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May 11, 1986|ALEX RAKSIN

Tender Mercies, Rosellen Brown (Penguin: $6.95). Dan takes the tiller of a boat he can't handle, and his wife, Laura, swimming nearby, is caught in the motor and paralyzed for life. "Tender Mercies" begins just after Laura comes home from the hospital, but this unusual novel is about transformation, not grief. After the accident, Laura's movement does not cease, it becomes more subtle and delicate. Family life changes similarly: Worldly Laura and restless, flirtatious Dan become, after the accident, more reflective, wandering through feelings of happiness, dependence, powerlessness, love and selfishness until, eventually, they can reaffirm their sense of self-worth. So Laura's paralysis ends even though her physical disability continues, for she has come to terms with her place in the scheme of things. Not a mean feat, given Dan's exhortations throughout the book: Nature is not your enemy, Dan says, "but it isn't your patsy either."

Information U.S.A., Matthew Lesko (Penguin: $22.95). One of the most original new reference sources to appear in the United States in the '80s, this updated version of a 1983 work shows that the federal bureaucracy, perhaps indifferent and intimidating at tax time, can be a valuable resource during the rest of the year. Matthew Lesko, who is manning a toll-free number (800-USA-0030) throughout this month to give information "on any topic," offers succinct profiles of major government agencies and, more important, a guide to finding obscure services: A free monthly government publication, for instance, tells consumers which foods will be cheaper or more expensive in the coming months.

The Critical Heritage Series: The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum; edited by Michael Patrick Hearn (Schocken: $8.95). Who would want to send a group of critics to Oz? Certainly not the book's 8 million-plus readers. Most have been more interested in Dorothy's struggle to do away with the Wicked Witch of the West than in the tension between technology and rural values that runs through the book. Certainly not the critics, most of whom see Baum's writing as pedestrian, the plot rambling and the characterizations shallow. If critics must make sense of sorcery, better to spend some time with Ursula Le Guin, whose magical "A Wizard of Earthsea" transports us to an alien world without losing sight of its underlying theme, the coming of age. And certainly not L. Frank Baum, who humbly insisted that his book was "just a simple fairy tale."

But, as with his wizard, on the run from Barnum and Bailey's Circus, humility was part of Baum's act. After all, Oz, conclude most of the critics in this 1983 collection, was one of the first utopias created out of Americana. Baum's fable reassured Americans in the '30s that the emerging technology of the period would pose no threat to the values of the American heartland. As Gore Vidal contends in one of the book's sharper essays, "In Oz (Baum) presents the pastoral dream of Jefferson (the slaves have been replaced by magic and good will); and into this Eden, he introduces forbidden knowledge in the form of black magic (the machine) which good magic (the values of the pastoral society) must overwhelm."

The Quotable Woman: 1800-1981, The Quotable Woman: From Eve to 1799, Elaine Partnow (Facts On File: $14.95 each). "I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman," writes Virginia Woolf in one of the 14,000 quotes collected in these two updated volumes. Convinced that women have been getting short shrift in the reference books of our day, Elaine Partnow did some research and found that only 1/2% of the quotes in "Bartlett's Familiar Quotations" and 1 1/2% of the entries in "The Oxford Book of Quotations" are from women. Part of this problem is, of course, unavoidable, printing presses having been largely off limits to women. Drawing from letters, books and documents, however, Partnow has shown that not all of women's words need be labeled "Anon." The quotes collected here range from the familiar--Mother Jones' fiery motto--"Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living"--to the obscure--Jane Ace's play of words, "Time wounds all heels."

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