REMEMBERING THE BONE HOUSE An Erotics of Place and Space by Nancy Mairs (Harper & Row: $17.95; 288 pp.)
Nancy Mairs begins her "erotics of place and space" with musings on what women's writing might be. In the tradition of Virginia Woolf's "A Room of One's Own," her feminist method is true intellectual inquiry: not an accusation of wrongs done, but a search for a way to express the human condition. Her interest is in women's autobiography, or "feminist memoir," as she calls it.
Mairs chooses the admittedly problematic word "erotics" because her subject is physical memory and the accumulation of awareness throughout a life. This sounds very abstract, but the author has a gift for making very personal experiences resonate. One vivid image is of her feet unfalteringly treading the uneven steps of a long-forgotten staircase. This experience of revived memory, she says, is a significant landmark in the human psyche, and one that indicates the mysterious qualities of the bodies we inhabit--our "bone houses."
The world Mairs recalls is organized by places she remembers and dreams of, particularly the old family house in Kennebunkport where she went to visit as a child. The topics she touches are the common and uncommon stuff of daily life--mothers, motherhood, lovers, lovemaking, friendship, work, mental and physical illness.
"Remembering the Bone House" is a mesmerizing, poetic recollection through which, Mairs writes, she hopes to touch the reader's experience: "I invite you into the house of my past, and the threshold you cross leads you into your own."
GORKY: A BIOGRAPHY by Henri Troyat translated by Lowell Bair (Crown Publishers: $18.95; 224 pp.)
This slim book by Russian-born Frenchman Henri Troyat adds to the author's list of biographies of Russian figures (among them "Tolstoy" and "Chekhov"). Troyat is a good storyteller, but was beat to much the best of this material by Gorky himself. The description of a poverty-stricken youth spent along the Volga is particularly pale compared to Gorky's own writings.
Troyat's novelistic style returns, however, when the young Alexey Maximovich Peshkov (Gorky is a pseudonym he took when his first writing was published) goes out into the world. Of humble origins, the self-taught Peshkov was "strongly attracted by books" and "did not understand how (a friend) could show the same fondness for humble people as for great minds. He himself was excited by the works of poets and philosophers and could only condemn the narrow, spiteful mentality of the peasants." The politics of the time, however, forced him to choose sides, and the peasant identification soon became his badge. In 1901, Chekhov writes about him: "He is still the same honorable, kind, and intelligent man. There is only one thing wrong in him or rather on him: his peasant blouse. I can no more get used to it than to a chamberlain's uniform."
Gorky's relations with the revolutionary movements were nothing if not ambivalent. The book provides a better discussion of one man's wrestling with the meaning of political events than of the events themselves. Returning from several years abroad, Gorky had to come to terms with the fact that the regime had eliminated many of its opponents. Like many others, Troyat writes, he "had an ardent desire to be convinced that the socialist experiment had succeeded." Under Stalin, Gorky reached the height of his fame, and after his death in 1936, his native city of Nizhni Novgorod was renamed for him.
CRUEL TRICKS FOR DEAR FRIENDS by Penn Jillette and Teller (Villard Books/Random House: $15.95; 207 pp.)
Penn & Teller, magicians and showmen extraordinaire, have specially rigged this book to foil the casual browser who might idly pick it up off the coffee table. Provided browsers are right-handed, they will flip open page after page of minuscule red lettering overprinted with distracting, op-art-style figures.
The point of this camouflage, the authors explain, is that "you can leave the book in plain sight on your coffee table and still scam the suckers. We think this is a nice touch." The "real" reading of the book begins on a secret page, where they explain how to use the book and distinguish the text meant for the showman from the text to be used in scams. It's ingeniously laid out.