Picks and Pans Main: Pages


by William Steig

Cartoonist William Steig was famous in the 1940s for a drawing of a little man hiding in a box and with this caption: “People are no damn good.” Decades later Steig is still going strong. He is author-illustrator of this new book, which is perhaps too sophisticated—and scary—for children, although it looks like a kids’ book. It begins, “There was once a very unbeautiful, very rocky, rotten island. It had acres of sharp gravel and volcanoes that belched fire and smoke, spewed hot lava, and spat poison arrows and double-headed toads.” The place is inhabited by monsters painted in gorgeous colors, and they are all horrible. “They loved hating and hissing at one another, taking revenge, tearing and breaking things, screaming, roaring, caterwauling, venting their hideous feelings. It tickled them to be cruel and to give each other bad dreams.” Then one day a beautiful flower pops up in a bed of gravel. Not since Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are has there been such a glorious nightmare of a book, and that’s high praise. (Godine, $ 12.95)


by Gore Vidal

Vidal begins this historical novel on Inauguration eve, when Abraham Lincoln is being sneaked into Washington to avoid a rumored assassination attempt. Lincoln is only one of the book’s main characters, however. Another is his secretary, a young man much taken with whorehouses. Then there is the Confederate spy who, after his plot to poison Lincoln fails, helps the assassin Booth escape. Vidal also offers the reader a cross section of Washington society, both high and low, portraying the scene with wit and imagination. Vidal’s Lincoln is no melancholy saint. He turns out to be a fatalist obsessed with keeping the Union intact, no matter what the cost. Lincoln is surrounded by scheming politicians who think he is a bumpkin; his crazy wife, subject to hideous migraines and irrational jealousy, has social ambitions and unattractive relatives. Tad, the President’s adored youngest son, is an impulsive brat. Vidal has a sure touch with period decor: The new gaslights hiss; the women take morning tea wearing elaborate wrappers and turbans; a man’s carriage and horses convey a world of meaning. This book is big—653 pages—and it’s a historical recreation one can sink into with pleasure. Through all the homeyness, the sinister plots, the flights of rhetoric that were a disease of politicians even then, Vidal keeps in mind that readers like a fast-moving story. That is what he provides. (Random House, $19.95)


by Patricia Bosworth

“She said she was always frightened, no matter what she did—she lived with fear and overcoming fear every day of her life.” That is how one intimate recalls photographer Diane Arbus in this gripping biography. “Some people remember her as ‘fashionable and immaculate,’ others insist she was ‘usually disheveled and not always clean.’ ” Another friend recalls, “Diane was exemplary—a saint.” Arbus herself is quoted: “Triplets remind me of myself when I was an adolescent. Lined up in three images: daughter, sister, bad girl, with secret lusting fantasies, each with a tiny difference.” Arbus gained notoriety in the ’60s for her confrontational pictures of unusual people: the retarded, the crazed, the odd-looking—images that invariably make the viewer uncomfortable. She grew up an adored daughter of a family that owned a fashionable department store on New York’s Fifth Avenue. At 14, she fell in love with a young man who was working in her father’s store, and at 18, although her parents disapproved, married him. She and her husband, Allan Arbus, became fashion photographers; he was the technician, she had the ideas. She gave birth to two daughters, but in time the relationship between Diane and Allan started to dissolve. She suffered terrible depressions and began to haunt the 42nd Street strip, believing that her cameras protected her. Author of an acclaimed biography of actor Montgomery Clift, Bosworth also gives a moving portrait of Arbus’ brother, the poet Howard Nemerov, whose tribute to his sister after her suicide in 1971 ends this book. Arbus obviously was exceedingly complex, and Bosworth handles the problems of defining such a character admirably. While this biography was not authorized by Arbus’ family, it is far from unsympathetic. (Knopf, $17.95)


by William L. Shirer

Shirer wrote the definitive history of Hitler’s horror in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Now, in this second volume of his memoirs, he writes again of the rise of Nazi Germany but in personal, involving terms. After covering India for the Chicago Tribune, Shirer was working in Berlin when he joined Edward R. Murrow at CBS radio in 1937 to invent broadcast news as we know it today (without the happy talk). Shirer covered Hitler’s major harangues, though without ever interviewing Der Fuhrer, and met all his top henchmen. It is fascinating to read of these perpetrators of such colossal evil—Himmler, Goring, Goebbels, et al.—described as if they were obnoxious guests at a cocktail party. Shirer brings them down to size; they become small-time thugs who acquire terrifying power. He calls Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, for instance, an “evil, pompous little ignoramus” and “a man of monumental denseness.” With that same life-size point of view, Shirer gives a frightening account of Hitler’s popularity in Germany and of the blindness and bumbling that prevented other nations from stopping him. Shirer fled Germany after the fall of France in 1940, fearing arrest on trumped-up spying charges. That is where the book ends. His personal perspective adds much to a horror story that we know so well, yet understand so little. More than any conventional history book, Shirer’s memoir lets a reader relive history. (Little, Brown, $22.50)

Related Articles