Symbols of America, Hal Morgan (Penguin: $14.95). Historians of pop culture have suggested that aliens visiting Earth after a nuclear war might get the best idea of who we were by looking at our advertising. One's first inclination is to dismiss this idea, for advertising usually reflects what we would like to be, or what our consumer culture would like us to be--not who we are. And yet, perusing through Hal Morgan's festive, vibrant collection of logos, trademarks, and other methods of imbuing products with images, one realizes how communicative symbols can be. Through capsule histories, Morgan shows how symbols reflect changing moods--excitement over the Klondike gold rush and our entries into World War I and II, our fondness of baseball, cowboys and log cabins. The symbols also spotlight our faults, from gullibility (a bottle of quackish "Perry Davis' Vegetable Pain-Killer" features a photo of the stern, grimacing inventor, who looks in dire need of his potion) to dubious methods of immortalizing heroes ("Stonewall Jackson's Self-Rising Flour") and prejudice: "It is significant," Morgan writes, "that the use of Indians on trademarks reached a peak from the 1880s through the early years of this century, after the last Indian resistance in the West had been crushed. It had then become safe to look back fondly on a great and noble culture that had been largely destroyed." Interpretation is rare in "Symbols of America," but readers will see themes connecting these catchy images. Perhaps most striking is the symbols' growing sleekness over time. In 1924, for instance, the Cracker Jack boy had a round face, elaborate, expansive clothing, a clumsy handful of candy boxes and a wistful dog. In the 1961 revision, the boy sports shorter hair and sharper clothes and stands tall in a military posture. His dog sits at his feet, looking confident and proud.
Balcony in the Forest, Julien Gracq (Columbia University Press: $9.95). A disciple of the surrealism of Andre Breton, French novelist Julien Gracq is not one to discover himself through writing a work of fiction, letting the story shape and reflect subconscious feelings. Gracq creates his stories, rather, out of his romantic ideas about our tragic tendency toward self-deception despite a noble capacity for confronting hard truths. Some will find this kind of symbol-laden literature better thought about than read, for, in reading, we are forced to empathize with the characters as they plunge to dark epiphany. Yet, while "Balcony in the Forest" concludes on a black note, most of the book is an eloquent depiction of the somnambulistic feeling that swept over France in the nine months between the declaration of war and the German invasion in 1940.
Gracq's book is not as nihilistic as most of his other works, for our protagonist, Lieutenant Grange, is not as heroic as, say, Aldo in "The Opposing Shore"; a young Parisian intellectual, Grange is content to embrace his girlfriend and fraternize with his soldiers. As Gracq writes, "the war was little by little falling asleep, the army yawning like a class that has handed in its papers, waiting for the bell and the end of maneuvers." Eventually, even the warning signs become invisible. Grange sees the "ornamental, graceful" spectacle of a German reconnaissance plane before the invasion, "a languid trail of globular puffs followed behind at some distance, blooming in its wake with a cottony plop." The only "reality" that remains in Grange's consciousness, and in Gracq's ideology, is the sullen erosion of rock to sand, "the woodland murmurs of sprouting and decay," "the moist thickets that smelled of squirrels' nests and fresh mushrooms."
Under Siege: PLO Decision-Making During the 1982 War, Rashid Khalidi (Columbia: $12.50). While a continuing recession and growing New Right were capturing Americans' attention in 1982, a transformation jarring even by Middle Eastern standards was reshaping the balance of power in and around Lebanon. As with many upheavals in the region, the war benefited no one, but its fallout still clutters the political climate today. Rashid Khalidi, an Arab history professor at the University of Chicago, marshals exclusive information from confidential PLO archives to successfully demystify an organization often mentioned in the news media but little understood. Khalidi also touches on Israel's "defeat": Despite spending about $1 million per day, losing 650 soldiers and mobilizing nearly 500,000 others, Israel failed to eradicate hostile forces from Southern Lebanon. The PLO did pull out of West Beirut (its retreat had less to do with Israeli maneuvers than with an erosion of Arab support from Lebanese Muslim politicians and battle-weary residents), but the war merely heightened another danger to the Israelis: Shia hostility. And when Palestinian refugees were massacred in the Sabra and Shatila camps, the United States, which had guaranteed their safety, also seemed impotent in the region.