by David Friend and the editors of LIFE

Somehow, when the editors of LIFE asked a group of people to explain existence for a special 1988 issue, they didn't find one person who knew the real meaning of life: chocolate-covered cake doughnuts fresh from the oven. They got a lot of other answers, though, many of them provocative, funny and/or enlightening. This book, a megaexpansion of that issue, consists of observations by 173 people and 132 photographs, many of them magnificent.

The photographers represented include such names as Alfred Eisenstaedt, Mary Ellen Mark, Cornell Capa, Sylvia Plachy, Harry Benson and two former photo editors of PEOPLE: John Loengard and John Dominis. Their pictures are fascinating, though the fact that many of them are decades old is too bad. (While the meaning of life probably hasn't changed much, using old photos implies that people today are somehow not facing up to things very well.)

The text consists of answers to that most meaningful of questions elicited from an array of subjects. The most boring replies are from dogmatic clergy people and metaphysicians of various bents.

The other responses range widely. Composer John Cage's complete comment is "No why. Just here." Writer Studs Terkel's is "To make a dent." Author Marilyn vos Savant says, "The only real meaning in life can be found in a good man. And maybe Paris. Preferably the two together."

Among the optimists is actress Marlee Matlin: "When there is a hole someplace in the world, I believe a warmth eventually fills it. When there is poverty, a richness of spirit eventually comes to help."

The moralists include Oliver North: "We are not here to avoid decisions but to make hard choices between good and evil by using an ethical system not invented by man but by our Creator—a framework of truth and moral guidance through which we can find deliverance from despair."

Richard Gere, hinting that the meaning of life is no punctuation or prepositions, jots, "No Creator/ No Meaning/ Diamond/ Mind/ Open/ Heart/ Light/ Step." Author Annie Dillard says, "We are here to witness the creation and to abet it." Adds taxi driver José Martinez: "I like driving a cab. I do some fishing, take my girl out, pay taxes, do a little reading, then get ready to drop dead."

Most of these answers probably tell us more about the people giving them than the nature of the universe, but that's OK. Friend, by the way (he's a LIFE senior editor), includes 156 people in his acknowledgments, suggesting his idea of the meaning of life is saying thank you. We could do worse. (Little. Brown, $24.95)

by George V. Higgins

From The Friends of Eddie Coyle to Trust, Higgins has shaped his fiction around the exploits of people low on options. Now, he throws former major-league relief pitcher Henry Briggs onto his pitiable pile of losers.

Briggs used to cut the corners with an arm full of nasty. Now he's trying to stay a pitch ahead of boredom. His kids think he's a failure, his wife would like to see him grow up. and Briggs himself wants more than a life as a Vermont fish-and-game warden.

Enter Speaker of the House Ed Cobb. He has a plan to unseat a popular congressman. The plan centers on Briggs making the run. Here, an innocent-sounding Cobb finalizes the offer over a cold beer: "I'm serious, Henry. This one's worth your time. Take a leave of absence. If you lose you can go back, protecting trouts and trees, and taking care of deer. Try it out. I think you'll love it. Furthermore, you'll win."

It is an offer Briggs cannot refuse, partly because years earlier Cobb bailed Briggs out of a Rhode Island motel jam.

Few writers enjoy chicanery as much as Higgins. Here he takes his usual back-room connivers, moves them out of overtly illegal scams and puts them in a political setting. While the result isn't vintage Higgins (last seen in Penance for Jerry Kennedy in 1985), it's close enough to satisfy. (Holt, $19.95)

by Macdonald Carey

Back in 1933, the head of the drama department at the University of Iowa told a student, "You'll have to give up the beer if you want bigger parts." For actor Macdonald Carey, that warning turned out to be prophetic. His love affair with the bottle deepened over the next four decades, and he never did make it to leading-man stardom.

He rarely stopped working though. Carey is perhaps best known as Dr. Tom Horton on the NBC soap opera Days of Our Lives. He has played that role for 25 years—though at one point, his drinking got so bad that the show's writers visited a debilitating stroke upon his character so Carey couldn't maul any more dialogue.

Sober now for nine years, Carey, 77, reflects on his life in this engaging autobiography. For a guy who admits he was often in a stupor, he recalls a lot, about his drinking, about the breakup of his 26-year marriage to ex-acting student Betty Hecksher, and many anecdotes about his career.

There was, for instance, a dressing-room party on the Universal lot the day of Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy's wedding in 1943, which saw Broderick Crawford pin Edmond O'Brien to the floor while Lon Chaney Jr. poured a drink down his throat. O'Brien never did make it to the ceremony. Not all the stories are about carousing. Many concern acting's lighter side. Carey, for instance, recalls '40s hunk Victor Mature, who was the best man at Carey's wedding, was denied membership at the hoity-toity Los Angeles Country Club because he was an actor. "I am no actor," protested Mature, "and I've got 30 movies to prove it." (St. Martin's, $19.95)

by Robert B. Parker

Parker's sequel to Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep raises a question: what's next? Rosamunde Pilcher's sequel to Jane Eyre?

