by Rex Harrison

We're in luck, Harrison fans! Sir Rex (he was knighted three years ago) seems in this book to have dropped by to chat. And good company he is—droll, opinionated, his tartness relieved by flashes of tenderness.

Between his debut, at 16, in repertory theater in Liverpool, and a "rapturous reception" 65 years later onstage in Somerset Maugham's The Circle in New York City, Sir Rex notes all the major career events: the 1936 London production of French Without Tears that made him a star; the New York City stage successes of Anne of the Thousand Days and Bell, Book and Candle; such films as Major Barbara and Vie Foxes of Harrow. And, of course, his creation, on stage and screen, of Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady.

He speaks at length of working with Alan Jay Lerner, Fritz Loewe and Moss Hart-lyricist, composer and director of My Fair Lady—to create the sing-speak technique required for an actor with no gift for song. He also reports on the painstaking shaping of the show, the Broadway run, the making of the film. Fascinating, all of it.

No modesty constrains Sir Rex. He cites admiring reviews often, vents displeasure boldly: In The Agony and the Ecstasy, Charlton Heston was "too wooden." Charles Laughton was inconveniently large: "You couldn't share a shot with Charles, there was no room." The Duke and Duchess of Windsor: "I once had [them] to lunch.... she was awful, and totally unfeminine, and he was excessively stupid."

About his six marriages, Sir Rex is on the whole discreet. Three of them, one to Lilli Palmer, rate little more than names and dates. About actress Rachel Roberts, he is downright bitchy: "Left wing...drunk and disorderly behavior...suicidally depressed." But he is moving about actress Kay Kendall, whom he married knowing she was terminally ill and lost to cancer two years later. From 1979 on, however, he seemed content with No. 6, Mercia Tinker.

Sir Rex says diet, exercise and steady employment keep old age at bay. "You've probably been wondering," he says, preparing to leave, "how I manage to totter on at the advanced age of eighty-two.... I do have a strong motivation for keeping fit—I want to go on working as long as I can."

We remember suddenly, shocked, that Sir Rex died last summer, of cancer. He was not yet 83, and was just putting the finishing touches to this book. We knew, of course. All this lively reminiscing just made us forget. (Bantam, $21.95)

by Isabel Allende

Gracefully spun off the Chilean-born Allende's 1988 novel, Eva Luna, this collection of absorbing tales is an explicit homage to A Thousand and One Nights, transplanting Scheherazade's sense of fable and magic to Latin America.

Eva herself, a modern-day troubadour whose TV-newscaster boyfriend seems to need her stories to distance himself from grim reality, appears only marginally in the action. But her attitude—a reverence for myth and history grounded in a feeling for the ironic-cynical present—is pervasive.

There is, for example, "Phantom Palace," in which a Latin American dictator abducts a European ambassador's wife, who ends up running off to live among Indians—Indians whose land was taken from them in the first place by European invaders hundreds of years before.

Many of the stories, though, have no political subtext, centering on women whose bittersweet belief in love stubbornly persists. In "Simple Maria." a prostitute dies, longing—against all reasonable behavior—for the return of the irresponsible lover who had saved her from despair over the death of her son: "When she grew weary of waiting in vain and felt that her soul was covered with scales, she decided that it would be better to leave this world."

Happy endings are few; Eva is optimistic but never romantic. She and perhaps Allende are not unlike Belisa, the poetic-practical heroine of one engaging story. Belisa, writes Allende, "made her living selling words.... Her prices were fair. For five centavos she delivered verses from memory, for seven she improved the quality of dreams, for nine she wrote love letters, for twelve she invented insults for irreconcilable enemies. She also sold stories, not fantasies but long, true stories she recited at one telling, never skipping a word. This is how she carried the news from one town to another." (Atheneum, $18.95)

by Maeve Binchy

Let's cut to the chase: Read this book. It breaks no ground, throws no light on the human condition, introduces no unforgettable characters, but it is sweet-souled, gently funny and frequently touching.

It centers on Benny Hogan, a big, sunny broth of a girl whose overprotective father runs a men's haberdashery shop in Knockglen, a tiny town near Dublin. Benny's best friend since childhood is the dark-haired pixie Eve Malone, a trigger-tempered orphan who has been brought up in the village convent under the watchful eye of the Mother Superior, Mother Francis.

The two girls are inseparable, puzzling out the facts of life together, gorging on toffees, defending each other against the slights of the more snide members of the town. Lite becomes more complex when the two leave Knockglen for University College in Dublin. There Benny and Eve fall in with the beautiful, poised, mysterious Nan Mahon who "would take everything she saw. [Who] was like a child crawling toward a shining object." ' Benny falls in love with rugby star and ladies' man Jack Foley.

While Binchy is exploring the familiar territory of young women coming of age and coming to terms, she avoids clichés and creates some terrific characters.

Eve and Benny are captivating enough—Eve, who's incapable of not speaking her mind, and always-ready-with-a-joke Benny, trying gamely to get her heart off her sleeve. But there is also Mother Francis, who gives lie to the fearsome image of parochial school heads; the sleazy Sean Walsh, who tries to work his way into Benny's affections; Peggy Pine, owner of a "smart" dress shop; and crazy Mr. Flood, who insists he sees nuns in the trees. It's not quite Winesburg, Ohio, but it's pretty wonderful. (Delacorte, $19.95)

by Dr. Hunter S. Thompson

There are two things you have to give Hunter Thompson: 1) He's a man of passion and 2) He can write. But those two traits are often at odds in this collection of stories, letters, journalism and journal-like entries, some previously published, some not.

