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CONVERSATION; By Theodore Zeldin; HiddenSpring Press: 112 pp., $12


"The kind of conversation I'm interested in is one in which you start with a willingness to emerge a slightly different person." So begins this chapbook, not the fat primer that young toffs might have purchased in days past to guide their social climbing, more a meditation on how this graceful dying art might help us evolve. Theodore Zeldin's tone is exuberant: "Now," he emcees, "it's time for the New Conversation." (Vigorous hand rubbing and smiles all around. We're ready.) Zeldin wants a language of love that will help us be more generous and respectful of others, and he thinks that technology can help to foster a more honest tone in our conversations. (You may have noticed that cynicism doesn't work on the Internet.) As in any short, discursive essay--a wonderful form--the links between ideas can get a little tenuous. The point is usually, here and elsewhere, to offer food for thought and conversation.




By George Saunders

Riverhead Books: 190 pp., $22.95

Behind every cynic, every satirist, lies a vision of human happiness. If people can laugh at themselves, a satirist in a less satiric moment might admit, then they can change. George Saunders is a modern-day Jonathan Swift. The settings for his stories are our most plastic environments: corporations, self-help seminars held in hotel conference rooms, apartment complexes and environments bereft of carbon, forgetful of nature. The title story, "Pastoralia," a satire of the institutional workplace, is the most obvious. Its characters work in a human tableau, imitating cavemen and cavewomen for a pretty sketchy zoo audience. Dave's cave partner, Janet, is not cooperating. She speaks English instead of grunting, and she has a drug-addict son whom she admits she's concerned about, although intelligence and family obligation are taboo. Saunders creates a diorama of humanity at risk from corporate idiocy. Like Swift's modest proposal, it's a caricature of human cruelty. In "Winky," the leader of a self-help seminar asks, "Who's keeping you from getting what you want? . . . Have you told this person, this Winky, that her living with you is a stumbling block for your personal development?" Again, Saunders, like Swift, puts our most ridiculous truisms in the mouths of oversimplifiers.



The Greatest Swindle of the Century

By Hilary Spurling

HarperCollins: 160 pp., $20

Hilary Spurling, author of "The Unknown Matisse," the story of the artist, came across Therese Humbert while researching the biography of Matisse. Humbert was born in 1856 in Languedoc, the French province known for its troubadours and storytellers. Therese was left, after her mother's death when the daughter was 15, with no money, five siblings to care for and a useless father who believed he was a necromancer of noble lineage. Therese had to rely on good lying and a cute lisp to survive. As a child, she cheered her siblings with stories of a make-believe castle: Cha^teau Marcotte.

As an adult, she made Cha^teau Marcotte the subject of a lie, not just a story--a property Therese inherited from a rich American and the basis for increasing credit from shopkeepers and then banks. In 1878, she married a cousin with a political future who colluded in this and other lies and soon, Therese had a real castle in Paris on the Avenue de la Grande Armee, where presidents and police chiefs and bankers dined. Therese was, Spurling writes, "like a 1920s Hollywood movie star." Until the lie was uncovered, in 1902 by various creditors and their lawyers. "Je suis poursuivi par les mechants [I am pursued by villains]," she told the court. Therese was arrested. She was released six years later at 52 and disappeared with her family. "She lied," an anonymous friend is quoted, "the way a bird sings."



Classic Yacht Photographs

By Benken of Cowes

Times Books: 172 pp., $25

Illusions of grandeur always include yachts. Looking at these luminous photographs of racing yachts, taken from 1885 to 1939, could make the most committed pauper dream of endless riches and a life of freedom on the high seas. "Benken of Cowes" refers to the firm that Alfred, then his son Frank, then his son Keith, owned--a firm that photographed yachts at Cowes, on the Isle of Wight, then the center of world yachting and the home of the America's Cup.

Each decade boasts its revolution in design: from large yachts to smaller, more creative designs. 1930 to '39 saw the end of gentleman yachtsmanship, as well as gentleman farming. The photos are delicate and powerful. Nothing swells the heart as a full sail does. Gaff-rigged yawls, three-masted schooners, acres of sails, glistening decks, photos of wind.

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