by Ron Arias

It began on a January Monday in 1988 and stretched across 142 days and 4,500 uncharted Pacific Ocean miles. Five Costa Rican fishermen, their boat preyed upon by an unexpected tropical storm, fought against nature's harshest attack, waging their lonely battle armed only with their wits and a strong desire to remain among the living. The Cairo III's engine ran out of fuel, the radio was as dead as the fishermen thought they would soon be, and the food supply was reduced to the catch-of-the-day variety.

Juan Bolívar, Joel González, Pastor López, Jorge Hernández and Gerardo Obregón, all from the small town of Puntarenas, somehow survived. They fought against panic, ignored the fear that settled in during the early part of their nightmare, overcame quick outbursts of temper that were more the result of hunger than of anger. What little solace they could find came from embracing the mental images of their wives, children, family, friends and homeland and by tending to the business of staying afloat. It was all they had, all that kept them alive as they drifted across four time zones in a shattered boat over cold waters. And they displayed an amazing resourcefulness.

"Sea survivors invariably report they were plagued by sunburns, sores, wounds, boils and abscesses," writes Arias. "But the Cairo five were free of the usual skin ailments, suffering mostly cuts and nicks from the handling offish, turtles and sharks. Besides their frequent bucket dousings, the rain occasionally rinsed salt from their bodies, the awning provided them with shade, and they used turtle fat or antiseptic ointment from Joel's little medical cache to treat themselves. They also used the remaining diesel and kerosene as liniments for stiff muscles and sore joints."

Arias, a senior writer for PEOPLE, makes his story move as fast as the vicious storm that hit the Cairo III. Long interviews with the five fishermen provide the strong narrative base needed to re-create the cruel reality of the situation. As with any sea saga worth its salt, most of the book's action is internal—the men trying to ward off what they felt would be an inevitable conclusion.

That they survived and continue with their lives is testimony to both bravery and luck. All still live in Costa Rica (though only one has returned to deep-sea fishing), and each is still understandably affected by the long ordeal: Gerardo still believes there's no better life than a fisherman's; Joel has grown closer to his family and further removed from the sea; Jorge has become a farmer; Juan spends more time with his children; Pastor López digs for clams, feet always touching sand.

No matter what they do, of course, the five will never be able to erase from their memories those 142 days, which must be as close to them as the ocean they can so easily see from their bedroom windows. (NAL, $18.95)

by Laurie Colwin

The characters in Laurie Colwin's novels and books of short stories—Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object, Happy All the Time, The Lone Pilgrim, Family Happiness—have all gone to good schools, look good in expensive clothes, live nicely, have appealing children and lead interesting, satisfying lives. And they are all, as a rule, hopelessly confused when it comes to matters of the heart.

The events of Colwin's various fictions provide her characters with a long overdue education in romantic love and romantic love's limitations. Geraldine Coleshares, the heroine of this uncharacteristically unsatisfying novel, isn't just confused about love. She's confused about everything: marriage, motherhood, her place in society, and how to go to a dinner party "without losing her essential self."

What makes Goodbye Without Leaving such a sharp disappointment is how promisingly it starts off. Geraldine is a graduate student in English literature at the University of Chicago, an institution of higher learning chosen not for its rarefied atmosphere but for its proximity to rock, jazz and blues clubs. The fact is that Geraldine, a rock and roll addict, does not really want to write her projected doctoral thesis on Jane Austen or on anybody else. She does not want to leave school, dress like an adult and go into advertising. No calling is calling to Geraldine. Actually, this is not entirely true. What Geraldine does want to do is get on stage and dance. Chosen by rock singer Ruby Shakely and Ruby's fearsome, loathsome husband, Vernon, to be the one white girl in the trio of backup singers known as the Shakettes, Geraldine goes on the road and goes into transports. "On stage I fell a way I had never felt before. I was an eagle, an angel. My body was made of some pure liquid substance and would do whatever I asked it to. The big questions fell away.... It was not an out-of-body experience, it was an in-body experience."

Unfortunately for readers, Geraldine's time as a Shakette—the best and most energetic part of Goodbye Without Leaving—is brief. She then spends 200 tedious pages trying to find herself in marriage (to a charming and unaccountably patient lawyer-rock and roll addict), motherhood, work, adultery, religion and swimming. The search is not a very compelling one, maybe because Geraldine is not that diverting or sympathetic a heroine. (Boy, does she yammer!) It is as if Colwin, having created this character, couldn't figure out what to do with her. "Meanwhile," Geraldine muses at one point, "the days meandered and I meandered with them." So does this novel. (Poseidon, $18.95)

by Scott Spencer

Secret Anniversaries is an easy and occasionally involving read, but it's not a very good book. While Spencer is a talented writer, his new novel's subject matter—a young woman coming of age on the eve of World War II while working for a Congressman who secretly supports the Nazis—is hardly something he seems to have been born to write about.