In a piece on the Pulitzer divorce, "Dr." Thompson exposes the prejudices of the case. Instead of focusing on accusations against Roxanne Pulitzer or discussing what brass instruments she slept with, he shows how the courts and public favored the husband, who was as culpable—and as unfit a parent—as the wife.

Whether or not you agree with his assessment, you have to admit he takes an unusual position. But then Thompson blows the piece by inserting a passage of New Journalism of the most extraneous kind: He picks a fight with a Palm Beach bartender and gets himself thrown into the street, losing both the fight and his credibility.

This book is arranged chronologically; Thompson gets worse—more bellicose, more fatuous, less cogent—with age. In early pieces, his hubris is mitigated by his talent and an almost childish earnestness. In a letter asking North Vietnamese Col. Vo Dan Giang for an interview, he refers to himself as "one of the best writers currently using the English language as both a musical instrument and a political weapon." But by now, like another reporter gone sensationalist. Geraldo Rivera, he has become a caricature. (Summit. $21.95)

by James Lee Burke

Burke won a 1989 Edgar for best mystery with Black Cherry Blues, but here he tops that first-rate effort.

He's got the mood (New Orleans rich, Mafia crazed); he's got the crimes (bodies stack 10 deep); he's got the passion (gun-clicking cops, steamy women, dead-eye crooks). He's got the detective—Dave Robicheaux, starring in his fourth Burke novel.

Robicheaux is on transport detail, moving two death-row inmates—Jimmie Lee Boggs and Tee Beau Latiolais—to their execution site. The cons, however, have a foolproof escape plan and, at the first opportunity, make their move. When the gun smoke clears, one cop is dead, Robicheaux is wounded, and the felons are gone.

Once his wounds heal, Robicheaux, obsessed with recapturing the escapees, infiltrates a mob family to which Boggs belongs. Buried as deep as a cop can get, Robicheaux confronts a mix of Mafia madness and voodoo. Soon his relationship with crime boss Tony Cardo deepens. Here, Dave listens to some advice from the man: "You're a good guy, Dave, but you're still a newbie. There's two ways you run the business—you don't get greedy, you piece off the action, you treat people fair. Then your conscience is clear, you got respect in your community, people trust you. Then when somebody else breaks the rules, gets greedy, tries to put a lock on your action, you blow up their s—. You don't f—around when you do it, either. It's like a free-fire zone. Nobody likes it, but the only thing that counts is who walks out of the smoke."

There have been other gritty, steel-edged mysteries set in New Orleans recently. But none has had the impact, the drive and the reach of A Morning for Flamingos. It's nothing less than a dead-on bull's-eye. (Little, Brown, $18.95)

by Penny Stallings

What Hollywood Babylon did for films—exposing depravity or perversion among the I stars—this book purports to do for TV. This "photo-filled phantasmagoria blows the lid off the rumors, the scandals, and the deepest darkest secrets of our favorite small-screen stars," crows a press release.

Well, the book fulfills one promise: It is full of enjoyable photos, many from the live drama era of the '50s. There are also childhood snapshots of such stars as Johnny Carson, Candice Bergen and Jack Benny.

If, however, you're looking for lurid tales, look elsewhere. Stallings, a MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour writer, mainly trots out anecdotes, many of them such familiar tube lore as the tale of Jackie Mason's career-crippling gesture on a 1964 Ed Sullivan Show.

If not all that shocking, the stories are often amusing. Consider Fred MacMurray's minimal commitment to his '60s series My Three Sons. He could shoot his entire season's worth of scenes one after the other, merely changing sweaters. His hefty annual salary required only two months' work.

There is a section devoted to actors who turned down what became hit series. What if, for instance, William Shatner had become Dr. Kildare instead of Richard Chamberlain? Picture Mickey Rooney instead of: Carroll O'Connor in, All in the Family.

There's also a chapter on toupees, nose jobs and other cosmetic aids. Ego and vanity, indeed, may be the worst transgressions Stallings details. Ah, well, it's a living-room medium; even the vices are tamer. (Harper Perennial, paper, $14.95)

>DEVICES AND DESIRES Vacationing Scotland Yard inspector Adam Dalgliesh gets back on the case quickly in a P.D. James tale about a serial killer and a slew of intriguing suspects. (Warner)

MY TRAITOR'S HEART A young South African journalist. Rian Malan, whose granduncle helped create apartheid, evokes the personal and political demons he battles in today's South Africa in a powerful memoir. (Vintage)

VINELAND Thomas Pynchon's first novel in 17 years mixes paranoia, ambiguity and imagination in a talc of Ninjas, TV and "60s-style hippies in post-Reagan California. (Penguin)

ME AND MY BABY VIEW THE ECLIPSE Love troubles in southern settings dominate this engaging collection of stories by Lee Smith. (Ballantine)

  • Contributors:
  • Jeff Brown,
  • Ralph Novak,
  • Joanne Kaufman,
  • Sara Nelson,
  • Lorenzo Carcaterra,
  • David Hiltbrand.