by Pearson Marx

It says almost everything about wealthy guileless widow Estelle Wolfe that she habitually—and affectionately—taped her husband's snores, then insisted that her two daughters watch while he (noisily) slept. "Isn't he precious?" Estelle would ask. "Isn't he?" Estelle drinks too much, gives away too much, loves too much (at last count, she has rescued a dozen dogs from the pound) and doubts too little. When she receives a letter from one Dr. Count Francesco von Cockleburg, a self-described poet, scholar, linguist, tympanist and martial arts expert claiming a past friendship with her late husband, she opens her Fifth Avenue apartment, her pocketbook and her heart.

Her self-absorbed older daughter Ellen, heretofore concerned primarily with firming her inner thighs, is horrified, believing the count to be a verse-spouting fraud. Her younger daughter Lisanne is bemused while Ellen's husband, Donald, "who was always happy in a state of outrage," is convinced the count is a gigolo.

When Estelle invites Cockleburg to spend the summer at her country house, the pastoral setting quickly—and hilariously—becomes a trysting place and a battlefield. Love and reputations are lost and won as the novel spins itself out.

At its most engagingly madcap, this novel recalls the work of E.F. Benson, the popular British creator of the Lucia novels. But Marx makes a major error two-thirds of the way through when she sends her most interesting character packing and gives too much attention to her least diverting one, thus losing her grip on the story. This isn't helped by aimless musings and apparently irresistible urges to show off a mastery of 30 days to a better vocabulary. "This," she writes at one point, "was a state marked by a profound hebetude, asthenia, inappetence ..." Is it catching? (Simon & Schuster, $21)

by Ronald Kessler

Not so much political science as high-toned gossip, this best-seller sketches the behind-the-facade world of American Presidents, their families and entourages.

Kessler, a former Washington Post correspondent and author of The FBI and Inside the CIA, is evenhanded and uses few anonymous sources, dredging up tales and quotes from an array of White House workers, Air Force One crewmen and members of past and present administrations.

The best sections involve Lyndon Johnson, partly because he was such an extraordinary character, and partly because one of Kessler's main sources is the insightful LBJ press secretary George Reedy, a journalist.

The only thing in the way of sensational revelations is Kessler's account of an affair between Jimmy Carter's married, evangelist sister Ruth Stapleton and West Germany's married chancellor, Willy Brandt. More striking are Kessler's accounts of how many White House kids were disliked by the government personnel who knew them.

An Air Force One steward called Luci Johnson "a wretched witch," who threw tantrums before White House workers. Another steward called Amy Carter "a mess," and a Secret Service agent said she was "spoiled rotten." Amy's older brother Chip was "outrageous," an agent said. "[He] was separated from his wife and was out of control." Kessler also writes, however, that "of all the presidential children guarded by the Secret Service, Michael Reagan was the least liked."

For all the minor sniping, though, Kessler's most consequential points have to do with the tendency of the White House to pervert dedication to public service. Says one White House official who worked for several administrations: "Democrat, Republican, liberal, conservative, it didn't make a damn bit of difference. Once they got in, there were half a dozen people who had the President's best interests at heart. But after a few months, everyone was strictly personally motivated." (Pocket, $23)

by Oliver Sacks

Imagine being an artist whose world is suddenly drained of color following an auto accident. Or a man able to see for the first time in 45 years. Or a surgeon who performs the most delicate operations, yet is unable to stop his own body from the convulsive, twitching dance of Tourette's syndrome. Disoriented in an alien universe, you might feel, as one autistic woman puts it, "like an anthropologist on Mars."

That description applies equally well to Oliver Sacks, the neurologist-author who has explored the brain's terra incognita in books including Awakenings (made into a movie starring Robin Williams) and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. In this eye-opening collection of essays, illustrated with his patients' artwork, Sacks probes lives radically transformed by neurological conditions yet "no less human for being so different." He argues, in fact, that the altered states caused by the disorders may even prompt creativity—as in the cases of Dostoyevsky (epilepsy), Van Gogh (possible temporal lobe seizures) and Samuel Johnson (potential Tourette's syndrome). After reading Sacks's compelling stories, you may well experience an awakening of your own. (Knopf, $24)

by David Guterson

In this luminous first novel set on an island in Puget Sound, a man is on trial for the brutal murder of a brawny, taciturn salmon fisherman. Because it is the early '50s—with World War II fresh in the islanders' memories—the fact that the defendant Kabuo Miyomoto is of Japanese descent has packed the courtroom with people whose minds were made up before testimony begins.

