by Mark and Gail Mathabane

If someone had told me while I was growing up in a South African ghetto that I would someday end up marrying a white woman, I would have thought them insane," writes Mark Mathabane, best-selling author of the memoirs Kaffir Boy and Kaffir-Boy in America. Yet, in 1984, when he was a 24-year-old student at the Columbia School of Journalism, he fell in love with Gail Ernsberger, 22, a minister's blond daughter from Cincinnati. They married in 1987 and now live in North Carolina with their two children.

Mark was immediately impressed by Gail, a tomboy and a liberal who had graduated from Brown and worked in battered women's shelters in Harlem and the South Bronx. Her strength and what he calls her "earthy wisdom" reminded him of his mother. Gail, on the other hand, admits she was afraid of blacks. When she met Mark, she had a steady—a blue-eyed "preacher's kid"—whom she thought she should marry. But he was jealous of her friends and her work. In Mark, she found a "refined" and "highly educated" feminist and a friend who encouraged her writing. She fell in love with him but waged an "all-out war" with herself about marriage. The romance temporarily estranged Gail from her father, who was depressed over his own divorce and worried that Mark was using her to get a green card.

As an antiapartheid spokesperson, Mark also had doubts. Militants wanted him to reject all whites as racists. Black women, who outnumber black men in the U.S. by more than a million, in many cases felt Mark was embracing the "nubile blond, girl-woman" ideal, in the words of one letter writer, and betraying them.

Mark's and Gail's families finally proved surprisingly supportive. Mark's granny brought a tribal wedding dress, "a big bush of colorful yarn" that sat on Gail's hips "like an inner tube." Still, it isn't easy to be one of the 200,000 black-white couples in the U.S. They have had to contend with threats and abuse from people who call them "unbiblical" and "immoral."

Unlike Spike Lee's Jungle Fever, this is an idealistic, sometimes sentimental story. Mark and Gail denounce racism—by blacks no less than by whites—but are unable to describe their relationship in anything but greeting card language. Still, writing the book, they conclude, taught them "that we are not fugitives from the 'real' world or social out-casts, but living proof that blacks and whites do not have to hate each other." (HarperCollins, $20)

by Marcie Hershman

The ashes of Auschwitz have been picked over for half a century. But gifted artists will always find new things to say; the Holocaust is inexhaustible. In her outstanding debut, Hershman ventures back to the home front of post-Cabaret Germany. There, the citizens of the Third Reich bustle about their daily affairs. Marriages, flirtations, business dealings are the stuff of life; who can be bothered with the rumored brutalities of the Nazis or the fate of "non-Aryan" neighbors?

A woman in a rest home awakens from a stroke to discover that a group of Jewish children have disappeared from a nearby ward. She is disturbed—until her husband blandly explains it all away. In a small-town police station, a clerk is forced to measure the craniums of political dissidents about to be guillotined, as a way of making him an accomplice to the bloodshed. A mapmaker takes advantage of dual opportunities: His landlady's husband is off to war, and his Jewish employers have been dispossessed.

Hershman never raises her voice or wags a finger. Irony is her device, and it is strong enough to echo long after the last page is turned. Whirling to the seductive rhythms of sex, money and power, the members of Hitler's Master Race will realize too late that they have been stepping to the Totentanz: the suicidal dance of death. (HarperCollins, $20)

by Jonathan Kellerman

by Chris Crutcher

It is an unsurprising if chilling sign of the limes that the villains at the heart of so many mysteries, from The Silence of the Lambs to Loves Music, Loves to Dance, are not greedy in-laws or vengeful lovers but unfathomable psychotic monsters. In these two books, Kellerman and Crutcher try to fathom them.

Former child psychiatrist Kellerman returns to his highly successful character, the detective-shrink Alex Delaware, for a seventh outing in Private Eyes (Bantam, $21.50). The case this time involves an agoraphobic former actress whose remarkable beauty was forever marred two decades ago, when a man she had briefly dated hired a flunky to throw acid in her face. Later, a rich husband nurtures her through dozens of painful operations, while she is further comforted by their daughter—Alex's initial client. Melissa Dickinson, now grown, calls on Delaware again when her mother's old tormentor is released from prison.

When Mom disappears, the household becomes hysterical, and Alex intensifies his attempts to solve both past and present mysteries through clues of behavior and personality.

In the end, the search is more rewarding than the resolution, which comes in a kind of mad-scientist, B-movie whirl. But Kellerman's pacing remains impeccable and, unlike many private eyes at his stage, Delaware is as fresh and engaging as ever.

There is more angst at work in Crutcher's detective, the child therapist Wilson Corder. But then, The Deep End (Morrow, $19) involves a more routinely brutal world: the child abuse, wife abuse, abandonment and neglect found at a family counseling center. Crutcher, a Spokane, Wash., family counselor, writes with heartwrenching realism about the cases observed by Corder, in a tone both empathetic and matter of fact.

The key case here involves 4-year-old Jerry Parker, so traumatized by the abduction of his sister that he is unable to aid the police.

Soon, Corder's own family is endangered in this multilayered mystery debut, remarkable not only for its frenetic final pages but also for a probing of domestic violence that is never condescending.

Edited by David Rosenberg

Did you cry at Love Story as an adolescent? Would you now? How we respond to a movie has as much to do with our age and circumstances as with the film's inherent power. That theme jumps out again and again in this diverse collection of essays by 23 novelists, poets and critics, each of whom has written about a movie pivotal in his or her development.

Bharati Mukherjee points to Love Me or Leave Me (1955) with Doris Day as the movie that, when she was, a teenage girl in India, led her to believe that in America ambitious women could follow their talents. Russell Banks writes that seeing Bambi (1942) as a boy provided him with male role models in both the plucky title character and his proud (if often absent) stag of a father. And Francine Prose, in a stingingly funny essay, remembers, at 7, getting the "clear-cut" message from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) that "guys were guys and girls were girls—things can be very simple indeed." Seeing it now, she is horrified to discover that the musical is a "genial hymn to the joys and social necessity of rape."

The best work here comes from the writers most specific about where they saw a movie and what was going on in their lives and those of their families at the time. Jayne Anne Phillips, in particular, has written a moving essay about being 10 years old and distancing herself from her parents' crumbling marriage and the West Virginia coal town where she lived by spending Friday nights and Saturday afternoons watching el cheapo Roger Corman versions of Edgar Allan Poe tales. "Here is a movie [Premature Burial, 1962] about a foiled escape, and I am already plotting mine," she writes. "I must succeed, not fail; the escape is not only mine, it is hers—my mother's—because I am her and she is me, and my escape will be her escape, the only escape she will ever have."

As this book proves, movies can provide, especially when we're young and impressionable, far more than entertainment. (Viking, $21.95)

  • Contributors:
  • Susan Shapiro,
  • Stefan Kanfer,
  • Susan Toepfer,
  • Leah Rozen.