by John Gielgud

His great-aunt was the renowned Victorian actress Ellen Terry, and John Gielgud committed early to the craft, playing bit parts in a touring company as a teenager. Now 93, the great English actor has rarely been at liberty since.

Sir John—he was knighted in 1953—recalls here his great roles (such as Romeo, Macbeth and Lear), the productions he directed and an amazing range of people he came to know—not only Olivier and Chaplin, but George Bernard Shaw, T.S. Eliot and Lord Alfred Douglas, the notorious lover of Oscar Wilde. As a survey of 20th-century English theater, Gielgud's account is admirable. Yet there is a striking lack of personal intimacy. The narrative voice is that of a British gentleman—modest, well-bred, amusing. Sir John offers next to nothing about his private life and, of course, no scandalous tidbits. (Applause, $21.95)

by Sidney Sheldon

Oliver Russell is a brilliant Kentucky attorney as ambitious as he is handsome. Leslie Stewart is a beautiful advertising executive who learned early on that "if you're beautiful and have a brain and a vagina, you can own the world." And that pretty much sums up the level of character development in Sidney Sheldon's 15th book, which reads less like a novel than a treatment for the miniseries it will inevitably become.

The premise could have been fun: Left standing at the altar by Oliver—who jump-starts his political career by wedding the daughter of a powerful U.S. senator instead—Leslie devotes her life to getting revenge on him. But the book is too full of disjointed characters and silly implausibilities to ever really come together.

As always, Sheldon, still sharp at 80, shows a talent for hooking readers, and if you venture too far into Plans, you'll probably be up late flipping the pages. You just may not respect yourself in the morning. (Morrow, $25)

by Ben Macintyre

The inspiration for Professor Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes's arch-nemesis, was a slight, dapper Civil War deserter who came to New York City and quickly rose from pickpocket to criminal mastermind. Adam Worth, the son of German Jewish immigrants, was a man of principle. He ruled out violence, refused to prey on the poor and treated the robbing of banks as if it were an intellectual problem. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Red Headed League is a replay of the memorable heist Worth engineered at Boston's Boylston National Bank in 1876.

Ben Macintyre's biography of Worth has more than a touch of romance. Worth and a pal set up a ménage à trois with Kitty Farrell, the love of Worth's life, who was a waitress in Liverpool when she met him and a Manhattan society queen when she died. His greatest criminal exploit was the theft of Thomas Gainsborough's renowned portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, an 18th-century collateral ancestor of Princess Diana's. Done while a night watchman slept, the daring grab was the talk of London for years. The portrait ended up in the hands of J.P. Morgan, the Napoleon of Wall Street. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $24)

by Joan Jacobs Brumberg

Although today's teens may strive to seem knowing and cool about sex, modern girls are often deeply confused about—and obsessed by—their sexuality and their bodies. That's the thesis of The Body Project, Joan Jacobs Brumberg's timely and sympathetic account of the cultural forces that have pushed young American women into viewing their bodies as hopelessly flawed and endlessly frustrating works in progress.

Using girls' diaries, research studies, interviews and vintage medical texts, Brumberg shows the change in our attitudes over the last century toward menstruation, adolescent acne, breast size, weight, fitness, virginity, cosmetics, fashion—and body piercing. She traces the shift in emphasis from the Victorian concern with inner beauty to our modern focus on outward appearance, and charts the growth of our mass fixation on personal hygiene and narrow standards of physical perfection. Ultimately The Body Project is a work of impassioned advocacy, urging society to help girls deal knowledge-ably and calmly with the unrelenting pressures beaming in from the culture around them, and the bewildering changes in themselves they see daily in the mirror. (Random House, $25)

by Jane Martin & J.C. Suarès

There are cat people—people who think cats are cuddly-wuddly little cutesy-wootsies—and there are people who think cats are just cats. Exactly how you feel about felines will affect how much your heart is melted by this true story of a stray calico cat who, in March 1996, scurried into a burning Brooklyn garage five times to save her kittens. The remarkable Scarlett not only scorched her paws but also became a media darling who visited with Kathie Lee and made Oprah cry. Still, being a cat person helps one to fully appreciate the gushy earnestness of authors Martin (coauthor of last year's Cats in Love) and Suarès (who has dozens of cat books to his credit): Pregnant Scarlett, they tell us, "felt the little kicks in her belly, felt the gnawing hunger of never having enough...."

The story ends happily with Scarlett and her kittens finding nice homes and loving owners, not to mention a book deal. There isn't a cat lover alive who won't be moved by this book—nor a noncat person who won't be tempted to say, "Frankly, Scarlett, I don't give a damn." (Simon & Schuster, $20)

by Joseph Flynn

Page-Turner of the Week

ON THE STREETS OF fictional Elk River, Ill., a strike against Pentron-ics Systems, the town's largest employer, threatens to turn violent. Belowground, John Fortunato, a former Vietnam War "tunnel rat," has re-created his nightmare of combat in miles of meandering tunnels, where he obsessively replays the death of an Army buddy.

Fortunato reluctantly joins the action aboveground when his uncle, a union organizer, is killed. The veteran, joined by union lawyer Jill Baxter, focuses suspicion on Pentronics owner Anthony Hunt, a corporate predator with plans to sell out the business—and the town.

Flynn is up to more than old war games in this deftly mapped thriller: Digger carries a more disturbing, and deeper, message. Readers will dig it. (Bantam, $22.95)

>A NEW FRANKNESS THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK, STARRING Natalie Portman (The Professional), starts previewing on Broadway on Nov. 21. This $1.6 million revival of the 1955 play incorporates once-suppressed diary entries revealing Anne's blossoming sexuality. Explains co-producer David Stone: "You couldn't talk about this during the 1950s."

MIDNIGHT'S RUN IT SEEMS THE U.S. CAN'T GET ENOUGH OF Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Since journalist John Berendt, 57, published the true story of a homicide in Savannah, the book has sold 2 million hardcover copies and been on the New York Times bestseller list for over 165 weeks. With next month's release of the movie version, starring Kevin Spacey and John Cusack, Random House has printed 400,000 more books and issued 30,000 unabridged audio-books. Sit back and settle in because the tapes run 11½ hours.

GO FIGURE

WITH THE NAGANO, JAPAN, OLYMPICS only four months away, publishers are planning for the midwinter madness. Already on sale: Tara Lipinski: Triumph on Ice (Bantam, $15.95). Due next month: Michelle Kwan: Heart of a Champion (Scholastic, $14.95) and Boitano's Edge: Inside the Real World of Figure Skating by gold medalist Brian Boitano (Simon & Schuster, $25). Meanwhile, Crest-wood House has published a four-book series on great skaters. What's next—Oksana Baiul's holiday cookbook?

  • Contributors:
  • Jeff Brown,
  • Cynthia Sanz,
  • David Lehman,
  • Francine Prose,
  • Alex Tresniowski,
  • J.D. Reed,
  • Lan N. Nguyen.