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Bookends Word for Word

4 minute read

Andy Rooney’s semicelebrity, the result of his appearances in the nice-guy slot on the CBS TV show 60 Minutes, has not reached the public nuisance stage. % It is still possible not to have heard of him; he maintains just enough decent obscurity to squeak by, so far. In his other, humbler occupation, Rooney writes funny newspaper columns, and Word for Word is his fourth collection of essays. Those who missed the first three can just take a seat anywhere. Rooney is always good company. He manages to give the impression that he has just run into you at the post office, maybe, and that you have asked about his wife and he has commiserated, grinning wryly, about your college-age kids. Then, wandering to the possibility of hostilities with the Soviets, he guesses that it would be cheaper and more devastating to drop money on them, not bombs. And Congress, he goes on, Congress should have to rescind some old law every time it passes a new one, to make room. Ordinary stuff is Rooney’s beat, with no verbal slickery: how doctors can do a heart bypass but not cure a 101 degrees fever, and why do clothing manufacturers put all those pins in new shirts? There is no dazzler at the end; he just stops talking, smiles and waves. The reader is warmed by the happy illusion that he himself could have said all that stuff. Rooney a celebrity? Come on, he’s got lint in his pockets just like everyone else.


by Walter Lord

Morrow; 272 pages; $15.95

She was pronounced unsinkable, but as everyone knows, the great ship Titanic ran into an iceberg the night of April 14, 1912, and a new chapter was written in the history of hubris. Walter Lord attempted to offer the last word about that tragedy in his 1955 best seller A Night to Remember. In this lively postscript he shows the hopelessness of that ambition. The Titanic, Lord notes, has become a permanent political symbol: “She has been used to depict the troubles of Presidents Ford, Carter, and Reagan. In British cartoons both the ship and the iceberg have represented Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.” The Titanic is also a lure for trivia buffs: “Who led the ship’s band? (Wallace Hartley.) Which smokestack was the dummy? (The fourth.)” And the tragedy furnishes social historians with a cutaway of Edwardian strata: “Should normal Class Precedence prevail,” the crew wondered, “or the rule of ‘Women and children first’?” Last year the Titanic’s wreckage was spotted on the Atlantic floor, and speculation began anew. Could the accident have been avoided? Why did so many lifeboats leave only half filled? One fact is certain: unlike the ship, the legend refuses to sink.


by Karleen Koen

Random House; 743 pages: $19.95

It would be hard to call this book a bodice ripper because nobody is wearing enough bodice to rip. The year is 1715, and the courts of England and France are filled with intrigue, bloodshed, heavy drinking and lots of sex. (It is not for nothing we get the word debauchery from the French.) Roger Montgeoffrey, the Earl Devane, marries 15-year-old Barbara Alderley to get at her dowry. She is thin, impulsive and beautiful; he is thin, tortured and promiscuous. Alongside their romance, there are plenty of recipes. To build up one’s strength after childbirth, mix green tea with four beaten egg yolks, a pint of white wine, grated nutmeg and sugar, and drink out of a china cup. Koen details life in the Georgian fast lane without being dull, and her book, which received a $350,000 record-breaking advance for a first novel, is in its third printing after eight weeks. The 18th century seems ripe for more fictionalization, and the author is home right now concocting a sequel.


by Robert Finch

Godine; 175 pages; $15.95

Robert Finch is everyman’s naturalist, a walker and swimmer in the region of these 18 essays: Cape Cod, Mass. He is also an impulsive rover and a reflective observer whose verbal catalogs are reminiscent of Isak Dinesen in Africa: (“a trio of fat, sleek Canada geese grazed over the meadow grass, waddling along with the slow, rhythmic gait of cattle”). Most of Finch’s journeys involve sights no more exotic than the “gullish greed” of scallopers on a local beach or the antic determination of nesting bank swallows. Yet he manages to invest the familiar with humor and tolerance — except for real estate developments (” ‘exclusive planned living communities’ . . . unraveling like a Mylar overlay across this casual landscape”). Finch (Common Ground, The Primal Place) is essentially an appreciator, not a plaintiff. He can even find happy reasons for not visiting the Cape: “We need to leave a place some time that is not ours, as a farmer leaves a field fallow.”

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