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BERLIN DIARIES, 1940-1945 by Marie Vassiltchikov (Vintage Books: $8.95)

July 24, 1988|ELENA BRUNET

"Berlin Diaries" is the record of Marie (Missy) Vassiltchikov, a White Russian aristocrat, displaced by the Russian Revolution and compelled to seek refuge and work in Hitler's Germany.

The diary begins Jan. 1, 1940, with the departure of Missy's family from Lithuania to Berlin and documents in a breezy, charming style her acclimation to Berlin life. We read of parties she attends, of her work at the German foreign office and later as a nurse in Vienna, interspersed with accounts of air raids and news of the war.

As the war goes on, however, the diary depicts the moral education of its author. Missy and her friends become fervent anti-Nazis. Her boss at the foreign office, Adam von Trott, and her mentor, Gottfried von Bismarck, were among the small group of army officers who conspired to assassinate Hitler in 1944. The failure of that plot led to grievous reprisals, and Marie's description of the trials that ensued are among the most harrowing in the book. Yet her spirit endures.

As Richard Eder wrote in these pages: "She has an eye that is overwhelmingly present, a reflective humor and a gaiety that, far from trivializing the horrors she writes about, ennobles them."

MISSING The Execution of Charles Horman by Thomas Hauser (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster: $6.95) On Sept. 10, 1973, the military forces of Gen. Augusto Pinochet toppled the freely elected government of Salvador Allende in Santiago, Chile.

On Sept. 17, Charles Edmund Horman, a free-lance journalist living in Chile since 1972, was arrested by the Chilean military and never seen again.

Based on meticulous research and on transcripts obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, Thomas Hauser has pieced together a probable scenario for Horman's last days, implicating the CIA with collusion in his death. Hauser quotes Rafael Gonzalez, a former Chilean intelligence officer who testified in 1976 before the U.S. Consulate that he had seen Horman alive in the Chilean Defense Ministry the day of his disappearance and that word was that this American "knew too much and that he was supposed to disappear. . . . I wouldn't say that the trigger was pulled by the CIA, but the CIA was mixed up in this."

Such a scorching indictment sparked three U.S. government officials to bring libel suits against the publishers. The book (the basis for the movie "Missing") was subsequently allowed to go out of print. But since the legal actions have made no headway in court, Hauser (himself a lawyer) regained the rights to his own book--only now being rereleased by Simon & Schuster.

MORE DIE OF HEARTBREAK by Saul Bellow (Dell Publishing: $4.95) Kenneth Trachtenberg, a professor of Russian literature, leaves his native France to join his botanist uncle, Benn Crader, in the United States. Kenneth, the book's narrator, regards Benn as a genius who requires his special care: It is his self-appointed assignment "to preserve him in his valuable oddity." (Also, neither of the two has any other real friends.)

But, while Kenneth is away on business, Benn, who's been widowed for 15 years, marries again. Kenneth is astonished: Why would he want to remarry at all? Benn will eventually break with his beautiful new wife after noting a resemblance between her shoulders and those of Anthony Perkins, the killer in Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho." Later he will seek refuge--from women and love--in the Arctic Circle.

As Leonard Michaels put it, "More Die of Heartbreak" is "a loquacious, brilliant, entertaining book, mixing long flights of ideas with comic scenes. . . . I would guess that Saul Bellow himself . . . really likes women rather in the way a preacher really likes sin."

MEMOIR OF A THINKING RADISH An Autobiography by Peter Medawar (Oxford University Press: $8.95) Nobel Laureate Peter Medawar depicts his life with wry humor in a series of anecdotes. Born of an English mother and a Lebanese father, Medawar spent his early childhood in Brazil. He shares his critical perspective (based on his own experience) on the English public school system, his love of opera, his studies at Oxford, the research that brought him the 1960 Nobel Prize "for discovery of acquired immunological tolerance," his recuperation from a stroke, his relationship with his wife and colleague (who defied her family's prejudice to marry him).

This felicitous, slim volume is the memoir of a brilliant scientist whose writings make his experience and knowledge of science accessible to the general reader.

WORLD'S END by T. Coraghessan Boyle (Penguin Books: $8.95) An ambitious epic novel, spanning generations of three families--the patrician Van Warts, the proletarian Van Brunts and the Native American Mohonks--as they war and intermarry, tyrannize and betray one another in the area of New York's Hudson River Valley during 300 years.

Boyle's fans will know at once that the author has more in mind than a traditional historical novel. Instead, his thesis is that a family's destiny is marked through the ages. Betrayals that occur in the 1720s eerily prefigure events that will occur 2 1/2 centuries later. Though times, circumstances and political reality change utterly, a family passes on its essential qualities from parent to child. Character is destiny, and thoroughly inescapable. As Richard Eder wrote: "(Boyle's) stories go backward, forward and sideways. . . . His passion for the history, geography and legends of the New York Dutch is infectious."

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