Can the creator of Forrest Gump find happiness in the story of John Bell Hood, the Confederate general called Wooden Head by his men? It seems so. Groom obviously relishes General Hood's dramatic (but doomed) last-ditch efforts to snatch victory from defeat for the Lost Cause.
Novelist Groom has aimed his first venture into the Civil War at the general reader, who will likely regard Shrouds of Glory as a page-turner. In truth, in the first third of this nonfiction account of the Confederacy's last offensive—a march into Tennessee toward Nashville in 1864—the pages turn rather slowly. This is the obligatory Historical Background, and Groom seems uncomfortable with it. There are mistakes with names and dates and numbers and even armaments—an attitude of slapdash "that's close enough."
But when Groom reaches the fighting at Spring Hill and Franklin and the climax at Nashville, he finds his element. Now he has a story to tell, and he puts his novelist's eye to searching out the telling detail and the colorful anecdote. The pages turn.
The title is from Sartre ("I buried death in the shroud of glory"), and the cost of battle is ever present. "Soon a big autumn moon rose up and loomed low over the Winstead Hills, bathing the Golgothan scene with an eerie silver glow," Groom writes of the terrible field at Franklin. "Now between the diminishing cracks of rifle shots, a horrible and uncanny sound rose off the smoky floor of the Harpeth valley—the pathetic pleadings and cries from thousands of mangled men." (Atlantic Monthly, $23)
by Gavin Edwards
Illustrated by Chris Kalb
When the church choir sings, "Gladly, the Cross I'd Bear," are you one of those who thinks the hymn is about "Gladly, the Cross-Eyed Bear"? When you listen to Top 40 radio, do you hear Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder bellowing, "Can't find the butter, ma'am," when in truth he's singing, "Can't find a better man"?
Then you are hereby directed to 'Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy. Edwards, an associate editor at Details magazine, chronicles some of the most famous misheard lyrics in popular music, such as the book's title, whose more proper interpretation is " 'Scuse me, while I kiss the sky," from Jimi Hendrix's Purple Haze.
Other choice examples include the Beatles' ethereal "The girl with colitis goes by" (really "The girl with kaleidoscope eyes" from Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds), Led Zeppelin's existential "And there's a wino down the road/I should have stolen Oreos" ("And as we wind on down the road/Our shadows taller than our souls" from Stairway to Heaven) and the ever practical home-making ditty by Bachman-Turner Overdrive, "baking carrot biscuits" (Takin' Care of Business).
Who can forget the antiwar message of Cat Stevens's "Right on the pea stain" ("Ride on the peace train") or the urgent cry of Creedence Clearwater Revival, "There's a bathroom on the right" ("There's a bad moon on the rise")? Who isn't moved by Bob Mar-ley's hauntingly beautiful "We will cook Maury Povich" ("We would cook corn-meal porridge," No Woman No Cry) or Sinead O'Connor's "I do know Mike Ditka" ("I do know Mandinka")?
Not surprisingly, Edwards—who collected many of the examples from readers who responded to a column he wrote on the subject—dedicates the book to his parents, "who never took me to the doctor to get my hearing checked." There is however at least one glaring omission: Rod Stewart's ode to narrative breakfast pastry, "Every picture tells a story doughnut" ("Every picture tells a story, don't it?"). (Fireside, paper, $8.95)
by Judy Scales-Trent
As the daughter of two light-skinned blacks, law professor Judy Scales-Trent inherited genes that make her look white, an appearance that leaves her pulled between both sides but accepted by neither. In Notes of a White Black Woman she offers a series of essays, by turns poignant and pugilistic, about what it's like to straddle two worlds.
"Calling the categories into question troubles people," says the author, who—with skin like milk and hair like steel wool—causes a lot of turmoil. After she points out that she is black to some teaching colleagues who don't know it, Scales-Trent is called in by the school superintendent who wants to announce over the PA system that she's really black, "just to avoid trouble." When one of her black law students receives a poor grade, he writes to the university, "I don't understand why you thought you hired a black professor. She looks white to me."