In his best-known book, Endless Love, a precursor to the late '80s fascination with dangerously unrequited passions, Spencer rendered a teenage boy's obsessive love in a direct, comprehensible manner. His last book, Waking the Dead, was a romantic and political thriller with an intricate plot that examined one man's ascent in the public sector as it collided and connected with his own private life.

In Secret Anniversaries, Spencer seems incapable of setting a plausible scenario, nor does he plumb the depths of his characters' internal lives very effectively.

Caitlin Van Fleet, who is the Congressman's clerk, has about as much complexity as the heroine of a Harlequin romance, although she would never fit into that genre since a good part of this book deals with her lesbian love affair with a co-worker. She also bears a son by a man who, it is intimated, might have homosexual tendencies of his own. There is also the suggestion that Caitlin's father expressed some of his own incestuous feelings for his daughter. (A reader has to keep checking the cover to make sure this isn't a new book by that young master of the sexual variants David Leavitt.)

Spencer's characters' sexual preferences do not seem all that relevant to the plot, unless perhaps he's trying to show that there were gay men and women even before there was gay pride. Then too, while the novelist has at times shown himself to be a true authority on the complexities of heterosexual love, he seems out of his depth in the sapphic realm.

Perhaps all this wouldn't matter if Secret Anniversaries weren't written in the kind of sentimental, goopy language authors tend to revert to when they have no real knowledge of (and perhaps no real interest in) the lives they are describing.

Spencer also displays a tendency toward such hyperbolic lines as, "She had sixty more minutes in her life not to be in mourning." And he shows an even more annoying tendency toward condescension: "She was one of those women from the recent past who could have her heart moved by oratory."

Spencer calls one of Caitlin's feelings "only a persistent, persuasive abstraction," which is something more than can be said for Secret Anniversaries. It is just plain abstraction. (Knopf, $18.95)

Selected and introduced by Anita Brookner

Unfortunately, for most readers the name Edith Wharton, if it conjures up anything at all, conjures up the gloomy novel Ethan Frome. Too few are familiar with her masterworks The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence, which are chronicles of doomed attempts to buck the rigid code of late 19th-and early 20th-century New York society. Fewer still know of her consummate skill at short fiction.

One might argue at the omission of some stories from this collection, for example "Xingu," Wharton's stinging satire of philistine club women bent on intellectual enrichment, or "Roman Fever," which centers on two women involved with the same man and offers up an ending as twisting as anything in O. Henry.

But there are many, many pleasures in the 14 stories assembled by Brookner: a sure-handedness to the narrative, an acuteness in understanding the folly that perhaps Wharton saw as the human condition, an incisiveness in character delineation.

"Mrs. Amyot had two fatal gifts," Wharton notes of one of her characters in "The Pelican," "a capacious but inaccurate memory, and an extraordinary fluency of speech." Elsewhere, the opinions of a mentally unemployed woman are described by her husband as "heirlooms." He "took a quaint pleasure in tracing their descent. She was proud of their age, and saw no reason or discarding them while they were still serviceable. Some, of course, were so fine that she kept them for state occasions like her great-grandmother's Crown Derby."

There are few happy marriages in Wharton, few romances come to a happy turn, perhaps because the author sees men and women as essentially incompatible. The strongest offerings in the collection, "The Reckoning" and "The Letters," deal with that precise issue.

The theme that pervades most of Wharton's fiction—the inviolability of the social order—surfaces in "Autres Temps...," a story that deals with divorce and its reverberations into the next generation. Indeed, only the ghost story "Pomegranate Seed" is less than sterling Wharton; she is at her most chilling when grounded in reality. (Carroll & Graf. 18.95)

by Cathleen Schine

Alice Brody, the heroine of Schine's seriously funny second novel, is 25 or so. She detests her mother Brenda's low-life boyfriend, Louie Scifo, and wants to get him out of her mom's life. Alice, who was also the protagonist of Schine's 1983 novel, Alice in Bed, eventually talks her mother into dumping Louie, which is when the real trouble starts.

