Historical Fictions: Essays.Hugh Kenner.North Point.338...

BOOK BRIEFS

December 09, 1990|By TIM WARREN Millie's Book. As dictated to Barbara Bush. Morrow. 141 pages. $17.95.

Historical Fictions: Essays.

Hugh Kenner.

North Point.

338 pages. $24.95. Hugh Kenner isn't easily impressed, so you can imagine his reaction when confronted with the bluster and self-promotion of Ernest Hemingway. In assessing Hemingway's letters, Dr. Kenner finds them of dubious literary value: "What happens when they're printed is that they make a Book, such a book as the fastidious craftsman would have disowned. For the style was not the man; the style was what the man could achieve after he had before him something to revise." And he wonders: "Has a distinguished reputation ever been hitched to so many square yards of trash?"

Such acute observations fill the pages of "Historical Fictions," a compilation of book reviews and essays. Little escapes Dr. Kenner, a professor of English at Johns Hopkins University and one of this country's leading literary critics. Take this view of literary biographies: ". . . biography is finally fiction, and save in the most trustworthy hands . . . it works the way imperfect fiction does, filling sag with cellulite generalities when the data continuity requires are lacking."

As with his other recent collections -- "Mazes," "A Sinking Island" -- "Historical Fictions" is refreshingly tough-minded and often quite funny. It's a joy to read.

This lightweight book suffers from a terminal case of the cutes, starting with its authorship. The dog's-eye view of the White House and its inhabitants has been "dictated" to "Bar" Bush by her beloved spaniel, Millie, and includes memorable quotes by the "Prez" -- also known as "Gampy" -- such as "Fine!" and "Great!"

Millie has the run of the mansion and is seen sprawling on silk sofas and celebrated antique beds; she is included in all waking activities, which allows her to rub noses with celebrities such as King Hussein, Francois Mitterrand, Pam Shriver and no less than Queen Elizabeth II herself. But Millie is more impressed with her meeting with "a real life macho [dog] movie star, Benji," who turns out to be female.

On the plus side, all author proceeds will be donated to thBarbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy -- and 2-year-old readers should love the "doggie" pictures.

BARBARA SAMSON MILLS

Trophies and Dead Things.

Marcia Muller.

Mysterious Press.

266 pages. $16.95.

Several recent mysteries have dealt with the legacy of the late '60s, those turbulent years of campus protests and political upheaval. Even two decades later, it can be difficult to leave such a passionate past behind. "Those were the best days of my life, back when we were young and going to change the world," a former student radical tells private investigator Sharon McCone.

In Ms. Muller's 11th McCone novel, the San Francisco detective investigates the murder of a one-time Berkeley activist named Perry Hilderly who had changed his will shortly before his death. Perry was the latest victim of a sniper who seemingly chooses his targets at random, but when Sharon tracks down the four people to whom he left his sizable estate, the '60s connection keeps re-emerging.

"Trophies and Dead Things" is a taut, well-plotted thriller, and as the Byzantine web of connections between the ex-radicals is slowly revealed it's hard to stop reading before Sharon has wrapped up this complicated, compelling case.

SUSANNE TROWBRIDGE

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