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September 04, 1988|ELENA BRUNET

FREEDOM by William Safire (Avon Books: $5.95) According to William Safire, the genesis of his readable, fictionalized Civil War history occurred during his service as an aide in the Nixon White House. "We would turn to the works of Lincoln to see the reasons he gave for cracking down on dissent, suspending habeas corpus. . . . And we would use Lincoln to soothe our own consciences" (with results we know).

Fifteen years after Nixon's resignation, Safire has established himself as one of our finest political columnists, ostensibly conservative, but never dogmatic. Propped up by what he calls an "underbook"--an appendix delineating factual events from fictionalized ones--he now turns his hand to the saga of the Civil War between 1861 and 1862, from Lincoln's first inauguration, through Shiloh and Antietam, to the Emancipation Proclamation.

A HISTORY OF THE JEWS by Paul Johnson (Perennial Library / Harper & Row: $10.95) "A History of the Jews" is a well-researched account spanning 4,000 years of Jewish history, from the biblical Abraham through the creation of the state of Israel and contemporary times.

Though reared a Christian, Johnson has written almost a panegyric to the Jewish legacy, crediting the Jews for the underpinnings to contemporary law and religion.

One of the few critical reviews of "History of the Jews" appeared in these pages. Jacob Neusner's chief complaint was that Johnson's book presents a "detailed paraphrase" solely of European Jewish history.

Regardless of this criticism, the book is a national best seller and, by Neusner's own admission, "a pleasure to read."

LETTERS TO FELICE by Franz Kafka edited by Erich Heller and Jurgen Born, translated by James Stern and Elisabeth Duckworth (Schocken Books: $13.95) KAFKA'S OTHER TRIAL The Letters to Felice by Elias Canetti translated by Christopher Middleton (Schocken Books: $7.95) Franz Kafka met Felice Bauer at a friend's house in Prague. Six weeks later, having marshaled his thoughts and courage, he wrote to her, initiating a love affair, much of it carried out in this remarkable correspondence, which would last five years, through two engagements and separations, and would inspire Kafka to some of his greatest achievements--the publication of "The Trial," as well as a number of short stories, including "The Judgment" and "The Metamorphosis."

Because Felice lived in Berlin and Kafka in his native Prague, the letters had to serve not only as an introduction, but as seduction as well. (As Kafka wrote to Max Brod, "Why then does she write, just as I want her to? Could it be that one can take a girl captive by writing?") Later, Kafka would write Felice of his theories about literature, of his fear that the requirements of married life would destroy what he believed was his tenuous connection to his art. As such, these letters are as close as Kafka was likely to come to an autobiography.

The letters themselves, as well as Elias Canetti's extraordinary elucidation and meditation on them, are perhaps the best window we have into the soul of one of our greatest literary geniuses.

AN ARROW IN THE WALL Selected Poetry and Prose by Andrei Voznesensky edited by William Jay Smith and F.D. Reeve (Henry Holt: $10.95) Poets in the Soviet Union hold a position unparalleled in any Western nation: After the evening news program, poets read their work during prime time on television, reaching millions of listeners. Andrei Voznesensky is currently one of the Soviet Union's most highly respected poets.

"An Arrow in the Wall," winner of the 1988 Commonwealth Award for Literature, collects poems from Voznesensky's two previously published volumes as well as his more recent work. Also included is Voznesensky's intimate portrait of his mentor, poet and novelist Boris Pasternak.

The excellent translations from the Russian were all done by major poets, such as W. H. Auden, Robert Bly and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, among others, working in collaboration with Russian scholars.

IMAGINING ARGENTINA by Lawrence Thornton (Bantam Books: $7.95) Lawrence Thornton's first novel, winner of the 1987 PEN / Hemingway Award, is set in Argentina in the 1970s--a time of military crackdowns, desaparecidos and grieving mothers.

Carlos Rueda, chief playwright for the Children's Theater, is not personally in the line of fire, but his wife, Cecilia, a political journalist, is abducted after she writes an editorial protesting the arrest of 15 high school students.

After one of his students reports his father's abduction, Carlos suddenly discovers his own mystical powers. "The story began to unfold in his imagination": Carlos predicts that the father will be released the next morning. Sure enough, it happens just as he imagined it.

Not all his visions have such happy endings, however: Carlos sees his own wife tortured and raped.

Thornton, who has never been to Argentina, was inspired to write this novel by an interview he saw on television with the Mothers of the Plaza del Mayo.

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