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January 22, 1989|ELENA BRUNET


From Wall Street to Washington

by Donald T. Regan (St. Martin's Press: $4.95) Anyone with a television set or newspaper subscription will already know of former White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan's color-coded calendar indicating the prognostications of Nancy Reagan's San Francisco astrologer, highlighting "when it was propitious to move the President of the United States from one place to another, or schedule him to speak in public, or commence negotiations with a foreign power."

But beyond "For the Record's" headline-making revelations lies a darker story: that of a thoroughly stage-managed presidency, of the cynical and manipulative men behind the scenes and their rivalry for power.

Regan's discussion of the Iran-Contra affair provides no new insights. Although he met with CIA Director William Casey immediately after the news broke, he reveals nothing of their conversation and gives no sense of what role Casey might have played, saying only that there is "no record of his alleged participation." Nor does Regan address Oliver North's claim that he was acting on what he understood to be the Administration's policy on both the Contras and Iran.

In settling scores and putting his own story forward, Regan is not entirely successful. As Times' national correspondent Robert Scheer put it in his review, "Donald T. Regan is a petty turncoat driven by personal pique, and Nancy Reagan . . . would have made a better President. . . ."


American Culture in the Sixties

by Morris Dickstein (Penguin Books: $8.95) "Gates of Eden" is a critical study of the texts and texture of the '60s: fiction, poetry, music, journalism and social thought. Examining the cultural transformation from the '50s to the '60s, Dickstein opens his essay with an account of Allen Ginsberg reading his poems at Columbia University in 1959.

His intelligent examination of black writing and black nationalism covers four generations, beginning with Richard Wright's shattering "Native Son" in 1940 and continuing to Malcolm X's autobiography and Eldridge Cleaver's "Soul on Ice."

Dickstein is most impassioned in his discussion of the fiction of the period: the Jewish novel's "metaphysical and hermetic" anxiety best exemplified by Saul Bellow, younger realists such as John Updike and Philip Roth. But in his view, the late '60s' minimalism dealt a mortal blow to the novel. "What died in the Sixties was not the novel but the mystique of the novel (and) its wide and loyal audience."



The Discovery and Meaning of the Nag Hammadi Gnostic Library

by John Dart

(Harper & Row: $10.95) In December, 1945, six camel drivers were digging for fertilizer near the hamlet of Nag Hammadi in Egypt when they hit a large reddish jar. When they smashed the jar open they discovered papyrus fragments, loose leaves and manuscripts bound in leather.

The manuscripts eventually found their way to a local Coptic priest, and by October, 1946, a single codex (the technical name for the leather-bound books of papyrus) containing five Nag Hammadi treatises was stored at the Coptic Museum in Cairo. The director of the museum revealed his cache to Jean Doresse, a young French Egyptologist, and translations were begun.

But international politics interrupted. It was not until 1966 that a colloquium held at the University of Messina in Italy alerted the Western World to the importance of these codices.

John Dart tells the compelling story of this tremendous archeological discovery and discloses its significance to Gnostic mythology. The Gnostics, by definition heretical sects among the early Christians, claimed "that truth and knowledge . . . were linked with a higher God," Dart writes. "The lower Creator God and his despoiled world were worthless, and a knowledge of this distinction was the first step toward salvation."

In this fascinating account expanding on his earlier volume ("The Laughing Savior," Harper & Row, 1976) on the the Nag Hammadi codices, Dart, The Times' religion writer, reveals confirmation in Nag Hammadi's "Second Treatise of the Great Seth" of certain Gnostics' belief that Christ had shed the earthly body that was nailed to the cross, had never suffered physically and in fact was elsewhere mocking those who did him violence.


by William Trevor (Perennial Library/ Harper & Row: $5.95) In this evocative memoir of a childhood summer, William Trevor brilliantly captures the moods and prejudices of a provincial Irish town during World War II. "Nights at the Alexandra" is the story of a 15-year-old boy's relationship with Frau Messinger, a refugee from Hitler's Germany, and the power this friendship wields for the rest of his life. "A husband's love and a woman's gratitude for sanctuary have not surrendered their potency," Harry writes.

At age 58, now the proprietor of the movie house that Herr Messinger built for his wife and bequeathed to him, Harry has escaped working in his father's lumberyard. Never married, childless, alone, he stubbornly maintains the legacy willed him by two comparative strangers.

Trevor is a master of the short story, and this novella--lyrical, poignant--deserves a wide readership.

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