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THE SECRET KNOWLEDGE OF WATER; Discovering the Essence of the American Desert By Craig Childs; Sasquatch Books: 288 pp., $23.95

GREAT DAMES; What I Learned From Older Women By Marie Brenner; Crown: 248 pp., $22

MORE THAN YOU KNOW By Beth Gutcheon; Morrow: 269 pp., $24

TRUE NORTH By Kimberly Kafka; Dutton: 288 pp., $23.95

March 19, 2000|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

THE SECRET KNOWLEDGE OF WATER; Discovering the Essence of the American Desert By Craig Childs; Sasquatch Books: 288 pp., $23.95

Sometimes a book comes along that is pure oxygen. You pull the mask down, inhale, then keep commuting. That's how I see our best nature writers, and Americans are good at nature writing. "The Secret Knowledge of Water," as much about the desert as it is about desert water, stings like a slap in the face. Craig Childs is a desert explorer. He takes off for weeks to look for pockets of water. He chases floods. He teaches new words: "tinaya" (a water pocket) and "chubasco" (a kind of storm). Be forewarned: Like all truly oxygenated items, this is an extremely erotic book. Childs rubs desert lavender between his hands. He hears voices in his ears; he clutches sandstone and the walls of caves; best of all, he describes sound: "the liquid timbre in thin canyons, water running where there is no sound elsewhere, no water even if I walked for days. Vowels lifted from purl. Whole words." He respects the power of floods, "fierce water," the mystical and often discriminating force of them (lifting the face off a child, for example), but does not fear them. What he fears is the dark: "the informality, the thoughtlessness, the brooding wisdom, the endlessness . . . the thing in darkness I cannot name." Odd for a man who has slipped so completely into nature's skin to fear a thing he cannot name.

GREAT DAMES; What I Learned From Older Women By Marie Brenner; Crown: 248 pp., $22

It's a nice idea, to give us a handful of portraits of women who bivouacked on the stern face of power and politics in the white-gloved '40s, '50s and '60s in this country. Marie Brenner writes fondly of her "Great Dames": Kitty Carlisle Hart and Constance Baker Motley (New York state senator, borough president, federal judge) and Marietta Tree and Diana Trilling and Clare Boothe Luce and Pamela Harriman, to name a few, admiring mostly how put together they are, how forceful, how well dressed and confident. These women used whatever they could to get things done: their looks, their money, their ex-lovers. "Clare Boothe Luce," Brenner writes, "was a beautiful liar." "Much of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis's fame came from her looks and whom she married and from murder." "Watching Mrs. Harriman, it was easy to imagine how she had enchanted the men in her past." These women were our geishas, whispering in ears to influence all aspects of American life, from culture to civil rights to fashion, sharing what Brenner in her introduction calls "the theater of self."

MORE THAN YOU KNOW By Beth Gutcheon; Morrow: 269 pp., $24

Maine must be farther (psychologically) from Los Angeles than any other state in the union, the crucible for New England's ghosts and hardscrabble fears, almost as dark as witchy Pennsylvania. "More Than You Know" is the story of a haunting. It is set on an island in Maine and told by an elderly woman, Hannah Gray, who remembers a summer there when she met and lost the love of her life, Conary Crocker. Summers in Maine pose for normalcy, with beach roses and periwinkles and sea glass and porch swings. But that summer, Hannah and Conary were haunted by the ghost of a young woman who, legend had it, had murdered her winter-cruel father. Now, you may think that movies have cornered the market on terror and that few literary fiction writers do justice to Edgar Allan Poe, but Beth Gutcheon writes one scary haunting, complete with disbelieving wicked stepmother and light generating eye-sockets in the rear-view mirror.

TRUE NORTH By Kimberly Kafka; Dutton: 288 pp., $23.95

"The truth is that justice for the Indians has never been anything but a joke," the Indian tells the white girl from Maine who has come with her idealistic boyfriend to Alaska's interior to pan for gold. "We have been trampled, and bled and beat to hell and back by you." Novels are a holographic way to learn about how politics and history affect individuals. "True North" builds to the raw conflict between the Indians and the whites in modern-day Alaska, using characters who are drawn there for different reasons. There's Bailey, the novel's lodgepole, a 35-year-old doctor who fled her sister's death by making a life in a cabin by a river in Alaska. There's the young couple looking for gold, and there's Kash, the Indian in charge of his local corporation (a sort of economic reservation), caught between his people, their anger and the whites. Most fiction set in Alaska focuses on the place. In "True North," the landscape looms, but more as a state of mind. Kimberly Kafka's focus is on the community: that essential organism that individuals in extreme environments depend on.

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