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November 15, 1987|ALEX RAKSIN

Biko, Donald Woods (Holt: $6.95). An author's initial thrill at having a book optioned for film often wanes when the spotlight turns to star billings and story revisions. In Richard Attenborough's new movie, "Cry Freedom," however, Donald Woods remains in the foreground, for the film is centered around his decision to write this tribute and testament (after first dismissing Steven Biko as a "black racist") and then to smuggle it out of the country. The question, "If the movie's out, why read the book?" is sure to come up, nevertheless, in this visual age. And, so, while the movie is piquing interest, it's important to point out that only the book can impart information and offer perspective. "Biko" is more of an angry than analytical book--Woods is particularly interested in naming the government officials who murdered Biko and other black activists. But it offers an excellent history of the African National Congress (ANC) and, in the process, shows the dilemmas that confronted Biko and the obligations that now face the United States.

Perhaps most troubling for Biko was the realization that anger (and, by association, racism) could be a powerful force for pulling township dwellers out of an apathetic and insecure position and motivating them to take action. "Biko" also studies the nature of the ANC and in so doing suggests that it is not as inimical to American interests as U.S. leaders might think. "The ideological creed of the ANC," Nelson Mandela says in these pages, "is neither to introduce Marxism into the ANC nor to 'Drive the white man into the sea.' " Biko's political philosophy, which still resonates through the ANC, is actually closer to our own than that of another South African activist, Mohandas Gandhi. While Gandhi eschewed material possessions, Biko simply wanted fairer distribution of goods and greater true freedom for individuals.

Delirium Eclipse and Other Stories, James Lasdun (Norton: $7.95). The young men who court girlfriends, visit grandmothers and reminisce with parents in these short stories are afraid. Rather than seeking affection by simply showing it or asking for it, they try to prove that they are worthy of it by pursuing money, job status and sexual conquest. James Lasdun subtly and eloquently evokes the tragedy of their self-denial in this 1985 collection. At the beginning of the title story Lewis Jackson travels to India for his company. He sees himself "representing quite a substantial node in the planet's economic grid" and looks at Clare, his girlfriend, first with affection, then, as his feelings of invincibility mount, with condescension, "as if he had conjured this radiant creature into being." We realize that he has it coming, of course, but after his company goes bankrupt, he gains our sympathy by becoming introspective, though never quite aware enough to triumph over a young Indian man who seduces Clare with "a glimmering world of stylized animals, birds and flowers." In a few stories the plot is visibly manipulated for effect (this is Lasdun's first collection), but the experience of young men realizing that they are adults and searching for inner strength is rarely captured as vividly.

Cities & People, Mark Girouard (Yale: $19.95). Auto-club and chamber of commerce guidebooks tend to be as dull and impersonal as the roads and highways they chart. We learn who designed buildings and when they were built, but not why they were built. The omission is mysterious, for as Mark Girouard demonstrates in these pages, an approach that goes beyond "savoring cities in ignorance or drinking them in visually" can enliven and enlighten readers. Girouard, a British architectural historian, covers a lot of ground, beginning in the Middle Ages and constructing a history of humans contending with problems created by growth. He assimilates this vast terrain by forming broadly focused theories. Since the 17th Century, he writes, immigrants from rural poverty have flocked to the city seeking a fabulous Eldorado. Decades later, the myth of the country as a "Garden of Eden" sends them flooding out again to the suburbs. Today, Girouard implies, we have run out of myths. "Individual cities are in trouble because they have lost the main purpose for which they came into existence, and have not found adequate new ones." Textile towns in New England and the north of England are foundering, for instance, after having lost their trade to Japan and Korea.

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