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THE MUSIC AT LONG VERNEY Twenty Stories By Sylvia Townsend Warner Edited by Michael Steinman; Counterpoint: 192 pp., $24

AN HOUR BEFORE DAYLIGHT Memories of a Rural Boyhood By Jimmy Carter; Simon & Schuster: 274 pp., $26

RADICAL SANITY Commonsense Advice for Uncommon Women By Elizabeth Wurtzel; AtRandom.Com: 90 pp., $15

SUBJECT TO DEBATE Sense and Dissents on Women, Politics, and Culture By Katha Pollitt; Modern Library: 334 pp., $12.95 paper

January 28, 2001|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

THE MUSIC AT LONG VERNEY Twenty Stories By Sylvia Townsend Warner Edited by Michael Steinman; Counterpoint: 192 pp., $24

Age, its privileges and myriad beauties; antiques, human and non--these are the subjects of Sylvia Warner's 20 stories. They are fine but not the best place to start reading Warner. Of her seven novels, "Lolly Willowes" is by far the best. She wrote 10 collections of stories before her death in 1978 at 84, and four collections, including "The Music At Long Verney," have been published posthumously. Warner's writing occupies that high wire between philosophy and detail. She has firm opinions and ideas, particularly about the lives of women, but she also has a spunky eye and a painterly ability to create atmosphere. This skill is particularly acute in her short stories, and this collection has a lovely quality about it. Musing on age, most of the stories have an English country life pace. They are full of the gentle arts: calligraphy, music. Piano tuners and El Grecos play the cameo roles; names of antiques, pieces of music and the yellow light that shines across fields and hedgerows from the windows of a well-run home knit the stories together. "The trees were heavy with summer," Warner sets the scene in the title story, "pigeons cooed all day, and a continuous mild buzz of insects filled the woods with a sound of piety."

AN HOUR BEFORE DAYLIGHT Memories of a Rural Boyhood By Jimmy Carter; Simon & Schuster: 274 pp., $26

This memoir of Jimmy Carter's boyhood in Plains, Ga., on the legendary peanut farm begins and ends in biblical fashion with the soil. It is surprisingly organic that way, surprisingly clear, perhaps for some people a little too much of a "My Dog Skip"-style memoir of the South but charming nonetheless. Born in 1924, Carter, whose great-grandfather left each of his 12 children 43 slaves and 2,212 acres of land, remembers the Southern rage against Yankees during the Depression. He remembers the first time he ever got his father's approval at age 4 and his subsequent lifelong struggle to earn it again. Carter's greatest disobedience was one April Fool's day when he played hooky. He was whipped by his father for things like sleeping all night in the treehouse. But Carter also spends time describing his best friend Alonzo Davis and his Uncle Buddy and one of the farm hands, Rachel Clark, who, with her grace and wisdom, influenced him more than anyone else in his childhood. In the end, Carter's Depression-era eye for cost and detail (from the vitally important price of cotton on down) reminds me of E.B. White.

RADICAL SANITY Commonsense Advice for Uncommon Women By Elizabeth Wurtzel; AtRandom.Com: 90 pp., $15

Ask. Eat Dessert. Have Opinions. These are some of the more common pieces of advice in this not-so-radical book of advice. Belief is bad, and mistakes are good, Wurtzel writes, and yet I have rarely read a more emphatic little manifesto. Wurtzel seems to have so few doubts about what's good for women that she feels comfortable insisting we all follow her. Everything is cool is the subtext, but it's written in a sort of uptight control-freak style that makes this reader think the author of "Prozac Nation" ought to try a little Prozac. Or something. Some of the suggestions are less common, to be fair, like "Try to Know What the Kids Are Up To," which seems like good advice until Wurtzel insists that means knowing who Eminem is. Wurtzel would like you to get a cleaning lady as often as possible and "Be Gorgeous." OK, will do. "Having fun," she writes, "is the only real secret of life." Yes ma'am. Right away, ma'am.

SUBJECT TO DEBATE Sense and Dissents on Women, Politics, and Culture By Katha Pollitt; Modern Library: 334 pp., $12.95 paper

Life is full of extremes. Here is a collection of Katha Pollitt's columns that have run in The Nation magazine for the last two decades. While Elizabeth Wurtzel is saucy, unabashedly shallow and yuppie-like, Pollitt can make a reader beg for mercy with her exhaustive internal monologues on everything from abortion to public schools to every little lefty issue under the Manhattan sun. Reading this collection, you can learn everything Pollitt thinks it takes to be a good democrat. She bullies and prods her readers into the kind of good old-fashioned guilt and self-scrutiny that a whole new generation of women rarely indulges in. She's hard on rich people and even harder on the mainstream press (especially when it comes to their handling of sexual issues, from Monica Lewinsky to Larry Flynt). "Political feminism is still with us," she writes of the women's movement, but the spirit, the willingness to transform ourselves as individuals, is gone. I prefer the essays in which she seems to be talking to real people and not just other journalists. Pollitt may be indignant, she may be mad, but she's no slacker.

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