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October 16, 1988|ELENA BRUNET

A MOTHER AND TWO DAUGHTERS by Gail Godwin (Avon Books: $4.95) Then her husband of four decades has a heart attack, leaving Nell Strickland alone, her two daughters immediately return to their hometown in North Carolina and, despite their good intentions, begin to bicker before their father has been dead 24 hours.

Cate, married twice and twice divorced, is an English professor in a small Lutheran college in Iowa.

Lydia, three years younger, is the perfect wife with two sons; yet she confides to Cate that she and her husband Max have separated. She's moved out of the house with her younger son and plans to attend college. Cate's matter-of-fact interpretation of a decision Lydia agonized over unleashes a familiar resentment in Lydia toward her older sister.

Memories are evoked, but so are childhood tensions, leading to a heated (literally conflagrant) climax and resolution.

THE TOXIC CLOUD by Michael H. Brown (Perennial Library/Harper & Row: $9.95) Best known as the author of "Laying Waste: The Poisoning of America by Toxic Chemicals," Brown is the investigative journalist whose extraordinary work exposed the scandal of toxic wastes at Love Canal in Upstate New York.

In "The Toxic Cloud," he explores the invisible chemical compounds that pollute the air we breathe. "Unnoticed, they are wafting from our factories, our storage tanks, our incinerators and diesel engines--even from the neighborhood dry cleaner. And they are spreading through our global village like a toxic cloud."

The book is an impassioned indictment of industry's indifference to the human consequences of chemical production.

REBECCA WEST: A LIFE by Victoria Glendinning (Fawcett Columbine/Ballantine Books: $10.95) Although she was born Cicely Isabel Fairfield in 1892, she began to publish her articles under a pseudonym to appease her mother (as early as 19, she had gained a reputation for unladylike behavior), borrowing the name of a character--in Ibsen's play, "Rosmersholm"--who is "the mistress of a married man and compels him to join her in a melodramatic double suicide by drowning."

Rebecca West was one of the "best and most successful investigative journalists of her generation," as well as a renowned novelist (author of "The Fountain Overflows"), and called by Time magazine "indisputably the world's No. 1 writer" in 1945.

At West's own request, Victoria Glendinning has written a short biography focusing on West's childhood and her early years. Nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in the category of biography, "Rebecca West" is not solely a well-wrought portrait of this complex woman, but also "the story of 20th Century woman," as she confronted prejudices and preconceptions about a woman's "true nature"--and defied them.

THE BOYS OF WINTER A Novel by Wilfrid Sheed (McGraw-Hill Book Co.: $5.95) Jonathan Oglethorpe is a publisher, natural enemy to the novelists who populate the exclusive Hamptons. Some are writers he seeks to cultivate (Waldo Spinks, a Mailer-esque big-leaguer), others to avoid (particularly Billy van Dyne; more talented than Spinks but "unanswerably unsaleable" and always with "a fresh manuscript on his person").

As winter leads to summer and summer to fall, Oglethorpe tries to land the big fish, plays a lot of softball (which everybody seems to take much too seriously) and starts to write a satiric novel about an inbred literary colony (which sounds an awful lot like "The Boys of Winter").

A devastating and acid satire of literary posturing, resentments and rivalries, "The Boys of Winter" has been misinterpreted as almost an insider's handbook. It is not. It is a dazzling comic novel by one of our finest writers (author of "People Will Always Be Kind" and "Transatlantic Blues") and, as such, deserves a wider readership.

WHAT'S HAPPENING TO THE AMERICAN FAMILY? Tensions, Hopes, Realities by Sar A. Levitan, Richard S. Belous, and Frank Gallow (The Johns Hopkins University Press: $26.50, cloth; $8.95, paper) According to a poll conducted by the Roper Organization, nine out of 10 Americans feel that "the most important elements of success are not material in nature, but rather those related to the family--being a good parent and having a happy marriage."

Yet statistics show that traditional families account for only one of 10 households. Half of all children born in the 1970s "will experience a family breakup at some time prior to their sixteenth birthday."

In this updated edition of a book first released in 1981, Levitan, Belous and Gallow present the social implications of the unraveling family: "If the family is not a viable institution, then what will sustain society? Who will raise the next generation and socialize it? How will basic values and norms be passed down and inculcated in children?" The authors' conclusion is that "no society has yet created a better and more enduring method of raising its young and passing on basic societal values."

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