by the Tides Foundation

The 15 seconds in question represent the brief but viciously destructive life of the earthquake that hit Northern California last Oct. 17. The surprising thing about this book of quake photographs and quotes from various sources is how shocking and affecting the scenes of devastation and reconstruction remain, however many times you've seen them.

Editors David Cohen, a book producer, and photographers Doug Menuez and Ron Grant Tussy, all from Northern California, did an extraordinary job of winnowing the massive pictorial coverage of the event into 88 striking images.

Most of the photographs are thoroughly eloquent in their depiction of destruction, pain and courage, but the quotes were nicely chosen too.

Santa Cruz resident Cyndi Forbes: "I was feeling sorry for myself because I couldn't find something that fell off my shelf. Then a 7-year-old boy came by and said he couldn't find his house." Willie Mays, who was in Candlestick Park when the quake hit: "This is the only time I've ever been scared in this ballpark." Malcolm Clark, of the U.S. Geological Survey: "The definitive thing is we don't know what the hell is going on here." Jesse Jackson: "This is a natural disaster, an act of God. When God speaks, everyone listens." San Francisco Chronicle writer Jerry Carroll: "There is no greater betrayal than when the earth defaults on the understanding that it stay underfoot while we go about the business of life, which is full enough of perils as it is."

All proceeds from the sale of the book go to relief for the quake victims, through the Tides Foundation, 1388 Sutter St., 10th floor, San Francisco, Calif. 94109. (Island Press, $19.95)

by Dick Francis

Okay, let's get one thing straight about Straight. It is only middling Dick Francis. But to the legions of Francis fans, middling Francis is infinitely better than no Francis. And even for non-Franciphiles, there is much to recommend this novel. This is the 28th trip around the track for the jockey turned author, but his prose remains as refreshingly readable as ever. The smashing opening paragraph is an example of his marvelous economy of style: "I inherited my brother's life. Inherited his desk, his business, his gadgets, his enemies, his horses and his mistress. I inherited my brother's life, and it nearly killed me."

Francis's protagonists are all but interchangeable; this time around, our hero is Derek Franklin (note the initials), a 34-year-old steeplechase jockey. He is thrown from a horse the same week his brother's sudden death throws him into a world that is entirely foreign to him—that of semiprecious stones. As he hobbles about on crutches, Franklin delves into his brother's business. Of course, he uncovers all sorts of nefarious activities and finds himself the victim of several attacks on his person, prompting him to note drily, "In the last six days I'd been crunched by a horse, a mugger and a woman. All I needed was a toddler to amble up with a coup de grace."

Although the sport of kings is what Francis knows best, he frequently takes novelistic fliers into other fields. Reflex and Banker were successful offtrack forays; Straight is less so. Try as he might, Francis never really makes the world of rhodonite, jasper, aventurine and spinel as interesting as the exotic-sounding names of these gems. Straight also takes a distressingly long time to get on track. The traditional Franciscan love interest is almost entirely missing, and the villain of the piece is an ill-defined character who practically pops out of nowhere at the end of the book.

"Disappointments, injustices, small betrayals, they were everyone's lot," observes Franklin. "I no longer expected everything to go right, but enough had gone right to leave me at least in a balance of content." While Straight may be a slight disappointment, it—like all Francis novels—leaves the reader with a balance of content. (Putnam, $18.95)

by David Breskin

by Anne Lamott

Both these novels involve modern American women recapitulating parts of their lives; each is compelling in its own way.

Breskin's book (Viking, $17.95) benefits from the natural curiosity that always attaches to a man's attempt to see things from a woman's perspective. His first novel, presented in diary form, tracks the 19th year of Randi Bruce, who drives a coal truck at a Wyoming mine. The book goes on too long—289 dense pages—and there are a few too many dream sequences, but Breskin makes Randi a lively, sympathetic figure.

