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August 14, 1988|ELENA BRUNET

HOW I GREW by Mary McCarthy (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $8.95) The author of such landmark novels as "The Company She Keeps" and "The Group" now turns her hand to autobiography.

When Mary McCarthy lost her parents at age 6, she was sent to Minnesota to live with her brutal uncle and aunts. She was punished arbitrarily and lived in terror of her uncle's razor strop.

Most critically, she was not permitted to read anything that might put "ideas" in her head, only works approved by her guardians. It wasn't until she moved to Seattle to live with her Protestant grandfather that the world of literature became hers.

"How I Grew" is Mary McCarthy's attempt to understand the pain of her earliest years, and thereby to trace her psychological and intellectual growth.

The early experience of cruelty left a legacy, however: "There is no dampness in my emotions, and some moisture, I think, is needed to produce the deeper, the tragic notes. . . . (Such injury) does tend to dry one's feelings a little."

THE BELLES LETTRES PAPERS A Novel by Charles Simmons (Penguin Books: $6.95) A hilarious parody of literary life by a former editor of the New York Times Book Review.

Belles Lettres, the most powerful (fictional) magazine of its kind in the world, is plagued by impending scandal. Art Folio, the 49-year-old copy boy, has been found to have sold slots on the magazine's best-seller lists to the highest bidder.

The editor is proud to announce the discovery of a cache of nine supposed Shakespearean sonnets, purportedly written to his homosexual lover. The magazine rushes the poems into print, along with affirmations of their veracity by two prominent Elizabethan scholars--only to discover, too late, that the sonnets are a hoax.

"The Belles Lettres Papers" is a gleeful fictional expose, laying bare office / literary politics. The book's only flaw is its first chapter, a less-than-compelling history of the founding of this "influential" literary publication. Head straight for Chapter 2, where the fun begins.

WOMEN WHO KILL by Ann Jones (Fawcett Crest / Ballantine: $4.95) Only 10% of all violent crimes are committed by women, records show; only 15% of those convicted for murder are women. But "unlike men, who are apt to stab a total stranger in a drunken brawl," Ann Jones writes, "we women kill our intimates. We kill our children, our husbands, our lovers."

In this provocative, well-researched work, Jones discusses the most prominent cases of murder by women--not as lurid sensationalism but as social history from the 17th Century to the present.

The incentives for crimes have been as varied as the punishments meted out. In 1859, Ann Bilansky was charged with the murder of her husband by poisoning. She was convicted, although the evidence against her was circumstantial. Then, Minnesota Gov. Alexander Ramsey, intent on proving that his state was "a bastion of law and order," refused to reconsider the case and ordered that her hanging be carried out.

By contrast, in Fall River, Mass., in 1892, Lizzie Borden literally got away with the murder of her father and stepmother because, to the jurists, the fact "that a woman should kill her father . . . was simply unthinkable. "

THE TERRIBLE TWOS by Ishmael Reed (Atheneum: $8.95) A breathtaking satire during which Santa Claus (an actor hired by North Pole Development Corp., which owns all commercial rights to Christmas) is kidnaped; where an actor named Dean Clift succeeds Ronald Reagan as President, and where "the earth has had enough."

Reed's aim is scattershot, his target the absurdity of contemporary America. The novel opens in 1980 and spans the decade. Big business rules the land. It owns the presidency, Congress, the TV networks and religion.

"The rich do all their shopping, loving, eating, playing and working, usually above the thirteenth floor of mile-high buildings. The poor scrounge around beneath the freeways."

But Wall Street's stranglehold does not extend to Christmas, as the real Saint Nicholas, in league with Black Peter, a dwarf trickster, brings on the second American revolution. Ishmael Reed is one of our most original, if under-appreciated, novelists, the author of "Yellow Back Radio Broke Down" and "Reckless Eyeballing."

THE NATIONAL DEBT How America Crashed Into a Black Hole and How We Can Crawl Out by Lawrence Malkin (New American Library: $4.95) A sober and clearly written analysis of the state of the national economy, arguing that America, due to trade and credit imbalance, military overspending and the national debt, "faces a reckoning in its national accounts."

Malkin is a former Time magazine economic correspondent. He voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980, and the book is a blistering nonpartisan attack on the economic policies of our nation's leaders, particularly since the oil crisis of 1973.

But it is Reagan who comes in for Malkin's most severe criticism for having presided over, and argued so persuasively for, the creation of a massive "credit culture" where $140 billion is now needed annually simply to pay the interest on our federal debt--$2 out of every $5 that the government collects in taxes.

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