RECOMMENDED BOOKS

FICTION JIM THE BOY, by Tony Earley, Little, Brown & Co., $23.95

In an age as sophisticated as ours, what could be more avant-garde than daring to be sweet? "Jim the Boy" is essentially the tale of how a moral person develops in the care of loving adults. Jim, a 10-year-old farm boy, living with his widowed mother and three uncles during the Depression, is faced with the task of growing up. His life is ordinary without being cliche, and his feelings are rendered without an adult's tendency to sentimentalize or belittle. This remarkable novel is a reminder of the wonder of life before one's hopes and fears are clearly demarcated and cataloged, when everything is raw and dazzling. (227 pp.)

IN THE FALL, by Jeffrey Lent, Atlantic Monthly Press, $25

Lent's first novel starts in gloaming silence, deep in the Vermont woods, and builds like a thunderstorm coming over the horizon. The story moves through three generations of the Pelham family with stunning success. When young Norman walks back to Vermont from the Civil War, enough personal and national history has been interred to poison the ground for decades. His mother and sister hold the right Abolitionist notions, but those are sorely tested by the presence of Norman's wife, Leah, the first black person they've ever seen. Leah's new family loves her, but nothing can quell her thirst for knowledge about the family she left behind in slavery. (542 pp.)

ANIL'S GHOST, by Michael Ondaatje, Knopf, $25

The West was not waiting for a novel about the civil war in Sri Lanka, but Ondaatje put this tragedy on the map with "Anil's Ghost." Through the center of the book runs the story of Anil Tissera, a forensic anthropologist returning to Sri Lanka under the auspices of an international human rights group. Laced through her story are anecdotes from other characters' pasts, scenes from elsewhere on the island, and random acts of violence. You'll have to remind yourself to keep breathing as you read. These are quiet, desperate people, addicted to work or grief. Ondaatje is a master at portraying unconsummated desire - for love, truth, or peace. (311 pp.)

THE HUMAN STAIN, by Philip Roth, Houghton Mifflin, $26

Roth's favorite narrator and alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, is back to tell the surprising life story of Coleman Silk, "an outgoing, sharp-witted, forcefully smooth big-city charmer." At a time when Silk should be attending dedicatory ceremonies with other retired professors, he finds himself raging against a politically correct mob that drove him from the halls of Athena College. But this engrossing book is far more than a satire of college life or the absurdities of its PC liturgy. Set against the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, "The Human Stain" provides one of the most provocative explorations of race and rage in American literature. A dozen forms of anger flow through this story like lava. Each is inspired by a buried sense of guilt and a determination to scorch away someone else's failings. It's impossible to understand the late 20th century without reading Roth. (361 pp.)

A PURE CLEAR LIGHT, by Madeleine St. John, Carroll & Graf, $22

Characters who have lost their faith have become such a cliche that it's a shock to find Flora Beaufort, the protagonist in St. John's witty novel. She's losing her doubt, instead. And that's causing all kinds of problems. Her husband wants nothing to do with what he calls that religious hocus-pocus. Flora lets the issue slide, but she's troubled by the desire for some greater meaning than her pleasant life can provide. This is a novel in which threads of grace and guilt are laced through the fabric of modern lives. It's a smart, incisive analysis of moral confusion in a world where autonomy is considered the primary value. (233 pp.)

NONFICTION THE TWILIGHT OF AMERICAN CULTURE, by Morris Berman, W.W. Norton, $23.95

In Berman's observant, thoughtful, and lucidly argued book, he asks us to take a hard look at the sorry state of civilization. Berman finds the current blend of reckless capitalism and wrecked standards so lethal that he does not think it can be stopped. What we can do, he suggests, is exercise what he calls the "monastic" option. Like the patient monks who faithfully copied and guarded classical manuscripts, those who still value the intellectual and spiritual treasures of our cultural heritage can keep the flame alive for a new dawn. Although depressed by cultural trends, Berman and his book alert us to important problems, and he offers genuinely constructive suggestions. (224 pp.) By Merle Rubin

CYBERSELFISH, by Paulina Borsook, Public Affairs, $24

Some say the Internet will aid the flow of information, and hence, the spread of democratic values. A closer look at the values of those creating this high-tech world suggests it may be premature to rejoice. Most whiz kids, Borsook says, share a mind-set so pervasive that many of them are not even aware of it: a scorn for government, a faith that the free market provides the solution to every problem, and a neo-Darwinist belief in the triumph of the cybernetically fittest. Barsook argues that insofar as this brand of libertarianism is among the values the West is exporting to other cultures, the "New World Order" may not be equitable, charitable, or humane. (288 pp.) By Merle Rubin

LIFE IS SO GOOD, by George Dawson and Richard Glaubman, Random House, $23

Having walked in three centuries, Dawson is a living Time-Life series on American history, but he knows there's still more to learn. "I'm pretty busy with school these days," the 102-year-old student says. Dawson was 98, living alone in a ghetto of south Dallas, when he entered a literacy program for adults. When Glaubman, a Seattle grade-school teacher, read about this hard-working student in a newspaper article, the two of them struck up a friendship, and eventually produced this remarkable autobiography, the feel-good story of the year. Don't roll your eyes at the rosy title. "Life Is So Good" contains scenes of unending labor, cruelty, and hardships. It's a story of the American Dream that makes so many other versions look like fantasies. (288 pp.)

EVE: A BIOGRAPHY, by Pamela Norris, New York University Press, $29.95

The brief account of Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis has evoked centuries of embellishment, commentary, and debate. In this hybrid biography, Norris traces those voices that recall, rework, and develop Eve's story in such diverse areas as ancient myths, religious commentary, paintings, poetry, folk tales, and romance novels. Norris weaves a rich assortment of images and texts into theme-based chapters with one narrative leading seamlessly into another. While in one sense, the book is an exposition of the various ways that the Adam and Eve myth has been evoked throughout history, in a much larger sense, it is the history of women's roles in Western culture. (496 pp.) By Peggy DesAutels

TWENTIETH CENTURY, by J.M. Roberts, Viking, $39.95

A former Warden of Oxford University's Merton College, Roberts has spent his career surveying the broad sweep of historical change. His new book tells the complicated story of world events of the last 100 years in 900 pages. Roberts's book is the best one-volume history of the world during the 20th century so far. It captures the bewildering energy and pathos of a century that has been horrific, innovative, and inspiring. By describing the pivotal events and personalities that have shaped our present, "Twentieth Century" helps prepare us for the new century ahead. (906 pp.) By David Shi

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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