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March 27, 1988|ELENA BRUNET

REAGAN'S AMERICA by Garry Wills (Penguin Books: $8.95)

A startling and original appraisal of the Reagan presidency, written by the author of "Nixon Agonistes." At once a work of social history and a compelling psychological portrait, Wills studies Reagan's progress from his Midwestern origins, his early career on radio and in Hollywood, his role as leader of the Screen Actors Guild, and his transformation from Roosevelt liberal to perhaps the most powerful American conservative of the 20th Century.

Wills' thesis is as disturbing as it is persuasive: "The power of (Reagan's) appeal is the great joint confession that we cannot live with our real past, that we not only prefer but need a substitute. . . . He is the ideal past, the successful present, the hopeful future all in one." This edition also features a new afterword dealing with the Reykjavik summit and the Iran-Contra scandal.

CAPTAINS OF THE SANDS by Jorge Amado, translated from the Portuguese by Gregory Rabassa (Avon Books: $7.95)

First published in Rio de Janeiro in 1937, "Captain of the Sands" is the sixth work in Jorge Amado's cycle of "Bahian novels" set in the northeast Bahia region of Brazil

The novel begins with the publication of newspaper articles and letters to the editor in Jornal da Tarde, reporting on the criminal activities of the "Captains of the Sands," a group of abandoned children, ages 9 to 16, who live by stealing and whose headquarters is an abandoned warehouse on the waterfront. "Dressed in rags, dirty, half-starved, aggressive, cursing and smoking cigarette butts, they were, in truth, the masters of the city, the ones who knew it completely, the ones who loved it completely. . . ."

There are more than 100 of these waifs, and Amado relates their picaresque adventures with fondness. Among the cast of characters is a frail, sad, nearsighted boy nicknamed the Professor because he steals only books, reads them and becomes an imaginative storyteller who will, years later, tell "the story of their lives and many other stories of men who struggled and suffered."

As in his other early novels, politics underscores the narrative, which comes to a less-than-believable close. The leader of the group, Pedro Bala, grows up to become "a militant proletarian," "an organizer of strikes": "Comrade Pedro Bala." As Mark R. Day wrote in these pages in his review of Amado's "Showdown," Amado's style would later happily "lighten up, becoming more humorous and picaresque."

THE JAGUAR SMILE A Nicaraguan Journey by Salman Rushdie (Penguin Books: $6.95)

Salman Rushdie, a native of India, spent three weeks in Nicaragua in July, 1986, as a guest of the Sandinista Assn. of Cultural Workers (ASTC). "It was a critical time," Rushdie writes: The International Court of Justice in the Hague had ruled that U.S. aid to the Contras "was in violation of international law," yet the U.S. House of Representatives nevertheless approved $100 million in military aid to the counterrevolutionaries.

Rushdie, himself a child of the Indian revolution against Great Britain, admits his sympathy for the Nicaraguan cause. But he turns a critical eye toward the Sandinistas' treatment of the Miskito Indians and English-speaking Creoles and opposes the closure of the opposition newspaper, La Prensa. And he allows a Nicaraguan exile to have the last word: "(The Sandinista leaders) are boys, who went from school to the mountains to jail or into exile. Are they really properly prepared for the running of a State?" Rushdie, who lives in London, has learned to see the world from Western Europe's or America's "privileged point of view." But he acknowledges "that other perspectives exist. . . . (He) has seen the view from elsewhere."

VITA'S OTHER WORLD The Gardening Biography of V. Sackville-West by Jane Brown (Penguin Books: $12.95)

An odd, original work of biography, delineating in broad strokes the life of British poet and novelist Vita Sackville-West, and in fascinating detail (even for non-gardeners) her brilliant career as a gardener and garden writer. In this book, Jane Brown follows Sackville-West's development as a gardener, the influence of her vast travels on her work, and the work itself, illustrated by countless photographs. As Brown writes, the garden at Sackville-West's home, Sissinghurst Castle, "is a rare and particular treasure. . . . The flowers, unaware, are Vita's gift to us, . . . an ever-renewable hope and belief in what we do."

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