by Mary Cantwell

In the third volume of her acclaimed memoir, journalist Cantwell returns to the 1970s, when, in mourning for her shattered marriage, she held what she calls a six-year "wake for living." During this difficult time, Cantwell found herself alone in Manhattan with two young daughters, and she eagerly accepted writing assignments that took her away from her family and her problematic life to exotic places abroad. For years an editor at Mademoiselle and at The New York Times, she writes with a breathless intensity about love affairs and friendships, impulsive decisions and equally sudden fits of repentance. Her book reminds us of those heartfelt talks with fellow passengers on long journeys—with whom we recklessly share the story of how we got through the worst years of our lives. (Houghton Mifflin, $23)

Bottom Line: Painfully honest recollection of a writer's troubled times

by Donald McCaig

Book of the Week

The passions that swirl around slavery and secession make the Confederacy nearly irresistible to an ambitious novelist. Think Gone with the Wind; think Cold Mountain.

Bestselling author Donald McCaig (Nop's Trials) opens this engaging, historically grounded novel in 1857 on a prosperous plantation in a remote Virginia valley. The master's son falls in love with a pert, light-skinned slave. But with the rumble of war building in the background, they and much of the plantation's population are scattered. For the next eight years they crisscross their battle-scarred state, fighting the war, fleeing it or coping with its devastation. McCaig aims for panorama. He shows us Confederate Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart playing charades in a Richmond mansion and President Lincoln mobbed by "colored troops" who greet him as Master Abraham. From the opening shots at Bull Run in 1861 to the end of the Petersburg campaign in 1865, McCaig charts with bull's-eye precision the unraveling fortunes of a proud but battered rebel army. He's best at battlefield mayhem, but quieter moments (such as cradling wheat in an upland field or late-night poker at an officers' gambling den) round out the grand, lifelike tableau.

If historical fact threatens to overwhelm plot and character gets buried under a heap of authentic period detail, it's a small price to pay for aiming the literary cannons so high. (Norton, $25.95)

Bottom Line: Grand Civil War epic; all that are missing are Rhett and Scarlett

by Elizabeth Wurtzel

Too bad Monica Lewinsky, allegedly powerful enough to topple a President, came along too late for this book. She might have scored high on Wurtzel's Bitch-O-Meter. No matter. From the convicted (Amy Fisher) to the victimized (Princess Di, Nicole Brown Simpson) to the überbitches (like Madonna and Courtney Love), Wurtzel illustrates that there's no shortage of so-called difficult women (not all of them praiseworthy) who want their way in the world, and in bed. Like men.

Wurtzel may be angry that freewheeling women often get no respect in a man's world, and rightly so. But she does little to advance their cause. As with her 1994 bestseller Prozac Nation, she poses on the book's cover—this time topless—and tells readers about so many of her own sexual proclivities that at times Bitch reads more like an elaborate come-on. Or a savvy marketing ploy. This is no feminist tract. (Doubleday, $23.95)

Bottom Line: Rambling, self-important dog of a book

by William J. Mann

Before there was Ellen DeGeneres, there was William Haines. Yep, he was gay. A silent movie star who successfully made the transition to talkies, he went from being the nation's top male box-office draw in 1930 to being out of pictures in 1934. The reason? Unlike other stars of similar sexual persuasion, Haines refused to wed simply for publicity's sake. He already had a mate: Jimmy Shields, an ex-sailor with whom Haines lived until his death in 1973. After MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer failed to renew Haines's contract, the actor segued into a long, rewarding career as interior designer to the rich and famous, including Nancy and Ronald Reagan. While this biography does a solid job of profiling Haines, his times and Hollywood's gay milieu, the author seems a mite overzealous about outing. Marlene Dietrich and Claudette Colbert may or may not have been lesbian lovers, but the sole fact that they both wore pants to a '30s party hardly qualifies as incontrovertible evidence. (Viking, $29.95)

Bottom Line: Worthy bio of a Hollywood star who refused to play pretend

>LOOKING FOR TROUBLE Leslie Cockburn Tea with Colonel Gaddafi. Dinner with the Cali drug cartel. Foreign-affairs journalism can be tasty but, as this veteran female reporter reveals, it ain't no picnic. (Anchor, $24.95)

MENDEL'S DWARF Simon Mawer

Meet Benedict Lambert, geneticist and dwarf. On a quest for his condition's cause, he finds normal-size love in this heartening—and heightening—tale. (Harmony, $23)

TWO TIMES INTRO: ON THE ROAD WITH PATTI SMITH Michael Stipe Great photos (by R.E.M.'s leader) join bad poetry in a tribute to the punk icon. (Little, Brown, $19.95)

>Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Cornel West

Both scholars, Cornel West and Sylvia Ann Hewlett share a deeper bond—as working parents who grew up in caring, two-parent families. "I am who I am because of the unconditional love of Mom and Dad," says West, 44, a Harvard professor and author. Says the Welsh-born Hewlett, 51, an economist, mother of four and founder of the 9,000-member National Parenting Association: "My mother was a very hardworking lady, but she had one focus—her family." These days, as West and Hewlett argue in their new book The War Against Parents: What We Can Do for America's Beleaguered Moms and Dads (Houghton Mifflin, $24), even the most well-intentioned parents, with little outside support, are struggling to find the right balance. Something that West—who often played baseball with his father growing up near Sacramento—had only the summers to achieve after losing custody of his son Clifton, now 20. "It's like trying to write poetry after Shakespeare," says West. "You do the best you can."

  • Contributors:
  • Francine Prose,
  • Adam Begley,
  • Erica Sanders,
  • Leah Rozen,
  • Tom Duffy.