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JANE AUSTEN By Carol Shields; A Lipper / Viking Book: 182 pp., $19.95

TALK STORIES By Jamaica Kincaid; Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 254 pp., $23

COMPASS POINTS How I Lived By Edward Hoagland; Pantheon: 304 pp., $25

February 11, 2001|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

JANE AUSTEN By Carol Shields; A Lipper / Viking Book: 182 pp., $19.95

So many ways to write a biography. So many constraints. The biographies being published by Lipper / Viking in its Penguin Lives series are brief and focused. Carol Shields' lens is firmly trained on Jane Austen and her family and novels, going back and forth between the life and the fiction with the implicit assumption that the one faithfully mirrored the other. The dominant question that emerges from both is: Is it better to remain single or to be married? Marriage, in fact, is a tidal force in Shields' description of Austen's character. That and money--"[T]he world of lesser gentility," she writes, "with its necessary thrift." These are the dominant axes in Shields' biography of Jane Austen. The only frustrating thing about this is that it tells more of the constraints on Austen than of her astonishing ability to ignore and even leap over them. Just 17 when Mary Wollstonecraft wrote "A Vindication of the Rights of Women" in 1792, living at Steventon, where her father (a vicar) ran a school for boys, Austen may have written what she knew, but her sense of irony and her imagination and her love of nature were the tools with which she dissected her own society. More of Austen's lens and less of Shields' would have added even more to the wealth of material on Jane Austen.

TALK STORIES By Jamaica Kincaid; Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 254 pp., $23

Jamaica Kincaid wrote the first piece in this collection of Talk of the Town pieces for Mr. Shawn, at The New Yorker in 1974. It was about Dimanche Gras, the 7th Annual West-Indian-American carnival in Brooklyn. The frankness of the piece is vintage Kincaid, but whatever sweet shyness it possessed was very soon replaced by pure sass. From the early pieces, one could imagine that Kincaid, a 6-foot-tall, skinny black woman in her 20s, born and raised for the first 16 years of her life on Antigua, was encouraged by the editorial staff at The New Yorker to write about what was "cool" and what was "black," though she says the beauty of the job was that she could write about whatever she wanted and the pieces were anonymous. Black and cool were, for Kincaid, inextricably linked. "Anyplace that Negroes are is cool," she includes in a paragraph on her main reasons for wanting to come to America. Many of the pieces are an education (slightly dated nowadays) in the language of cool: painstakingly, she explains the words "bad," "copacetic" and "party down" for the Upper East Side citizens of the kingdom of New York. She reports, in the beginning, on black discos and various clubs, sounding a bit like Eloise let loose in the Plaza. When her venue shifts to press events for everything from books to cosmetic companies, she still sounds like Eloise, noticing gestures on the margins with an icy irony that would make Jane Austen proud. One piece in its entirety is the expense account for a press breakfast for Milton Friedman, Nobel Laureate economist (total including building, $40,002,018.34). Kincaid is flawlessly cool, down to her dead-honest, sometimes circular reasoning, but the form is cool as well (today, the Talk pieces are signed). Let loose on the city, these young writers had a rich and pressure-releasing vein to mine. "George Trow," she writes in the beginning of the friend who first introduced her to Mr. Shawn, "was a writer for a magazine called The New Yorker, a magazine that has since gone out of business, though there now exists a magazine by that name."

COMPASS POINTS How I Lived By Edward Hoagland; Pantheon: 304 pp., $25

Hobbled is Edward Hoagland, and while this may have altered the road the writer has traveled, it has made the telling in each of his 20 books more human, more necessary and more vital. Born in 1932, Hoagland grew up in preppie Connecticut. He had a stutter. He lost his sight in his mid-50s from cataracts, had an operation in the early 1990s and got it back. He ponders again and again, if reluctantly, his hobbled relationships to women: wives, lovers and friends. "Sex," he writes in a passage with an enigmatic ending, "can be a cat's cradle of hairpin turns and reversing tangents, cruel and lonely when you either live or lack for it and bewildering in its permutations, though at the same time overwhelmingly logical. Xerox me, xerox me!" (You can almost see this bearish man blushing as he tries, in vain, to find answers for his failings.) There's a literary world in this telling, with John Berryman, Edward Abbey and Archibald MacLeish, to name a few of Hoagland's mentors. This world expands hugely when Hoagland, fleeing a divorce from his second wife, leaves his beloved New York for Vermont. But the best thing about this memoir is Hoagland's struggle to hold onto his youthful Tolstoyan idealism as it shifts into a middle-aged idealism, a different but no less compelling animal.

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