Louie is not a guy who handles rejection well. He begins a campaign to woo Brenda back, a campaign in which the major tactics are incessant spying on and harassment of Brenda and her family. In fighting back, the Brodys stoop as low, if not lower than, Louie. It gets so bad that Alice, a perfectly nice woman who photographs birds for a living (hence the title), finds herself screeching invective at Louie on the phone.

"Whenever Louie tried to speak, Alice drowned him out, screaming the word 'scum' over and over," Schine writes.

" 'What are you, nuts?' Louie said when [Alice] stopped to take a breath. And he hung up.

"But Alice called back this time. She called him back again and again and screeched, 'Scum, you're scum, you're scum, scum, scuuuum,' until Peter [her husband] came and gently pulled her away from the phone."

Schine is a modern-day Jewish Jane Austen. She has written an elegantly comic, and sweetly nasty (if that's possible), novel about very nice people who have temporarily lost it. She perfectly captures the quieter moments of life (Alice first realizes she loves Peter "when she noticed she was consistently giving him the largest portions of good things to eat") and creates characters who seem uniquely true (Alice's grandmother announces at Thanksgiving, "My pies are not for strangers. Only blood eats Grandma's pie").

Because of the verisimilitude of her writing, it is all the funnier and more effective when Schine cranks up her vengeful plot, lets everyone go berserk and then manages to salvage a happy ending out of it all. (Farrar Straus Giroux, $11.95)

by Lisa Mason

The novels of William Gibson, the father of the so-called cyberpunk school of science fiction, are so original and compelling, it was inevitable that they would be imitated. And Mason's first novel is an entertaining knockoff of Gibson's grim vision of our future.

The similarities are obvious. While Gibson writes of the "grid," a mammoth, multidimensional data network that computer cowboys "jack" into, Mason has created something called "telespace," with which mechanically modified humans "link." Other common elements are powerful designer drugs and machines with artificial intelligence.

Mason works with these borrowed concepts, however, in an imaginative setting that is distinctively her own. Her story takes place in the Bay Area 35 years after Big Quake II, when the thundering San Andreas River runs all the way to the Palo Alto Falls. Offshore from the People's Republic of Berkeley lies San Francisco Island. Bands of spear-carrying aborigines—the newest variation on teen rebellion—roam permanently gridlocked streets, waylaying pedestrians.

The heroine, Carly Nolan, is a genetically engineered woman and junior associate for a legal megafirm in the city. Complicating her practice of law rather dramatically is the fact that when she links into telespace she is haunted by the chimera of a giant spider (hence the title).

Mason's handling of the technical and futuristic details is quite strong, far stronger than her plot, which at times is plodding. (Morrow, $19.95)

by Robert F. Jones

A post-Vietnam, postfeminist swashbuckler, this novel is full of diverting derring-do, high-seas heroes and lowlife scoundrels. Jones, a former writer for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED and TIME and author of three previous novels, including Blood Sport, never stands on ceremony—or plausibility—and keeps all his characters in a state of wracking turmoil.

His heroine is Miranda Culdee, a 25ish woman of the sea whose sloop, which she charters out, is stolen by her first (and only) mate, Hugh Curten. A parallel plot reveals that Curten, who sails Miranda's ship to the Philippines, is a peculiar sort of U.S. drug agent.

Culdee doesn't know this, however, and she takes off after Curten, shanghaiing her dad, retired Navy boatswain's mate (and former POW) James Culdee, into being her crew on a transpacific voyage from California in the family schooner she has refitted. They end up in the middle of a multicornered situation involving Curten, some local insurrectionists, various Filipino thugs, an old Japanese Navy officer still trying to live down World War II and another American agent of vague affiliation.

Punch-outs and shoot-ups abound, and the title is just about literal, so plentiful is the blood-spilling. Jones throws out gobs of maritime jargon—one vessel is "a fast, hard-hitting, throaty little Swift boat that could turn 30 knots with her twin diesels two-blocked." He also leans toward odd juxtapositions of the extreme and the prosaic. "A reek of pierced guts stung the air," he writes of one battle scene. "The crowd retreated but redoubled its outcry."

Adventure fans, however, probably won't mind such lapses and may find this novel a particularly nice change of pace if they've been weathering the Ludlum or Clancy schools of high-tech, high-density fiction. (Atlantic Monthly, $19.95)

by Shana Alexander

by Jennifer Preston

Writing a book about a well-reported scandal can prove a daunting task. One solution is to dig up as much background as possible and present it straightforwardly, in the hope that readers are desperate for every shred of detail. The other is not to bother finding anything new, but to overreach for a "theme" with which to hit the reader over the head as many times as possible.