She likes sex, drugs, softball and her mother, whose nasty breakup with Randi's father is a running theme of the novel, and its most dramatic event. Whether Breskin totally succeeds in the gender crossover is debatable. His account of Randi's decision that she doesn't ever want to have children seems more glib, for instance, than a woman writer's might have been.

Sense of humor is never in doubt though. Randi at one point is questioning her mother's driving technique, which involves herky-jerky stomps on the gas pedal; Randi asks her mother why she can't drive like normal people: "And she just goes, 'A lot of those normal people have totaled cars you know.' I go, 'What?' She goes, 'A lot of those normal people end up in the hospital.' Then she changed her tone, like she was letting me in on a secret. She said, 'Because you never know when you might need to hit the brake, and if your foot is down on the gas it lakes longer to get there.' "

All New People (North Point, $16.95) is Lamott's fourth novel, and it is a graceful, vaguely bemused look at growing up in the '60s in Marin County.

As she undergoes hypnotherapy, Nanny Goodman, in her early 30s and just out of a bad marriage, remembers how when she was 10 or 11, the fathers of local families—including her own well-loved dad-kept leaving home. Among her friends, she recalls, "It was our collective great fear, that our fathers would leave us, start new families with younger and prettier children; we had seen it happen before."

Coming-of-age novels aren't all that rare, and Lamott probably deserves more credit for drawing such remarkably sharp portraits of Nanny's parents, making them a most sympathetic yet annoyingly human couple. "My mother," Nanny recalls, "kept telling everyone that everything was going to be okay. She kept telling us that we had to remember to live in the solution, not the problem, and that the solution was God, until [Aunt] Peg told my mother that if she said it one more time she would take a rock and hit her on the head."

And the book's roll-with-the-punches tone is nowhere clearer than in its title, which comes from what Nanny's father tells her there will be in 100 years.

by George V. Higgins

Earl Beale has been buying into trouble his entire life. In his college days, he shaved points on a basketball court. The weekly fix eventually cost him a stretch in the federal pen at Leavenworth. Now Jimmy Battaglia, a gangster with clean hands and a short temper, needs a Mercedes stolen and driven somewhere to be crushed, no questions asked.

Beale is given the job. Older but no wiser than he was in the years before he went behind bars, he has another idea. As usual, it's a bad one.

" 'I'm not gonna crush the damned car.'

" 'You're not,' she said.

" 'I'm not,' he said. 'I have seen it. This is a prime Mercedes two-seater, worth about five or six K. One of those roadsters, robin's-egg blue, and the seats've hardly been sat on. I'm gonna drive it up to Donald's, have him put it on the lot, and some rich———-'ll buy it."

No one writes about New England losers better than Higgins, and when it comes to losers, Earl Beale is in a league of his own. Beale is Higgins's most cynical creation since Eddie Coyle ran guns (The Friends of Eddie Coyle) and Jerry Kennedy got back Cadillac Teddy's driver's license (Kennedy for the Defense).

Higgins, as always, writes with a precise touch, his turbocharged plot alternating between the comic and the criminal, with each shady character running one step ahead of the collectors and two steps in front of a fatal bullet or a waiting jail sentence. It is a fictional world without winners, populated only by people whose best hope is to break even.

Trust has all the expected Higgins ingredients—a rummy trying to take off a not very patient mob boss; a score of mascara-dripping women all looking for a man willing to stay more than one night; ex-cons who've learned nothing from their mistakes; car thieves, bookies, loan sharks, the mainstays of the underground economy. Together, it makes for a fascinating mix and a pure pleasure to read. (Holt, $18.95)

by Eartha Kitt

The gutsy, sexy, saber-toothed Kitt, now 62, has indeed lived, as this flamboyant 275-page autobiography proves.

Some celebrity bios make readers slog through a subject's drab childhood until his or her "genius" is finally recognized. Getting to the dirt, dish and divorces takes stamina. Not here. Kitt's early years make Oliver Twist's look like Athina Onassis's.

