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April 12, 1987|ALEX RAKSIN

The New Other Woman: Contemporary Single Women in Affairs With Married Men, Laurel Richardson ($8.95). Newsweek ignited the debate by reporting on a Harvard survey indicating that "a single woman at 35 will probably be single for life," but Laurel Richardson, a (married) sociology professor at Ohio State University, set the fuse in this 1985 book, which cites an earlier study that had arrived at the same conclusion. This grim statistic is actually one of the more questionable in the book, not only because the human spirit is nothing if not persistent, but because our contemporary social culture is now in an unprecedented state of flux. The figure is based on the assumption that there will be no change in men's tendency to "marry down" to women who are not as educated, wealthy and successful. Now that more women are becoming leaders in the workplace, will they too be motivated to "marry down"? Now that sex roles are changing, will more men consider "marrying up"? While Richardson has no crystal ball, her statistics and interviews do paint a vivid picture of the mistress today--she's usually self-supporting, often led on by the man but nearly as often the first to end the relationship: "I had just received my promotion and transfer to another city," said one of the other women profiled in this study, and "I blurted it out on the phone. He was silent for a long time . . . and then he pleaded, what about me? Us? . . . No congrats or anything. I felt sorry for him."

The Maker of Dune, Frank Herbert, edited and with introductions by Timothy O'Reilly (Berkley: $7.95). "I'm a muckraker, a yellow journalist," says Frank Herbert in these merry musings about his six "Dune" novels, the science fiction trade and changing the world for the better. "I ask myself, 'What are we ignoring?' " "Dune," a planet swept by sand as well as by political and ecological turmoil, was only one of many exotic environments that Herbert envisioned during his lifetime, which ended in February, 1986. "The Dune Chronicles" are, however, Herbert's most representative work, for his key message in these collected essays (We must "learn to like diversity" in a universe "growing in entropy and complexity") is played out over millennia by human characters and eerie creatures on and under the planet's sandy soil. Despite his grandiose plots, Herbert was, like the Wizard of Oz, humble, self-effacing and quick to caution that "I do not have the book of answers." And also like the Wizard, Herbert turns out to have some simple wisdom about the need for self-confidence: "To a person who trusts in his or her own flexibility, his or her own potential for growth and change, the unknown is the headiest wine."

Indecent Exposure; Riotous Assembly, Tom Sharpe (Atlantic Monthly Press: $6.95 each). The author, a South African expatriate now living in Britain, has been celebrated as "the funniest novelist in English today" by many leading English and American critics. His method of milking humor out of gruesome incidents will not, however, appeal to everyone. As Sharpe writes in a typical passage, the South African police (whose bumbling, brutal exploits are fictionalized in these books) constructed a gate "so well camouflaged that . . . even police were impaled on its terrible spikes." The "screams that followed . . . heartened (the Constable) who imagined that he had scored two new hits in what he had no doubt were extremely painful portions of the human anatomy." Perhaps Sharpe's savage humor went over better when these books were first published ("Riotous Assembly" in 1971, "Indecent Exposure" in 1973)--then, at least, the social realities in South Africa weren't as well known. While Sharpe was deported from South Africa for his satires, it's doubtful that these books went far toward fomenting social change, for it takes a good deal of hardening to be able to guffaw at Sharpe's mordant jokes. Sharpe's outrage, nevertheless, is unmistakable, concealed as it might be by Swiftian satire.

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