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June 19, 1988|ELENA BRUNET

THE HABIT OF BEING Letters of Flannery O'Connor edited, with an introduction by Sally Fitzgerald (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $12.95) Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Special Award for 1979, "The Habit of Being" is, in Sally Fitzgerald's view, Flannery O'Connor's "self-portrait in words," a likeness "painted by herself . . . in her letters," beginning in 1948 with the letter asking Elizabeth McKee to become her literary agent--"I don't have my novel outlined and I have to write to discover what I am doing. Like the old lady, I don't know so well what I think until I see what I say; then I have to say it over again"--and ending with her death in 1964 at age 39 of lupus erythematosus.

She never indulged in self-pity about her ailment, however: Her letters convey bravery, even humor on the subject. As she wrote to a friend, Maryat Lee in 1958, "You didn't know I had a DREAD DISEASE didja? Well I got one. . . ."

Sally Fitzgerald has compiled a fascinating collection of letters in this ample volume, showing the range and number of her correspondents as well as conveying O'Connor's interests, her passions, her spirit.

PARTNERS IN CONFLICT The United States and Latin America by Abraham F. Lowenthal (Johns Hopkins University Press: $10.95) In this informative analysis of Latin America, Abraham Lowenthal exposes the internal dynamics of inter-American relations in the last quarter-century and argues that as the United States continues to obsess over the Marxist-Leninist threat in Nicaragua and Central America, it fails to understand the region's more serious problems: debt, poverty, unemployment, compounded by grievous social inequality.

Lowenthal disputes the American assumption that we can "selectively promote reform in Latin America while undercutting revolutionary movements. . . . By strengthening military establishments, security assistance and counterinsurgency programs, (we) undermine democracy."

According to Lowenthal, Latin America has come of age in many ways. "The period of hegemony is over both because Latin American nations are able and determined to forge their own policies and because the objective basis of U.S. predominance has eroded. . . . If the U.S. is to protect its interests in the Western Hemisphere on an enduring basis, it must . . . move from a stance of dominance to one of co-operation."

LIFE AND DEATH IN SHANGHAI by Nien Cheng (Penguin Books: $8.95) A harrowing story of personal suffering and tragedy, and at the same time a savage and compelling indictment of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution, if not of Chinese communism itself.

Nien Cheng, a liaison between Shell Oil and the Chinese government until the oil company closed its Shanghai office in 1966, was swept up in the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution when "what was right yesterday became wrong today and vice versa." Branded an "enemy of the state," Cheng was arrested and placed in solitary confinement in Number One Detention House.

"Life and Death in Shanghai" chronicles Nien Cheng's experiences from the moment she is summoned to a peoples' trial by one of Mao's activists, through her own interrogations and subsequent imprisonment. Denied contact with family and friends, it is not until Cheng's release 6 1/2 years later that she discovers her beloved daughter, Meiping, is dead. Meiping's death, at the hands of political fanatics, is at the heart of this extraordinary testament to human brutality. As Cheng writes: "It would have been less painful if I had died in prison and never known that Meiping was dead."

BEACHMASTERS by Thea Astley (Penguin Books: $6.95) When the natives of the fictional island of Kristi decide to secede from the French and British governing powers, black youths simply come knocking on whites' doors to say, very politely, "There will be revolution in morning" and to suggest that whites stay indoors until everything is over. The next day, at a large rally, the rebel leader Tommy Narota tells his supporters that they are all independent now and also that "there will be a barbecue at the other end of the park."

At the center of this masterful, ironic work by the distinguished Australian author is 13-year-old Gavi Salway, who naively throws himself into the struggle for independence when he discovers that his maternal grandmother is not only of black descent--but Tommy Narota's sister.

BUT HOW WILL YOU RAISE THE CHILDREN? A Guide to Interfaith Marriage by Steven Carr Reuben (Pocket Books: $6.95) Even before the question about rearing children is asked, other more imminent questions are: How will you tell your parents? Who will perform the ceremony? What holidays will you honor? Short of converting to your partner's faith (a viable option), the choices that will confront couples and their families are spelled out in this book, as Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben of Kehillath Israel Temple in Pacific Palisades sympathetically relates the discussions he's had with those who came to him for assistance.

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