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ERNEST HEMINGWAY A Life Story by Carlos Baker (Collier Books/Macmillan: $12.95)

May 08, 1988|ELENA BRUNET

First published in 1969, this is the most comprehensive biography we have of "one of the foremost writers that America has produced." This exhaustive work of scholarship, seven years in the making, is based for the most part on manuscript sources, hundreds of pages of Hemingway's unpublished work, thousands of letters to and from Hemingway, and numerous interviews and correspondence by the book's author with Hemingway's friends, family and others who knew him best. Intended neither as a work of literary criticism nor as Freudian analysis, Baker's biography lets the events of Hemingway's life speak for themselves with respect and the sympathetic cadences of a fellow novelist.

Baker, who died last year, wrote in the preface, "If Ernest Hemingway is to be made to live again, it must be by virtue of a thousand pictures, both still and moving, a thousand scenes in which he was involved, a thousand instances when he wrote or spoke both publicly and privately of those matters that most concerned him."

ELLEN FOSTER

by Kaye Gibbons (Vintage Contemporaries: $5.95) Kaye Gibbons' remarkable first novel opens with an 11-year-old girl's matter-of-fact remembrance: "When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy." Ellen's father, abusive, alcoholic, is one in a cast of evil, unfortunate characters, members of Ellen's family. Ultimately, he will drive his weak, rheumatic wife to suicide. Later, Ellen's maternal grandmother will accuse her of having collaborated with her father in her mother's death. Her aunts want nothing to do with her. Her father brings on his own demise through drinking.

Out of this morass emerges a bright, clear-sighted, self-sufficient child who takes sanctuary with the family of her only friend, Starletta, a little black girl who lives in the poor part of town. And it is Ellen's unfolding relationship with Starletta that is at the moral center of this novel. At the outset, Ellen is burdened with prejudice: She won't drink out of the same glass as Starletta because she imagines that Starletta leaves invisible germs, and she won't eat the biscuit Starletta's mother offers her because "no matter how good it looks it is still a colored biscuit." The purpose behind this disturbing racism seems to be to lay the groundwork for Ellen's later epiphany. After Ellen's grandmother makes her work in the cotton fields, her only allies are the black workers she spends her days with. "I could pass for colored now," she thinks, "it did not make much of a difference anymore."

THE SPOILS OF POYNTON

by Henry James edited with an introduction by David Lodge, notes by Patricia Crick

(Penguin Books: $3.95) One of Henry James' lesser-known works, "The Spoils of Poynton" was first published in 1897 and marked the beginning of James' later novels, after his failed venture as a playwright.

Mrs. Gereth's husband, recently deceased, has bequeathed the family home and all its contents to his unmarried son, Owen. Such was "the cruel English custom of the expropriation of the lonely mother": that the widow need only a pension and a cottage in another county to survive. In order to retain some control over her life's possessions, Mrs. Gereth is on the lookout for a suitable mate for her son. She finds in the "slim, pale, and black-haired" Fleda Vetch someone who appreciates her treasures--the "spoils" of her Poynton home. But Owen Gereth falls in love instead with the lovely, blond Mona Brigstock, a philistine. In the end, Poynton will burn down due to the negligence of its keepers.

BABETTE'S FEAST

and Other Anecdotes of Destiny

by Isak Dinesen (Vintage Books: $4.95) Best known for the recent movie that won the 1988 Academy Award for best foreign-language film, "Babette's Feast" is the title story in this witty, ironic collection by Isak Dinesen, the pen name for the renowned Danish author Karen Blixen. Published in 1953 as "Anecdotes of Destiny," these short stories feature characters driven by passion or religion for whom destiny has other unexpected plans.

In the title story, an elderly sect of pious, self-denying Lutherans find themselves granting their adopted French cook the only wish she's ever asked for--to make the meal of her choice--and celebrating their founder's centenary with a feast made up of the very pleasures and delicacies they'd renounced all their lives.

Dinesen, who lived for many years on a ranch in Kenya, is justifiably celebrated for her African writings. But, as these stories show, though ill and in the last decade of her life, she was still a master of short fiction.

TIME CAPSULE

by Mitch Berman (Ballantine Books: $3.95) An ambitious first novel set in the apocalyptic, post-nuclear future. Max Debrick, on the alto saxophone, is on the sixth take of "Oops" when the nuclear bomb drops, killing his fellow musicians and most of civilization. The holocaust lets loose "a storm of displaced spirits," who bandage up Debrick's wounded leg, make sure that the water trickling from the ceiling is aimed at his mouth, and seem bent on his survival. Debrick packs the food he's been able to scavenge and sets off in search of other survivors.

Times reviewer Carolyn See found this work "wildly uneven . . . full of vitality and larded with dead places, but . . . terrifically interesting to read and consider."

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