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March 24, 1991|Charles Solomon

THE MEDICAL DETECTIVES by Berton Roueche (Plume: $10.95). In this collection of "The Annals of Medicine" columns from the New Yorker, Berton Roueche reports on medical mysteries that range from curious symptoms (men who turned blue or bright orange) to unexpected outbreaks of diseases, including an epidemic of histoplamosis among the children of a small town in northern Arkansas. Roueche reveals the skill of the medical investigators who must find clues in seemingly ordinary circumstances. Contaminated icing on cupcakes proved to be the source of several cases of hepatitis in Michigan; although a parakeet in an elementary school classroom initially seemed to be the source of the histoplasmosis outbreak, the fungus was ultimately traced to a load of coal from a distant strip mine. An intriguing book that may leave the reader suspiciously examining everything he eats or touches.

JOSEPHINE by Josephine Baker and Jo Bouillon (Paragon House: $9.95, illustrated). Baker's last husband, band leader Jo(seph) Bouillon, completed the celebrated music-hall star's autobiography after her death in 1975. Born in dire poverty in St. Louis in 1906, Baker became the toast of Paris by singing and dancing in a few feathers or bananas in La Revue Negre and the Folies Bergere. In addition to being a consummate entertainer, Baker aided the French Resistance during World War II by smuggling information (written in invisible ink on her sheet music) to the Allies while touring. After the war, she became an outspoken leader in the fight against racism and adopted children of various ethnicities to form what she dubbed "The Rainbow Tribe." (She raised her family in France, rather than face continuing discrimination in the United States: The Stork Club's refusal to serve her in 1951 provoked a major scandal.) Josephine Baker was obviously a fascinating and even heroic woman, and it's unfortunate that this book doesn't provide a more vivid portrait of her, instead of repeating the self-praise that often characterizes stars' accounts of their lives.

THE TRICK OF IT by Michael Frayn (Penguin: $8.95). This comic novel by the author of "Noises Off" suggests that Oscar Wilde didn't get it quite right in "The Ballad of Reading Gaol": Each man tries to kill the thing he loves. After years of teaching the novels of a noted woman writer, a professor at a minor English university finally meets his idol in the flesh (literally). He clumsily pursues her and, eventually, marries her, only to discover "a new taboo governing mankind, one which must have existed unknown since the dawn of time until I stumbled upon it yesterday evening--a taboo against intercourse with an author on your own reading-list." The unnamed narrator finds himself in an uncomfortable position: He's read everything his wife's ever written; she's never read a word of his. Things go from bad to worse when he tries to meddle with her new novel to make it conform to his theories. A delightfully sardonic portrait of a literary wanna-be.

A CARTOON HISTORY OF UNITED STATES FOREIGN POLICY FROM 1946 TO THE PRESENT by the editors of the Foreign Policy Assn. (Pharos: $12.95). The immediacy of visual imagery enables cartoonists to provide some of the most pointed political commentary. This anthology of cartoons suggests that isolationism and interventionism have been the yin and yang of U.S. policy throughout the postwar era. In 1946, Joseph Parrish drew a forlorn Columbia watching congressmen walk off with a hussy labeled "Internationalism" ("Someday they'll come crawling back to her"), while Cal Alley depicted John Bull as King Canute, asking Uncle Sam for help stemming the "Tide of Communism." The editors have included the work of the best artists of the era, including Tony Auth, Herb Block, Paul Conrad, Jeff MacNelly, Bill Mauldin, Pat Oliphant, Mike Peters and Tom Toles, although the balance is a bit skewed. The muddy reproductions rob many drawings of vital details: In MacNelly's hilarious cartoon about U.S. grain sales to the Soviet Union, the reader can't see that the disgusted peasant is walking past a mock-heroic statue labeled "Heroes of Soviet Agriculture" carrying a loaf of Wonder Bread.

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