by Cari Beauchamp

Frances Marion's reputation has faded along with popular taste for the sentimental weepers that she scripted for the legendary Hollywood studio moguls. But Cari Beauchamp's new biography of the highly paid and prolific screenwriter may restore some luster to a woman who was very much in demand from 1916 to 1946.

In a career that spanned the first silent films and, later, sophisticated comedies like Dinner at Eight (which Marion cowrote with Herman J. Mankiewicz), this energetic, resourceful and beautiful San Francisco native wrote 325 screenplays including Stella Dallas and Anna Christie, which brought her an Oscar in 1930. She tried her hand at directing, married four times, raised two sons, had a series of lovers and maintained long friendships with actresses like Mary Pickford and Marion Davies and writers such as Anita Loos and Adela Rogers St. Johns. Along the way she surmounted censorship, bias against women and the studios' insistence that their films have happy endings.

Though her portrait of Marion remains a bit sketchy, Beauchamp gives us a dense and panoramic view of the studio system, of early Hollywood society and the importance of female friendships in that fascinating era—the old-girl network that sustained a group of creative women through the infancy of American film. (Scribner, $30)

by Amy Hempel

Tumble Home consists of seven short stories and a bravely hopeful novella about a woman recovering from an emotional breakdown. The stories are elegant, precise, teasingly mysterious and very brief. Here is the shortest one, "Housewife," in its entirety: "She would always sleep with her husband and another man in the course of the same day, and then the rest of the day, for whatever was left to her of that day, she would exploit by incanting, 'French film, French film.' "

In the novella, Hempel offers us a more generous slice of her own quirky worldview, in which small, simple things loom large. She scatters evocative detail like wildflower seed. As we read, we learn that to discover meaning in stray pieces of our universe is a happy, curative act.

The novella takes the form of a letter from a young woman to a famous painter she met just once for an hour over tea. Now a "guest" at a posh private clinic by the ocean, the young woman writes that her life has been "tipped over and poured out." She suffers mostly from having had a bad mother, who committed suicide. Her letter is a declaration of love, a cry for help, a fractured memoir and a kind of therapy. "Consolation" comes from the dogs in the local animal shelter and also from her fellow patients, especially Warren, who mutters tongue twisters to himself at night in his room, "refrains of 'sifted thistles' and 'mixed biscuits' "—more mysterious incantations. Like Warren, Hempel makes haunting bits of beauty out of motley scraps. (Scribner, $21)

by Arturo Pérez-Reverte

Is the rich publisher's death a suicide or a murder? Is the ancient and legendary volume of satanic spells a fake? Who is the lovely young woman shadowing the antiquarian book dealer as his quest for answers leads him from Madrid to Lisbon to Paris? And how does all this relate to an original (or is it forged?) chapter of Dumas's The Three Musketeers?

These are but some of the questions that propel the reader through Arturo Pérez-Reverte's stylish literary thriller, a novel that mixes elements of detective fiction and '40s film noir with a painless education on such subjects as rare-book collecting, 17th-century occultism and the career, love life and swashbuckling adventure stories of Alexandre Dumas pére.

Reading the novel feels a bit like playing the computer game Myst. Steeped in creepy gothic gloom, the narrative provides a series of mazes within mazes, dead ends and sudden tantalizing glimpses of a logical solution. It's pleasant enough entertainment for the sort of reader who likes spooky thrills mixed with serious edification. But (perhaps as a fault of the translation) the novel has a stiff air. And those who prefer fiction in which characters are more than mere vehicles for moving the plot along and providing essential clues may wonder if the portentous mysteries of The Dumas Club are really worth the effort of solving. (Harcourt Brace, $23)

by John M. Barry

The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 was a calamity with consequences that affected the subsequent history of our country. The story of this cataclysmic event (which inundated 27,000 square miles and displaced hundreds of thousands of people) is a minihistory of the Mississippi Delta—from its bedrock geology to its dominant families. We learn about the growth of its major cities, the rise of the local Ku Klux Klan, the social forces that led to dynamiting a levee and sacrificing two rural parishes to protect New Orleans. And we watch Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover rise to power by manipulating publicity surrounding hapless black refugees—many of whom migrated north.

Readers may grow impatient with the exhaustive detail, yet Barry's book is a valuable study of the ways in which man and nature conspire to wreak damage that lasts for generations. (Simon & Schuster, $27.50)

by Philip Roth

It's hardly timely. Its structure is counterchronological. And it's slowed down considerably by Roth's frequent digression into the problems of being Jewish in America. But this gripping, emotionally charged novel is as penetrating a fictional approach to the domestic effects of the Vietnam War as anyone is likely to devise.

