Books of the region: Hot beach novels


June 25, 1995|By James Bready | James Bready,Special to The Sun

Summer brings freedom to read on and on - late in the quiet night, in the blaze of day, beside beach or pool. Summer also equates with fiction.

Several new local novels await Marylanders; this is to go overboard for one in particular: "Daughters of Song," by Paula Huston, out in a few days from Random House ($21).

The title is from Ecclesiastes; the setting is Mount Vernon Place. The theme is Beethoven, Scarlatti, Schubert, Mozart, Barber, as Sylvia plays them. Growing up in Minneapolis, Sylvia was a promising pianist; now, a Baltimore student of the redoubtable Cornelius Toft, she is in something of a whirl.

Going from her apartment to the conservatory or the train station, she and her Ukrainian roommate are never far from the alley men. More than one of her male fellow-students is more than friendly. Are women, however, really welcome in the male world of music? Above all, there is Opus 111, the highlight of her solo recital.

With its "visionary aura," Opus 111, Beethoven's late-years Sonata in C minor, is famously difficult. Toft wants her not just to have feelings about it, but to think through its spirituality.

In a notable parallel, Mrs. Huston, now a Californian, has done for music conservatory students what Augusta Tucker did half a century ago for medical school students. "Miss Susie Slagle's," picturing a pre-World War I boarding house hard by Johns Hopkins, went on to best-sellerdom and the movies.

This is Paula Huston's first novel, and it is some debut. The central figure is beautifully realized. For its part, the Peabody Conservatory, aged 128, is never named, but "Daughters of Song" is far and away the best book yet about life there.


The title suggests the genre, in Barbara Lee's "Death in Still Waters" (St. Martin's. 240 pages. $20.95); the setting is the watery edge of Anne Arundel County; the time is even summer.

And the underlying conflict in this "Chesapeake Bay Mystery" is the distaste for each other of old-family working class and arriving big-city richies.

But the heat and humidity (and other splendidly graphic details of daily life on and near Ritchie Highway) are only the background for two suspicious drownings and the brutal killing of a dog.

Eve Elliott, a Manhattan ad-world stressout, chucks it all to join her Aunt Lillian, a real estate veteran in the mythical Pines on Magothy. Nothing like chancing upon a corpse to make one feel involved; the guy having lived alone, Eve moves into his rundown waterfront house.

As she sets about also discovering why the body of a young local woman was found at the same spot of beach in 1969, Eve acclimates with ease but also amid a very high tide of violence.

Barbara Lee, herself a convert to Baltimore, ties the strings together, but what's best about "Still Waters" is the lifelikeness of its Annarannel.


Herman Taube of Rockville, himself a survivor, is at pains in "My Baltimore Landsmen" (Dryad Press. 225 pages. $12.95) to convey to a later generation the feelings of that small minority of Central European Jewry which survived the Holocaust. In postwar Baltimore, his protagonist, Sholom Schwartzman, progresses from impoverished immigrant to established manufacturer and family man. He gets to know Louis L. Kaplan, Harry Greenstein, Isaac M. Fein.

But always in his head is the image of Smorodna, the Polish shtetl of his youth, and of Chanele, the girl he was about to marry when the horror came. Direct, unassuming, "Landsmen" follows Sol and his loyalty conflicts as he meets Frumele, another refugee, and then Chanele herself. Oddly, what registers is not so much Holocaust, which lacks not for testimonials, as Smorodna. Destroyed, rebuilt, different, the home town is for some people a life's companion.


Her own familiarity with teaching in inner-city Washington is the basis of "Clouded Dreams" (Delphinium Books. 273 pages. $19.95), by Deborah Insel of Gaithersburg, a novel guaranteed to make you stop complaining over a rained-out holiday. Life at Grant High is so grim, and yet some of its teachers and kids are so tenacious. The struggle to educate not only must but will continue.

James H. Bready has written for The Evening Sun for many years as a reporter and book editor. He writes a monthly column on Maryland books.

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