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April 11, 1993|CHARLES SOLOMON

WALKING THE TRAIL: One Man's Journey Along the Trail of Tears by Jerry Ellis (Delta: $9.95; 256 pp.). In 1838, President Van Buren sent the U. S. Army to force 18,000 Cherokees from their ancestral homes in the South to reservations in Oklahoma. At least 4,000 of them, mostly children and old people, died walking what became known as The Trail of Tears. Ellis, a writer of Cherokee descent, walked the Trail from Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the capitol of the Cherokee nation, to his home in northern Alabama; a trek that was as much an internal journey as a physical odyssey. In this warmly intimate journal, he shares his impressions of the places and people he encountered on the road. The message may be simple--"We're all only fragile threads, but what a tapestry we make"--but Ellis' clean, spare prose infuses it with an unassuming dignity.

SERPENT-HANDLING BELIEVERS by Thomas Burton (University of Tennessee Press: $19.95; 208 pp., illustrated, paperback original). Small groups of Southern fundamentalists fondle venomous snakes and drink water laced with strychnine as part of their religious services: Burton documents the origins of these bizarre rites in a curiously sympathetic study. The evidence suggests that the movement was established by George Hensley in rural Tennessee, c. 1913-14. Hensley based his ideas on a literal interpretation of the phrase in Mark 16:17-18, "They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them." (He subsequently died of snake bite, as have many of his followers.) "Believers" falters when Burton attempts to convince the reader that a potentially life-threatening form of religious hysteria "is not aberrant behavior if viewed within the context of American religious history."

LOVE JUNKIE by Robert Plunket (HarperPerennial: $10.; 264 pp.). Mimi Smithers, the narrator of this outrageous comic novel, is a repressed upper-middle class housewife with unfulfilled aspirations to social and cultural prominence. Her search for eminence inadvertently leads her into the hedonistic world of fast-lane gay life in early '80s Manhattan. Part bimbo, part Candide and part maiden aunt, Mimi witnesses the drug-and-sex laced finale of the pre-AIDS era. A woman who believes that even sex should be mannerly (she notes that such helpful comments as "I think you're getting too close to the edge of the bed" are "always appreciated"), she rarely understands what's going on. However, propriety--sexual, social and fiscal--is cast aside when Mimi encounters Joel, a stunning, bisexual porno star who earns his living selling obscene audiocassettes and used underwear. The resulting relationship blossoms into a bitchily funny comedy of manners.

MY BROTHER'S FACE: Portraits of the Civil War in Photographs, Diaries and Letters by Charles Phillips & Alan Axelrod (Chronicle Books: $16.95; 153 pp., paperback original). As an estimated 4,000 photographers were at work in the United States by 1861, it was not unusual for Confederate and Union soldiers of all ranks to sit for portraits. Excerpts from letters and diaries revivify the stiff, artificial-looking images produced by lengthy exposure times and make the long-dead men seem very contemporary.

RESCUERS: Portraits of Moral Courage in the Holocaust by Gay Block & Malka Drucker (Holmes & Meier: $29.95; 256 pp., illustrated, paperback original). These brief biographies chronicle the experiences of men and women who risked their lives to save others from the Nazi persecution; individuals honored as the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem, the memorial to the Six Million in Jerusalem. Significantly, none of them claim to have acted heroically: They insist they did only what was right. Their stories--dramatic, frightening, uplifting, ironic--serve as a reminder that virtue, like evil, dwells in every human heart. "Rescuers" is being issued in conjunction with Holocaust Memorial Day, April 15.

TURN SIGNALS ARE THE FACIAL EXPRESSIONS OF CARS by Donald A. Norman (Addison-Wesley: $10.95; 205 pp., illustrated). Norman's essays focus on the often unsatisfactory role technology plays in contemporary American society. He discusses how the desire to document an event with the increasingly ubiquitous video recorder can rob that event of its essential qualities. Norman argues that machines need to be "more social," i. e. easier for humans to use, and excoriates examples of bad design. Unfortunately, his often cogent arguments are weakened by his lame attempts at humor.

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