But not all eyes are on Kabuo. The gaze of the town's newspaper editor Ishmael Chambers—who during the war lost his arm and his humanity—remains fixed on Kabuo's wife, Hatsue, whom he has hopelessly loved since boyhood. The novel skillfully shuttles between the '40s and the '50s, with the testimony of various witnesses leading effortlessly into narrative accounts of key events. Along the way, readers learn an immense amount about gill-netting, the work of a coroner, internment camps, strawberry farming and the protean nature of guilt and innocence. Guterson's particular strength is description. "Her hair...was a river of iridescent onyx.... Mrs. Shigemura lifted Hatsue's hair in her palms and said its consistency reminded her of mercury and that Hatsue should learn to play her hair lovingly, like a stringed musical instrument or a flute. Then she combed it down Hatsue's back until it lay opened like a fan and shimmered in unearthly black waves." This is poetry masquerading as prose. (Harcourt Brace, $21.95)

by Po Bronson

The bombardiers of the title are the bond salesmen of Atlantic Pacific's San Francisco trading room. Starting at 4 a.m. (to catch the Japanese market), shunning home lives, stressed to the max but enticed by the lavish commissions, they man the phones, dropping their high-yield payloads on the unwary.

Branson's war metaphor is apt: Bombardiers is a kind of Catch-22 of the information age, a kingdom where the mad rule the crazed and survival depends on turning logic inside out. Unlike Heller in his classic tale, however, Bronson has an irritatingly shrill voice, and no matter how he struggles to gain altitude, bonds are not bombs. Still, he makes a brave run over the target area: The only way Sidney Geeder can peddle the questionable instruments that Atlantic Pacific puts together is to hate the bonds so fiercely that he has to unload them.

Sid's breaking point is an unprecedented and ruthless deal: a barely legal arrangement that would make the nearly bankrupt Dominican Republic a Delaware corporation instead of a sovereign nation. Geeder desperately wants to bail out of the deal, the lifestyle, his own warped vision. His only hope is an even more ruthless colleague: Eggs Igino, a rebellious new salesman who graduated from college a millionaire, having invested a student loan on high-rolling stocks. When the deal—and his career—crash-land, Sid does find an escape hatch. But Bronson leaves an important question unanswered: Is it salvation or just a mutation of the madness? (Random House, $22)

>Pearson Marx

MOVE OVER, ROVER

THERE WAS NO WAY DOGS WEREN'T going to worm their way into the plot of On the Way to the Venus de Milo. First-time novelist Pearson Marx, 31, whose principal character has a dozen dogs, comes from a long line of canine collectors. Her grandfather Louis, founder of the Marx Toy Company (maker of the Rock 'Em, Sock 'Em Robots popular in the '60s), had 20 dogs when he died. "I think he made provisions for them in his will," says Marx, the eldest of four, whose parents currently house a quartet of dogs while she shares a one-bedroom apartment on New York City's Upper East Side with Josephine, a mastiff, Isabelle, a shih tzu, and Penny, a German shepherd mix. "I have lots of bologna and bones in my apartment. It sometimes looks like a prehistoric landscape," says Marx, a graduate of Andover and Princeton who had a brief stint at Viking Publishers reading from the slush pile and working as an assistant at a literary agency before turning to writing full-time. "I found it embarrassing to tell people I was writing a novel," she says. "I felt so pathetic, like such a dilettante."

With the novel published and Marx at work on a new manuscript, such feelings have abated. Now to the real problem: improving the author's love life. "Three dogs are a guarantee of chastity," says Marx. "I have to say to my dates 'wait outside until I put the dogs in the bedroom.' There's all this growling, and I have to coax the guy in. I put on some romantic music, and then the dogs start flinging themselves against the bedroom door. By this time the guy is ashen and covered in dog hair. I think I'm going to have to go out with a veterinarian."

  • Contributors:
  • Joanne Kaufman,
  • Ralph Novak,
  • Pam Lambert,
  • J.D. Reed.