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The Political Mythology of Apartheid, by Leonard Thompson. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. 293 pp. $10.95. In March 1979, Leonard Thompson tells us, a well-known Afrikaner historian about to deliver a paper dealing in the secular spirit of historical inquiry with the so-called ``Covenant,'' the central myth of Afrikanerdom, was assaulted by a gang of white toughs who tarred and feathered him for his intended ``blasphemy.'' In this book, Thompson, a professor emeritus at Yale and a leading authority on South African history, examines the mythology that plays such a crucial role in molding the world views of many white South Africans and in influencing their country's policies. Thompson believes it is the historian's task to understand the ``whys'' of mythology as well as the facts of history, and in this study he not only separates fact from fiction, but also traces the genesis, dissemination, and uses of both racist mythology throughout the West and, more specifically, the South African apartheid mythology. Thompson expresses concern that professional historians often employ a style too technical for the average reader (who may thus be inclined to fall back on unreliable myths). He can rest assured in this case that he has succeeded in making his subject fascinating and accessible even to the reader with little background, while meeting the requirements of scrupulous scholarship. This is a splendid book for anyone interested in history, racism, the political uses of mythology, South Africa's past, present, and future, or all of the above. The Norse Atlantic Saga, by Gwyn Jones. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press. 337 pp. Illustrated. $9.95.

``We have learned in the last 70 years that man's early knowledge of the sea and willingness to venture out upon it resulted in voyages undreamt of by 19th-century historians,'' says the author of this engaging, immensely informative work first published in 1964 and revised and enlarged to keep up with findings since then. There have been, he points out, many colorful sagas, chronicles, and poems about the Vikings' Western voyages, most of which are now deemed unreliable. Jones and other scholars from a variety of fields have been working to piece together the true story of those voyages in the 9th, 10th, and 11th centuries, of the settlements in Iceland, Greenland, and North America, and of the encounters between Vikings and Eskimos. This book presents a wealth of material, and its author demonstrates a keen eye for what is interesting and a nicely understated sense of humor. Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920s, by Otto Friedrich. New York: Fromm. 418 pp. Illustrated. $12.95.

The most sophisticated city in the world, some called it: vibrant, decadent, stimulating, and alarming. American-born Otto Friedrich's kaleidoscopic, yet intelligently organized portrait does full justice to this multifaceted subject, beginning with the last days of the Wilhelmian empire and the Spartakist uprising, through the glittering, troubled years of the Weimar Republic and the ominous rise of the Nazis. He gives us the Berlin of the Bauhaus, of cabarets and criminals, of Schoenberg, Brecht, Georg Grosz, and K"athe Kollwitz, of Einstein, Heisenberg, and the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, of the brilliant and thoughtful statesman-industrialist Walter Rathenau and of his nihilist assassins, of the Freikorps, and of Goebbels. And he adds dimension and immediacy to an already vivid story by including interviews done in the 1970s (when the book first appeared) with surviving refugees who never forgot just what it was like. Thames and Hudson: Literary Lives. New York: Thames and Hudson, dist. Norton. Approx. 144 pp. each; $9.95 each. Jane Austen, by Marghanita Laski; W. B. Yeats, by Miche'al Mac Liamm'oir and Eavan Boland; Shakespeare, by F. E. Halliday; James Joyce, by Chester G. Anderson.

This copiously illustrated, handsomely designed series of short biographies offers surprisingly comprehensive accounts of the lives and the milieus of major literary figures. Not only do they provide an excellent place to start reading up on an author's background, but they also contain a good deal of material -- be it rarely seen photographs or seldom-told anecdotes -- that will appeal to those who are already familiar with the authors. The pictures -- well over 100 in each volume -- are eloquent testimony to just how eye-catching and involving black-and-white photography can be and add a special charm to the well-researched and engagingly written texts. The Heat of the Day, by Elizabeth Bowen. New York: Penguin. 330 pp. $5.95.

First published in 1948, set in wartime London, this beautifully atmospheric novel blends the tension of a spy story with the emotional subtlety and moral complexity of a love story. Stella Rodney, ``younger by a year or two than the century,'' divorced, with a son in the army and a lover suspected of spying for the enemy, becomes entangled with a strange man who is spying on her lover. Elizabeth Bowen's extraordinary skill at evoking her setting and her sensitivity to the oddities of human character are two clear reasons for the ever-increasing esteem in which her work is held.

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