In 1989 Parker took four chapters of an unfinished Chandler novel and spun them into the well-received Poodle Springs. Parker, perhaps, thought he had found a cottage industry to supplement his Spenser detective novels. He should think again.

With Perchance to Dream, Parker set himself a daunting challenge: create a sequel to a Chandler classic. That he's not really up to the challenge is clear at the outset.

Parker reprints most of Sleep's last chapter as a prologue to Dream. This is handy, indeed crucial, for readers unfamiliar with Chandler's novel, but when Parker picks up the story, one can't help notice the differences in style. Chandler's prose is terse, powerful and funny when the need arises: Parker's is cutesy, flimsy and too prone to wisecracks. Passages from Sleep are sprinkled throughout Dream, simply underscoring the gulf between master and protégé.

Parker starts well, reintroducing the characters from Chandler's original. Here detective Philip Marlowe is hired by the late General Sternwood's butler to find the disturbed Carmen Sternwood, who has disappeared from a sanatorium. Marlowe, in between downing shots of rye in his atmospheric office, forms an uneasy alliance with Sleep's charming thug, Eddie Mars, to bring down the doctor and a multimillionaire he's fronting for. The conclusion, when it comes, is unconvincing.

Snappy similes are a staple of the hard-boiled genre, and Parker goes head-to-head with his mentor. To Chandler, something isn't just empty, it's as empty as "rain barrels in a drought" or "a headwaiter's smile." Here's Parker describing Marlowe after he has been banged around by bad guys: "My head felt like the inside of a snare drum," "as if I'd been wrestling in a gravel pit" and "like I had been dragged in by a cat and rejected." Advantage Chandler.

From Dream's plot about water rights (remember Chinatown?) to the character names—the evil sanatorium chief is Dr. Bonsentir (get it, French students?)—to the fact that three chapters end with the exact same sentence, Parker's writing shows a surprising dearth of imagination.

Here's some free advice, Mr. Parker: Stick to Spenser, and let Philip Marlowe sleep the big sleep in peace. (Putnam. $19.95)

by Anita Shreve

For all that has been written and reported and dramatized about wife abuse, it is no less shocking and frightening to read about it one more time. But that doesn't mean the subject makes for a compelling novel, at least not in this particular, predictable case. Shreve has given her book several narrators: the victim, Maureen English, who for the sake of safety and anonymity later changes her name to Mary Amesbury (hers are the best, most moving sections); Helen Scofield, the journalist who writes a magazine story chronicling Maureen/Mary's life; several citizens of St. Hilaire, a tiny dot of a Maine town where Maureen/Mary flees with her infant daughter to escape her brutal, alcoholic husband, Harrold.

Raised in the '40s in a Chicago suburb by her unwed mother, Maureen had met Harrold in New York City at a news magazine. She was captivated by his dark impenetrable eyes; they went out for drinks and ended up in bed—along with silk ropes. There was no stopping what happened after that.

So Maureen thinks, "I knew it the way when you're told you have a certain illness you understand you will not get better; or the way when you see a particular house on a particular landscape you think: yes, that is for me, I am going to live there."

The pattern is set. Harrold drinks, he accuses Maureen of infidelity; he brutalizes her. Remorse is followed by reconciliation. Followed by pregnancy. And repeat, until Maureen's getaway breaks the pattern.

Strange Fits of Passion is the victim of its similarity to Sleeping with the Enemy and other such endeavors. Ultimately, though, it fails as a chronicle of Maureen/Mary largely because Shreve, author of three previous books, paints an incomplete portrait of her. It is certainly never clear why she would be so attracted to Harrold. And because it's revealed at the start that the story involves a murder, the shock value is gone.

The novel also fails as a chronicle of the ambitious journalist whose desire for glory—and a book contract—impels her to betray Mary. Because Helen's magazine article is printed at the end of the book, it seems like an attempt to give the book a moral ambiguity it has heretofore lacked.

It doesn't help that the part of the book given over to Helen's narration is stilted and filled with high-flown palaver about the journalist's dilemma: "Once the storyteller has her facts, whether they be told to her or be a product of her investigations, what then does she do with her material?" Tell it to William Allen White. (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $18.95)

  • Contributors:
  • Ralph Novak,
  • Lorenzo Carcaterra,
  • David Hiltbrand,
  • Mark Donovan,
  • Joanne Kaufman.