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Reflections of a Neoconservative: Looking Back, Looking Ahead, by Irving Kristol. New York: Basic Books. 336 pp. $9.95. ``Whenever I read about neoconservatism,'' Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell is quoted as saying, ``I think, `That isn't neoconservatism; it's just Irving.' ''

Of all the New York intellectuals noted for rightward tendencies, Irving Kristol has been the least reluctant to accept the label ``neoconservative.'' In these essays, culled from his work over a number of years, Professor Kristol gives us something of an intellectual autobiography, showing the path by which he came to his present political position. Included are his memoirs of being a youthful ``Trotskyist'' (an important source for Alexander Bloom's recent study of the New York intellectuals), his more recent views on politics, pornography, religion, capitalism, and foreign policy, and essays on Freud, Einstein, and the American Revolution. Kristol's writing is informed by a wealth of learning, yet is lively, witty, and direct: sometimes persuasive, sometimes provoking, but always stimulating. Writing in a State of Siege, by Andr`e Brink. New York: Sumit Books. 256 pp. $8.95.

These poignant essays by South African writer Andr'e Brink brilliantly illuminate the situation of the dissident Afrikaner novelist writing in a language that addresses a very limited audience and who is subject to the further limitations of censorship. But this book is more than a protest against all forms of censorship: It is an eloquent and thoughtful defense of writing itself, be it the writing of the journalist committed to reporting the truth as he sees it, or the writing of the artist exploring the labyrinth of human nature, whether he writes to warn his fellow citizens or pursues the themes that seem vital to him as a private individual. Men and Ideas: History, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, by Johan Huizinga, translated by James S. Holmes and Hans van Marle. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. 378 pp. $9.95.

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That the works of the great Dutch historian Johan Huizinga (1872-1945) are repeatedly reissued for new generations of readers all over the world is testimony to the centrality of his vision and to his special gift for conveying the methods and problems of historical scholarship in calm, yet enticingly colorful language that is free from jargon, pretense, and obfuscation. In these essays we hear his distinctive voice, the voice of the ideal teacher: humane, affable, wisely skeptical, and critical in the best sense. Among the essays included here are Huizinga's urbane, comprehensive discussion of cultural history, his seminal comparison of patriotism and nationalism, his justly famous portraits of Abelard, John of Salisbury, Erasmus, and Grotius, and a critique of Bernard Shaw's version of Saint Joan. The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, by Robert L. Wilken. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press. 214 pp. $7.95.

How did Christianity appear to the Romans before it became the established religion of the empire? This gracefully written study by a Commonwealth Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia draws upon well-known sources -- both pagan and Christian -- to provide the general reader with an illuminating account, filled with information, and for the nonspecialist, plenty of background explanation. Examining the responses of Pliny, Galen, Celsus, Porphyry, and Julian the Apostate, Robert Wilken is able to show us how the Christians appeared to the relatively casual pagan observer, as well as to those who subjected the new religion to intense intellectual scrutiny. Some of the questions and criticism of the latter, although suppressed by the Church, were nonetheless taken up and incorporated into the growing body of patristic writings, thus contributing to classical strains in Christian thought. Distant Neighbors: A Portrait of the Mexicans, by Alan Riding. New York: Vintage. 663 pp. $4.95.

This wide-ranging survey by a journalist who has been covering Latin America for over a decade and who served as Mexico bureau chief for the New York Times gives a detailed, insightful look at political, economic, and social developments -- from land reform, oil finds, and foreign policy to family planning, machismo, and feminism. It is also a spirited attempt at capturing the uniqueness of Mexico's rich, sometimes paradoxical culture. Penguin Classics of World Art. New York: Viking Penguin. [Each volume is entitled ``The Complete Paintings of . . .''] ``Piero della Francesca,'' introduction by Peter Murray, notes and catalog by Pierluigi Vecchi (112 pp.); ``Botticelli,'' introduction by Michael Levey, notes and catalog by Gabriele Mandel (120 pp.); ``Leonardo da Vinci,'' introduction by L. D. Ettlinger, notes and catalog by Angela Ottino della Chiesa (119 pp.); ``Caravaggio,'' by Michael Kitson (112 pp.); ``Manet,'' introduction by Phoebe Pool, notes and catalog by Sandra Orienti (128 pp.); ``C'ezanne,'' introduction by Ian Dunlop, notes and catalog by Sandra Orienti (128 pp.).

This beautifully produced series contains some of the most accurate-looking reproductions you're likely to find between the hard or soft covers of a mass-produced art book. For the modest price of $9.95, each volume, featuring the lifework of a major artist, provides 64 pages of sumptuous, exquisitely detailed full-color plates, as well as an illustrated descriptive catalog of the complete paintings, an introduction, chronology, bibliography, and a history of critical responses to the artist. Betsey Brown, by Ntozake Shange. New York: St. Martin's Press. 207 pp. $6.95.

In this engaging novel about an adolescent girl and her family, Ms. Shange, who is also a playwright, evokes the rhythms and patterns of the spoken word as well as the confusion, innocence, and excitement of growing up. The story, set in St. Louis in 1959, the year of court-mandated integration, unfolds against a multilayered background of the reverberations this legislation engendered within the black community and within a single black family. Leslie Stephen: The Godless Victorian, by Noel Annan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 432 pp. $14.95.

Lord Annan believes that ``to understand Stephen is to understand Evangelical morality and Victorian rationalism, the strongest influences of the age. He [Leslie Stephen] is the dominant in Victorian tonality.'' In this revised edition of an important and influential book first published over 30 years ago, Lord Annan has continued his original quest to examine Stephen's place in the history of ideas. He also succeeds admirably in conveying a strong sense of Leslie Stephen the man (1832-1904), father of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, fastidious man of letters, mountain climber, stern agnostic moralist.

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