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High Renaissance, by Michael Levey. New York: Viking Penguin. 320 pp. Illustrated. $7.95. One of a series called ``Style and Civilization'' edited by John Fleming and Hugh Honour, ``High Renaissance,'' first published in 1975, is a stimulating, imaginative, beautifully written study of that period of grace and grandeur roughly coinciding with the life of Michelangelo (1475-1564) and including such masters as Raphael, Titian, Giorgione, Correggio, Leonardo da Vinci, Andrea del Sarto, Cellini, D"urer, and Holbein. Levey's thematic approach considers the visual arts in the context of history and of related developments in the realms of music and literature. His enthusiasm, erudition, and ability to communicate sophisticated insights - in an engagingly accessible style sure to interest the general reader - have earned Levey comparison with the late Sir Kenneth Clark. It is lovely to have this handsomely designed, well-illustrated volume available at such a reasonable cost. The Decorative Art of Today, by Le Corbusier, translated and introduced by James I. Dunnett. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press. 214 pp. Illustrated. $12.50 ($25 cloth).

This is the first English translation of a book first published in 1925: Le Corbusier's ``L'Art D'ecoratif d'Aujourd'hui,'' a collection of polemical, revolutionary, and somewhat repetitive articles inspired by his opposition to the aesthetic values promulgated by the Decorative Arts Exhibition in Paris in 1925. Here, he attacks decoration for its own sake, ornamentation, icons, symbols, and all that he considered ostentatious or superfluous. Functionalism, spare perfection, simplicity, and the values of objects as well-designed tools - for living, working, or thinking - these receive his approbation. Ironically, as the translator observes, it has taken a change of outlook as dramatic as the recent rejection of pure modernism and the ``boxy'' international style to help us to see again - almost as if for the first time - how shocking Le Corbusier's views must have been when he first voiced them. But will anyone ever be able to hope again that a clean, streamlined, starkly simple environment will inhibit crime, reduce mental clutter, and break down the rigid barriers of class and caste? What remains strongly viable, however, is Le Corbusier's belief that true art is never merely decorative or incidental, but part of the essence of things. A History of Southern Africa, by J.D. Omer-Cooper. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann Educational Books. 297 pp. Illustrated. $20.

The history of southern Africa is a challenging subject on account of the many strands entwined in the long story and the political implications that arise to impose themselves on that story. Omer-Cooper, a professor of history at the University of Otago in New Zealand, maintains a high standard of accuracy and detail in this straightforward and intelligent narrative designed to provide the general reader with a more complex understanding of the subject. Beginning in prehistoric times, the book takes us up to the South Africa of 1986, with additional chapters on Lesotho, Swaziland, Botswana, and the disputed land of South-West Africa (Namibia). Frequent headings and subheadings, helpful bibliographies at the end of each chapter, wide margins, attractive design, and a wealth of illustrations enhance the appeal of this timely and useful book. The Mayor of Casterbridge, by Thomas Hardy. Edited with an introduction by Dale Kramer. New York: Oxford University Press. 404 pp. $2.95.

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Written at the peak of his career as a novelist, ``The Major of Casterbridge'' may well be judged Thomas Hardy's greatest novel. The story of the impulsive, strong-willed, solitary Michael Henchard and his friendship/rivalry with the clever, capable, far more amenable Donald Farfrae has all the elements of tragedy, from a lonely hero who rises above the common run of men only to be undone by his own character to the sense that we have, watching his fall, that we are also witnessing the passing of an era to make way for a new - in some ways diminished - order. This edition - a remarkable value at $2.95! - is based on a close examination of Hardy's manuscripts and printed versions that he revised. It includes a chronology, a bibliography, a map of Hardy's fictional Wessex, and a glossary of dialect phrases from the region where Hardy was born, where he chose to settle, and which he evoked for all the world. The Nemesis Affair: A Story of the Death of Dinosaurs and the Ways of Science, by David M. Raup. New York: Norton. 220 pp. $6.95.

A noted paleontologist at the University of Chicago offers in this book a wonderfully absorbing account of his own involvement in formulating a theory that sparked much controversy. As ``Nemesis,'' a hypothetical companion star to the sun, approaches the sun on its 26 million-year orbit, the theory goes, billions of comets will be disturbed and some thrown toward the earth with catastrophic consequences. Just such an event, scientists speculate, seems to have coincided with - and perhaps caused - the extinction of the dinosaurs. Professor Raup treats us to a lucid explanation of how this hypothesis was arrived at, plus a lively account of the people who contributed to it and who criticized or sought to disprove it. He also discusses the reaction of the public - particularly journalists - to the Nemesis theory, and offers thought-provoking commentary on the impact of scientific developments that have such an obvious effect on the way we think of ourselves, our planet, and the universe. Whether or not the Nemesis theory will hold up, there's no doubt that Professor Raup has communicated the joys and trials of scientific discovery and demonstrated the attitude of skeptical open-mindedness so vital to the pursuit of knowledge.

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