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August 22, 1993|CHARLES SOLOMON

A DAY AT THE BEACH by Geoffrey Wolff (Vintage: $12; 259 pp.). These autobiographical essays by the noted novelist have an informal tone that suggests conversations held in the neighborhood pub over a few beers. Wolff recounts some epic drinking bouts--and a single visit to an AA meeting, the curious Christmas days he spent with his con man father, an unsuccessful attempt to climb the Matterhorn, and how he suffered a heart attack during a bungled Caribbean vacation, all with an apparent ease that conceals untold hours of effortful rewriting.

AT PARADISE GATE by Jane Smiley (Touchstone: $11; 224 pp.). The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "A Thousand Acres" focuses on three generations of an Iowa family in this unpretentious novel. As her irascible husband lays dying, Anna Robinson gathers her daughters and granddaughter around her to attempt to reconcile their conflicting visions of the family life they shared. Facing the end of her difficult but enduring marriage, Anna reflects: "The few years of her widowhood would cuddle against the huge bulk of her marriage like a puppy against its mother. But that was not so, either. . . . Life with Ike would come to seem like a long rat's tail leading to the giant present, whatever that might be." Smiley's female characters emerge as well-drawn individuals, but Ike remains such a prickly old curmudgeon, the reader wonders why Anna put up with him for 52 years.

THE JAPANESE CHRONICLES by Nicolas Bouvier, translated from the French by Anne Dickerson (Mercury House: $11.95; 222 pp., illustrated). In this engaging volume, Swiss journalist Nicolas Bouvier blends reflections on Japanese history and geography with an account of his travels in Hokkaido. He devotes most of his attention to the apparent oxymoron of a xenophobic culture that draws heavily on Chinese and American sources. Noting that Columbus mistook America for Japan, Bouvier comments, "Today, a good many tourists, having just arrived the day before in the Tokyo of department stores, all-aluminum elevators, neon signs, taxis with televisions, the cleanest and most modern subway in the world, have the feeling that someone has played the same trick on them."

WORLD PRESS PHOTO 1993 text and captions by Terri James-Kester (Thames & Hudson: 19,95; 132 pp., paperback original). The yearbook of 36th World Press Photo competition features entries from more than 2,000 photographers in 84 countries. Rarely has the subject-matter for this annual compilation seemed so relentlessly depressing: Most of the book is devoted to heart-rending images of starvation, war, destruction and pestilence. Although intended as an impartial record, "World Press Photo" stands as a call to alleviate such needless human suffering.

THE WEDDING DRESS: Stories From the Dakota Plains by Carrie Young (Laurel: $8.95; 166 pp.). Young's second volume of memoirs picks up where "Nothing to Do But Stay" left off. The vast, bleak landscape of the northern Great Plains shaped the lives of the people in her tales: Isolated on their homesteads, men and women learned to endure poverty, loneliness, loveless marriages and thwarted desires. Young balances her Spartan picture of rural life with stories of closely knit families and delicious-sounding (if horribly rich) meals.

WAC STATS: The Facts About Women by the Women's Action Coalition (The New Press: $5; 64 pp., paperback original). WAC, the international women's advocacy group, compiled these figures, many of them depressing: 75% of the 15 million refugees awaiting settlement worldwide are widows; 85% of American women diet five times a year (98% of them regain the weight). Unfortunately, the editors don't always put these numbers in context. When they state that "51.2% of all artists in the U.S. are women" does that mean 51.2% of a survey group who described themselves as artists were women? That 51.2% of the people earning a living from their art are women? That 51.2% of the artists with work in galleries are women?

CELEBRATE NATIVE AMERICA!An Aztec Book of Days by Richard Balthazar (Five Flower Press/SCB Distributors: $18.95; 70 pp., illustrated, paperback original). Balthazar uses brightly colored drawings based on various codices to explain the Aztecs' double system of measuring time: a 365-day solar calendar and the "Turquoise Year," a 260-day cycle used for divination. The latter was divided into 13 weeks of 20 days, each of which was associated with a specific deity, characteristics, etc. Balthazar includes a rather tricky chart that enables readers to identify their birth dates: e. g. Oct. 20, 1964 becomes the fifth day of One Monkey, a lucky week, under the patronage of Patecal, the god of medicine and surgery. An interesting book, although the author fails in his attempt to whitewash the Aztec predilection for human sacrifice.

SOUTHERN LADIES AND GENTLEMEN by Florence King (St. Martin's Press: $10.95; 229 pp.). Originally published in 1975, King's delightfully vitriolic tales of the American South offer devastating portraits of spoiled belles, Good Ol' Boys, manipulative dowagers and "self-rejuvenating virgins." Her acidulous, often hilarious descriptions are softened by her obvious affection for her addled subjects and her conviction that she stands united in folly with them: "America could use a little Southern madness right now, for it is the sort that stands like a stone wall against the onslaughts of creeping technocratic sanity."

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