A corollary might be that, when two authors publish their treatments simultaneously, the better known—in this case Alexander, who also wrote a book about Jean Harris, another famous woman who fell from grace—will choose the theme system. It allows the famous writer to indulge her own opinions while the first-time author sticks to the facts.

Although she calls Queen Bess (Contemporary, $19.95) an "unauthorized biography," Preston did have contact with Bess Myerson, the ex-Miss America who was tried on and acquitted of criminal charges of influencing a judge to fix her boyfriend's divorce settlement. A reporter covering the so-called Bess Mess for New York Newsday, Preston convinced Myerson to talk about her Bronx childhood, her ambitious, domineering mother and the events leading up to her becoming the first and only Jewish Miss America, in 1945.

The rest—Myerson's appointment to the New York Department of Consumer Affairs, her TV career (as a panelist on I've Got a Secret, among other shows), her two troubled marriages, her role in the election of Mayor Ed Koch, her relationship with married sewer contractor Andy Capasso, her most recent position as New York cultural affairs commissioner, her two arrests for shoplifting—is pieced together from published materials and interviews with former and current Myerson friends and enemies.

Because so much has been written about Myerson (she co-wrote 1987's Miss America, 1945), Preston was at pains to make her book seem fresh. Mostly, she piles on details. Preston tells us, for example, that when the Miss America contestant discovered her regulation bathing suit was too small, her two-sizes-larger sister Sylvia slept in it all night to stretch it. Preston doesn't just mention Myerson's Fatal Attraction-like harassment of her ex-lover (John Jakobson, on whose doorstep a shopping bag full of human excrement was mysteriously left); she quotes some of the crude, obscene letters Myerson wrote almost in full. Likewise, Myerson's well-documented skinflint tendencies: Preston writes that as cultural affairs commissioner, Myerson once rewrapped and gave away flowers that had been sent to her. If it's Myerson minutiae you're after, here it is.

Alexander, on the other hand, couldn't care less about small things; in When She Was Bad (Random House, $19.95), she's too busy trying to write a "big book" about four women who were, the cover blurb intones, "brought down by love." The four are Myerson, Judge Hortense Gabel, Gabel's daughter Sukhreet (whom Myerson hired, allegedly to influence the mother to reduce Capasso's alimony payments and whose testimony for the prosecution failed to impress the jury) and Nancy Capasso, the betrayed wife.

The premise, at first, seems reasonable: How did four smart, achieving, modern women get into such an old-fashioned mess over a man? But Alexander's book descends into offensive generalizations. "The dread old Disease to Please," she writes, is "still epidemic among women today." About Capasso she says: "The Latin male behaves in certain ways, and Capasso was not only Latin, he was Neapolitan."

While her book devotes more space than Preston's to the other players in the soap opera, Alexander goes overboard trying to connect them in a lazy meanwhile-back-at-the-ranch style of journalism: "By spring 1969, Sukhreet Gabel, whom we last saw in the maternity ward of St. Clare's Hospital," one section begins. "When last we saw Sukhreet Gabel," starts a later one.

The phrase-o-matic prose continues. We're told that an inquiry "opened a can of worms," that "the gods were smiling on our four heroines," and that there was "rot" in "certain parts of the Apple."

Even clichéd writing could be forgiven if Alexander made a real case. Instead, she repeats the same points. The root of Myerson's woes was her mother, who didn't love her enough. Gabel had the opposite problem: She loved her daughter too much. Nancy Capasso was the proverbial last-to-know wife and Sukhreet, a hostile, ambivalent daughter. To use one hackneyed expression Alexander left out—so, what else is new?

>From Strange But True Facts About Sex, by David Smith and Mike Gordon (Meadowbrook, paper, $6.95):

"In the 12th century, G. Stalbert advised women to eat bees as a means of birth control."

"After mating with the queen, the male bee dies and his penis drops off."

"Sarah Bernhardt had more than a thousand lovers."

"Kissing in public is a criminal offense in Kuwait."

"Gandhi slept with naked women to test his celibacy!"

"What did Aldous Huxley call 'the most unnatural of sexual perversions'?" ("Chastity.")

"I used to be Snow White, but I drifted."

  • Contributors:
  • Lorenzo Carcaterra,
  • Joanne Kaufman,
  • Elizabeth Wurtzel,
  • Leah Rozen,
  • David Hiltbrand,
  • Ralph Novak,
  • Sara Nelson,
  • Mae West.