Title: "Dances With Trout"Author: John GierachPublisher...

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April 03, 1994|By TIM WARREN Title: "Josephine: The Hungry Heart" Authors: Jean-Claude Baker and Chris Chase Publisher: Random House Length, price: 532 pages, $27.50 | TIM WARREN Title: "Josephine: The Hungry Heart" Authors: Jean-Claude Baker and Chris Chase Publisher: Random House Length, price: 532 pages, $27.50,LOS ANGELES TIMES Title: "Torsos" Authors: John Peyton Cooke Publisher: Mysterious Press Length, price: 352 pages, $19.95 KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

Title: "Dances With Trout"

Author: John Gierach

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Length, price: 205 pages, $21 John Gierach knows he's got just about the best job in America: He goes fishing a lot and then he writes about it. He lives in a little cabin near the St. Vrain River in Northern Colorado -- no kids, no time clock to punch. His hours are spent fishing for big Colorado rainbow trout or Alaskan grayling, or hunting snowshoe hares in the Rockies, or tying flies. If he's tired, he reads a lot.

He also is one terrific writer, as he shows in "Dances With Trout," his eighth collection of outdoors pieces. Mr. Gierach manages to be both informative and curious, wryly funny and also serious (but not too serious -- after all, he is spending most of his time doing what many of us can do only a handful of occasions each year). He's a dedicated fly fisherman, but no obnoxious snob -- he'll even fish for the supremely ugly long-nosed gar if nothing else is happening.

When he doesn't catch fish, he doesn't whine, and his sense of humor is welcome. Mr. Gierach spent six fruitless days chasing the notoriously elusive Atlantic salmon in Scotland, and as he writes in this book: "You put yourself through this because some fishermen say catching an Atlantic salmon on a fly is as good as sex, even though you know in your heart it isn't. I agree with a friend of mine who says that if fishing is really like sex, then he's doing one of them wrong."

Josephine Baker's rear end got her from here to there, and a whole lot more. A great lady? In her own way. A manipulator? Without question. Regal? Surely. A racist? Probably. Benevolent mother of 12 adopted kids of all creeds and colors? Yes, if you temper that "benevolent." A heroine of the Resistance? Commissioned and decorated by De Gaulle himself. But mainly it was the fanny: "Inspiring," wrote author Georges Simenon, one of a long, long line of lovers, "that croupe [rump] has a sense of humor."

So does Jean-Claude Baker, son of the entertainer, in his wild and wonderful biography. Does the world need a 13th book on Josephine Baker (including five autobiographies)? Sure, he says, someone's got to set the record straight, and "mother" was a born fabricator. With Josephine, though, even the truth reads like legend.

From poverty in East St. Louis, to unprecedented acclaim in Paris, where a doll was named after her, Baker's life was constant contradiction. The woman who walked her cheetah on a solid-gold leash, whose body designers fought to clothe, also pawned her jewels to feed Paris' needy. Her secret? It went to her grave in 1975. Those who knew her agree: She could dance a little, sing a little, shake up a storm. But that wasn't it, not '' really. She just "was," and that was more than enough.

Lest a reader wonder whether "Torsos" will live up to the blunt butchery of its title, John Peyton Cooke commences his story with a passage in which a man is castrated and then decapitated in two swift knife strokes -- while he's still alive.

As Mr. Cooke imagines it, the man's still-operating brain registers the sight of his body receding as his head is carried away by the killer.

Yum. Where does a thriller go from here? Actually, "Torsos" moves in some surprising directions, blending so many genres it seems to have been concocted in a Cuisinart.

It's even a nonfiction novel of sorts, taking its killer from the pages of history: In 1935, a murderer as fearsome as Jack the Ripper stalked Cleveland, becoming this nation's "first truly modern serial killer," as the publicity material for "Torsos" describes him. The result is a repulsive and sometimes clumsy, but grimly fascinating tale.

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