The protagonist is Seymour "the Swede" Levov, a self-righteous New Jersey factory owner, a former star athlete and ex-Marine who married a beauty queen and considers himself a prime defender—and model—of the American dream. That is, until his beloved teenage daughter Merry turns militant over the war and blows up a small store in Newark because it houses a post office.

Much of the narrative involves Levov's search for Merry, who goes underground after the bombing, and his incessant agonizing over his role in turning his daughter—whom he once kissed with more than paternal passion—into a radical.

Roth tells the story in lumpy prose made clumsier by capricious leaps between flashbacks and ongoing narrative. His language is littered with gratuitous, obfuscatory uses of Yiddish—and he lapses into frequent vulgarity. Still, Levov's anguish is moving, especially when he tracks Merry down in a Newark slum. And Roth supports him with an array of convincing characters. The deterioration of the Levov family is a microcosmic detail of the devastation Vietnam wrought on American society. If it's 25 or so years behind the news, better late than never. (Houghton Mifflin, $26)

by Alice Adams

Passive, middle-aged Molly is newly widowed, rich and miserable, having inherited the estate of a filmmaker husband from whom she was just about to separate. So is neurosis to blame for her headaches and her disgust with a persistent doctor admirer? When she's diagnosed with a tumor the size of a golf ball behind her nose, Molly caves in—better to cling to the admirer than face cancer alone.

Adams's novel begins promisingly but soon derails into a predictable litany of doctor bashing. There's Molly's best friend, Felicia, who's being stalked by the eminent surgeon with whom she has just ended an affair, and a round robin of couplings that would strain belief even on General Hospital. Molly survives her nightmare passage stronger and wiser, and everyone else gets what they deserve. But this Medicine doesn't go down well. (Knopf, $23)

by Ed McBain

Page-Turner of the Week

ED McBAIN OPENS THE 48TH VOLUME IN his venerable 87th Precinct series by stripping down his story of cops on the job to the bare muscle. The result packs a wallop, of course—McBain is one of the best in the business—but its overwhelming grimness is also a shot to the gut. On the graveyard shift in the dead of winter, veteran detectives Steve Carella and Cotton Hawes, with an assist from the odious Ollie Weeks, investigate two brutal murders. The first victim, an old woman shot through the heart, is a former world-famous pianist living on memories and cheap liquor. The second is a hooker whose killing marks a new low in depravity—until the perps start trying to clean up. McBain's subtle hand with black humor is as smooth as ever (catch the sly references to Pulp Fiction), as is his unparalleled gift for showing the world through the weary eyes of his cops. The hard-boiled cynicism of most crime novels veils a strong sense of romance. Not in the 87th Precinct, not any more. (Warner Books, $24)

>EVENING CLASS The subtle social distinctions of Maeve Binchy's Dubliners yearning for Italian adventure are expertly conveyed by her actress cousin Kate, but even so the result is shamelessly sentimental. (Bantam Doubleday Dell [BDD], $24.95)

THE BELL JAR Frances McDormand's recording of Sylvia Plath's crystalline account of a young woman's psychic disintegration is spellbinding, thanks largely to the actress's beautifully orchestrated pauses and emphases. (Harper, $18)

LOLITA Jeremy Irons's air of faintly arid detachment and a penchant for the minor key add up to an ideal match for Vladimir Nabokov's mordant and melancholy classic. (Random House, $39.95)

IVANHOE Not surprisingly, horror-pic meister Christopher Lee seems to relish most the role of Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert in this robust reading of Sir Walter Scott's medieval romance. Grrr! (BDD, $16.99)

AFTERMATH LeVar Burton's reading is so low-key and well measured that it's hard to believe he's also the author of this lurid fantasy of a post-earthquake, post-race-war America. (Time Warner, $17)

HOW THE IRISH SAVED CIVILIZATION How? By breeding scholars to guard and copy the classics of the ancient world during the Dark Ages—and by producing saints to carry those documents to the four corners of Europe, that's how. Liam Neeson narrates Thomas Cahill's bestseller with persuasive charm. (BDD, $16.99)

  • Contributors:
  • Francine Prose,
  • Adam Begley,
  • Ralph Novak,
  • Samantha Miller,
  • Paula Chin,
  • Ben Harte.