The product of a black mother and white father, whose identity she never learned, little Eartha Mae was called "yella gal" and shunned by her South Carolina neighbors. Kitt says she, her mother and half-sister lived for a while in a forest, surviving on wild berries. Her mother eventually ran off and left Eartha with neighbors, who subjected her to merciless beatings. At 8, she was rescued by her Aunt Mamie, who brought her to Harlem to live. In New York City, Kitt got her first break, as a dancer with the all-black Katherine Dunham Company. But it wasn't long until egos collided in Paris, where Kitt left Dunham, who had told her dancers, "I am queen of this beehive."

Eartha remained undaunted: After meeting her in Paris in 1951, Orson Welles dubbed her the most exciting woman alive. Then came her Broadway breakthrough in New Faces of l952, such coy '50s hit records as "C'est Si Bon" and "Santa Baby" and a stint as Catwoman on the Batman TV series.

In 1968 Kitt ruffled Lady Bird Johnson's feathers at a White House luncheon by criticizing the Vietnam War. LBJ, Kitt says, told the FBI to see if there was dirt to dig up about her. There wasn't. Still, from 1968 to 1974, Kitt was, she insists, blacklisted from performing in America.

Paralleling Kitt's roller-coaster career is a Big Dipper love life. She was married only once, briefly, to real estate dealer Bill McDonald, the father of her only child, a married daughter named Kitt Shapiro, now a real estate broker.

The real loves of Eartha's life were Arthur Loew Jr. (of Loew cinema fame) and cosmetic king Charles Revson. But despite long, intense relationships, she was never accepted into their upper-crust worlds. After being jilted by Loew, she says she told herself: "I must use the manure that has been thrown on me to fertilize myself and grow from seed again."

Throughout the book, protesting a bit much, Kitt reminds us that she's more than a sex symbol. While visiting Greece she reads Aristotle and Plato in front of the Parthenon. She arranges private meetings with Nehru and Einstein. In Africa she explains British foreign policy to a Nigerian presidential candidate. In Australia she speaks on behalf of the Aborigines in the House of Parliament.

Then there's Eartha the Psychic, who, just before her old dance classmate James Dean's death, told him to get rid of his sportscar because she had a premonition.

Okay, it's self-aggrandizing. But it's never dull. The book has a fabulous energy, fueled by Kitt's zest for living; this is a woman who, while living in a town house on New York's Upper East Side, stocked a refrigerator in the bathroom with Dom Perignon, reachable from the bathtub.

The survival Kitt tone never lets up, either, from the acid-tinged dedication ("To all of you who chose to be my enemies, with loving affection; to my friends—you know who you are") to the last chapter, when she writes of nearly ruining her daughter's wedding because of fear over losing her. (Watching her son-in-law stamp on a glass during the ceremony, she says, "I was that glass.")

This is Kitt's third autobiographical book—she has gotten lots of mileage from an at best limited showbiz career. But to paraphrase Stephen Sondheim: Good times and bum times/ She's seen 'em all and, my dear/ She's still here. (Sidgwick & Jackson, $20)

>From Henry James and Edith Wharton: Letters, edited by Lyall H. Powers (Scribners, $29.95):

Lamb House, Rye 29 October 1909

Dearest Edith.

Your letters come into my damp desert here even as the odour of promiscuous spices or the flavour of lucent syrups tinct with cinnamon might be wafted to some compromised oasis from a caravan of the Arabian nights. Put instead of these the Parisian days, & you get the torment of my nostril. Vous m'en direz tant!—it is the Grande Vie, led by you with a Maenad motion, that you cause so to glitter before me; & which, mark you, I'm enchanted you should lead, for the sake of the paillettes I pick up....

Ever yr. H.J.

  • Contributors:
  • Ralph Novak,
  • Mark Donovan,
  • Lorenzo Carcaterra,
  • John Stark.