. Bobbie Ann Mason offers fresh observations and genuine empathy, whether she's looking at bus driver Edwin Creech, who delights in playing new-wave tunes for his passengers--handicapped kids--yet remains sensitive to "the pain in their hearts," or at her own childhood, when she experienced a big city for the first time: "I had never seen so many houses, all laid out in neat rows . . . they were nestled next to each other in a thrilling intimacy." This 1982 collection won the PEN/Hemingway Award for First Fiction.

Salvador Witness: The Life and Calling of Jean Donovan, Ana Carrigan (Ballantine: $3.95). When Catholic missionary Jean Donovan and a colleague disappeared after a day of relief work in the mountains of El Salvador, her friends in the small port town of La Libertad saw no cause for concern. After all, Donovan and a co-worker would often spend a night out of town while transporting people and provisions across the tiny country. But, after several days had passed, Ana Carrigan writes, concern set in, and, when Donovan's friends found her Toyota minibus at the side of the road one day, its white paint blackened and its wheels burned to the rim, "no one quite believed the optimistic scenarios they kept making up for themselves and each other." In this chilling story, Carrigan recounts how Donovan was killed in 1980 by five El Salvadoran government soldiers. The telling leaves readers with the strong suspicion that the soldiers did not act alone. Though Carrigan doesn't conclusively prove higher-level involvement in the crime, she does offer extensive evidence to back her claim that the Salvadoran government tried to protect the murderers. The corruption among El Salvador's National Guardsmen certainly was well known at the time of this 1984 writing--the year before Donovan was killed, about 30 government soldiers fired automatic rifles at 300 protesters and one CBS news cameraman. But Carrigan's story looks beyond egregious acts, offering a revealing portrait of a nation in turmoil.

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