Scales-Trent uses these anecdotes to show that ethnic definitions have regressed into stereotypes. In a world where many people are confronted for being outside the norm—"You don't look Hispanic," "A blond Jew?" "You're not like other Native Americans"—readers will find Notes strikes a chord, if not a sore spot. Scales-Trent ultimately refuses to feel guilty about who she is. "Don't even think of passing me a plate full of guilt anymore," she writes in this affecting collection. "Life has better things for me to eat." (Penn State, $19.50)
by Judith & Neil Morgan
He never had children and admitted he never really felt comfortable around them; nonetheless, Ted Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) became one of the most popular—and successful—children's writers in American history. His was the genius that created The Cat in the Hat, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Green Eggs and Ham and other fanciful, loopily rhyming and subtly instructive volumes. Born in Springfield, Mass., to a family of German immigrants, Geisel grew to love books, but he was a clever joker who tended to coast along in school (he attended Dartmouth, Oxford and the Sorbonne but graduated only from the first). When he took up cartooning, he adopted his middle name as his pseudonym and awarded himself a "Dr." to commemorate the doctorate he failed to earn.
The writers of this authorized biography rhapsodize over Geisel's imaginative drawings and his inspired wordplay. They also try to smooth over the scandal of Geisel's life—an all too adult episode involving his marriage. In 1967, Helen Palmer Geisel despaired as she sensed that her husband of 40 years was growing distant, and she committed suicide. Indeed, Geisel had fallen in love with Audrey Dimond, a woman 18 years his junior and the wife of a close friend. The whole mess played out in front of the close-knit, upscale community of Lajolla, Calif., where Geisel lived and worked for four decades.
Geisel's biographers (themselves La Jolla natives) quickly get back, with evident relief, to recounting their subject's many-accomplishments and awards, among them a Pulitzer Prize. In their words, Geisel is a "wise and incorrigible child" whose innocent perceptiveness about issues like anti-Semitism, racism and nuclear weapons should be a lesson for us all. Sorry to sound like a Grinch, but their pedantic one cries out for Dr. Seuss's own light touch. (Random House, $25)
by William Lashner
Okay, let's begin with the prosecution's case against this first novel, a legal thriller by yet another lawyer turned author. If not for the existence of stereotypes, Lashner would have a hard time populating Hostile Witness. The Jewish private eye spouts Yiddish, the Mafia don has a pitted face, an Old World accent and a passion for cannoli. The WASPs are cold, thin-lipped and arrogant. And while Lashner is a lawyer, he never heard the word brief, and often he writes with relentless floridity. Exhibit A: " Its scent lay fetid in the air, rotten, musked, overpoweringly seductive like the juice of a strange woman."
Now let's hear from the defense. Lashner has fashioned a propulsive story centering on Victor Carl, a two-bit schlub of a Philadelphia lawyer who spends his days collecting debts for relatives. Inexplicably, Carl is recruited to serve as outside counsel for one of the blue-chip law firms he has long aspired to join. The job: representing one Chester Concannon, who is on trial for extortion and murder.
The terms: $250 an hour, a high profile with more fame and fat fees forthcoming if Vic does precisely as instructed. This is quite tempting for a guy whose only other brush with the big time was "watching the parade go by when the Phillies won it all in 1980." But in taking on the case, Carl learns he has made a deal with the devil. Hostile Witness has a good, gritty feel and a sardonic, Sammy Click protagonist who grows on you and who'll be appearing in the sequel. No objections. (Regan-Books, $23)
by Cathleen Schine
Helen MacFarquhar is the kind of bookish know-it-all who not only corrects perfect strangers on their grammar but interrupts her own private erotic musings to question English usage. When Helen receives a love letter at the bookstore she owns in quaint seaside Pequot, N.Y., she is thrown. Having believed herself above such banalities as passionate love, the divorcée nevertheless becomes obsessed: Was the missive—addressed to Goat and signed Ram intended for her? And if so, which of her many besotted (she imagines) customers, employees or friends has sent it?
On this solid comic premise, Cathleen Schine (Rameau's Niece) builds a satire that is rarely less than sublime. Drawing and then affectionately skewering her characters—among them rigid Helen herself; Johnny, the student-employee with whom she has a passionate affair; and especially Miss Skattergoods, the town spinster—Schine depicts both the fussy snobbism of bookstore intellectuals and the universal thrill of unexpected love.
Most amazing, she keeps us interested in the identity of the letter writer, which—when finally revealed—is both surprising and satisfying. A sophisticated and witty valentine of a novel. (Houghton Mifflin, $18.95)
- Stephen W. Sears,
- Dick Teresi,
- Tamala Edwards,
- Clare McHugh,
- Joanne Kaufman,
- Sara Nelson.