In this "instant book," Judith Miller and Laurie Mylroie seem more interested in enumerating Sad-dam Hussein's crimes than in explaining the issues underlying the crisis in Kuwait.
Hussein is an easy man to hate: Evidence compiled by Amnesty International and other watchdog groups indicates that he has personally tortured and murdered people he perceived as threats or opponents. But Miller and Mylroie fail to give the reader any real sense of Hussein's personality. Is he a Hitler-esque madman? A megalomaniac blinded by ambition? A demagogue desperately trying to shore up a failed policy?They also briefly mention such key problems as the arbitrary boundaries the European powers imposed on the Middle East; the cultural and ethnic differences that divide Kurds, Arabs, Turks and Iranians, and the theological divisions between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, preferring to indulge in pretentious rhetorical overkill. After a description of Hussein's predilection for public displays of his portrait, they write: "In the land where the Sumerians invented writing, discourse has been degraded to a single, ubiquitous image."
An index, legible maps, a more thorough chronology and a list (preferably with photographs) of key figures in Iraqi history and politics would have made "Crisis" more useful. Slogging through this tiresome hyperbole, the reader cynically begins to wonder what Iraqi biographers would say about George Bush's career.84, CHARING CROSS ROAD, by Helene Hanff; Penguin; $7.95, paperback.
The popular television dramatization of "84, Charing Cross Road" has not diminished the charm of Helene Hanff's book. A collection of letters between a struggling young writer in post-World War II New York City and the staff of a small used-book store in London, "Charing Cross" chronicles the changes England underwent as rationing and austerity gave way to prosperity.
A voracious and discriminating reader, Hanff filled her letters with concise, intelligent discussions of English literature and the joys of book-collecting.
The ideal book to tuck away for a rainy afternoon.POP. 1280, by Jim Thompson; Vintage; $8.95, paperback.
Jim Thompson's dark, chilling portrait of a two-bit sheriff in a jerkwater Southern town is best known as the source of Bernard Tavernier's film "Coup de Torchon." Beneath his simple, good ol' boy exterior, Nick Corey conceals a vicious, calculating mind that enables him to pit his enemies against each other and continue eating, drinking, whoring and murdering.
Thompson is a master of plot construction, and Corey's numerous intrigues dovetail as neatly as the sliding panels of a Chinese puzzle box.
"Pop. 1280" inaugurates the Vintage reissues of the "Black Lizard" pulp crime novels published in the mid-'80s by the Creative Arts Book Co. in Berkeley. Included in the initial release are "The Grifters," "The Getaway" and "A Hell of a Woman" by Thompson; "The Burnt Orange Heresy" and "Pick-Up" by Charles Willeford; "Shoot the Piano Player" and "Black Friday" by David Goodis, and "The Hot Spot" by Charles Williams. Vintage has announced plans to publish three additional titles every two months during 1991.COLLECTING HIMSELF: JAMES THURBER ON WRITING AND WRITERS, HUMOR AND HIMSELF; edited by Michael J. Rosen; Harper; $8.95, illustrated paperback.
Initially published in 1989, "Collecting Himself" features previously uncollected reviews of books and plays, miscellaneous essays on the use and abuse of the English language and Thurber's reflections on his work in theater and at the New Yorker.
An intelligent and discerning critic, Thurber wrote cogently about F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Last Tycoon" and devastatingly about the inane prose in self-help books. A selection of drawings include hilarious self-caricatures of his meeting with Carl Sandburg and some delightful new cartoons, including a bookish Thurber man demanding of his wife, "How is it possible, woman, in the awful and magnificent times we live in, to be preoccupied exclusively with the piddling?"
I AM THE BLUES: THE WILLIE DIXON STORY; by Willie Dixon with Don Snowden; Da Capo; $12.95; 264 pages, paperback.
It is appropriate that Willie Dixon's autobiography should have been published first in Britain, for American blues musicians have long received more respect abroad than at home. And it is embarrassing, too, because Dixon, who now lives in Los Angeles, is responsible for numerous rock classics like "Spoonful," "Back Door Man" and "Little Red Rooster."
Noting Dixon's influence on the rock world is a bit disingenuous, however, for "I Am the Blues" has almost nothing to do with the likes of Presley, Clapton and Jagger. This book is the real thing: about growing up black, poor and musically gifted in a great bluesman's own words.
"I Am the Blues" is a somewhat ungainly package, frequent Los Angeles Times contributor Don Snowden having stitched together interviews with Dixon and other blues people with a factual narrative of his own. But it works, mainly because Dixon's presence in the book is so strong and commanding, not unlike the man himself.
Born in 1915 in Mississippi, Dixon "got up to be a pretty good size" (as he puts it) by age 12 and began making as much as a dollar a day hauling anything heavy - ice, timber, coal. He also let people slug him for a nickel - business actually picked up, Dixon reports, after a self-described prizefighter broke an arm hitting him in the stomach - and became a good enough boxer to win a Golden Gloves heavyweight championship in Chicago, where Dixon moved in 1936. He was suspended after four fights following a scuffle over fees in the boxing commissioner's office, but by that time the blues culture on the city's South Side had given Dixon a new career.
Dixon had sold songs to other musicians since his early teens, but the segregated music world ensured that he could not make a living at it. He made spending money from playing bass and singing with various bands, the best known being the Big Three Trio, which usually performed for white audiences, unlike most other great Chicago blues groups. As a result, the trio played more pop than blues, but in the mid-1940s the group had hits on the national "race" chart with Dixon's "Signifyin' Monkey" and Art Tatum-Big Joe Turner's "Wee Wee Baby, You Sure Look Good to Me."
Few books feel as authentic as this one, and it certainly accomplishes Dixon's purpose: to educate listeners about "the facts of life and the wisdom and knowledge of the blues."