by Wendy Kaminer
(Pantheon Books) $24
Pantheon Books' reputation for prickly social criticism continues in this cool-as-ice demolition of The Celestine Prophecy, political correctness, Pat Robertson, recovered-memory counselors, and panics about satanic cults in daycare centers. Radcliffe scholar Kaminer has attended the seminars and read the stupid books so you don't have to. Her report is sobering stuff indeed. Here is über-Panglossian Betty Eadie asserting in her best-selling Embraced by the Light that accident victims somehow choose their fate. Here are three Jewish children in Alabama public schools showered with swastikas and forced to write essays on "Why Jesus Loves Me." Here is the New York Times headline "Men and Women Use Brain Differently, Study Discovers," when in fact the study reached almost the exact opposite conclusion.
Displaying admirable self-restraint, Kaminer eschews Tetched by an Angel jokes, instead treating her objects of disdain with neo-Victorian seriousness. Her arguments tend toward repetitiveness, and her bulldog-like prose displays all the grace of Paul Schell dancing Swan Lake. However, her willingness to take on all starry-eyed comers, coupled with a historical grasp that ranges from the 18th- century psychic Franz Anton Mesmer through Positive Thinking sensei Norman Vincent Peale, leads to some truly penetrating insights, especially on the appeal of all this hoohah to middle-class women -- always the canary in the coal mine when it comes to an age's psychic disturbances. KENT MILLER
SECRETS OF THE FLESH: A LIFE OF COLETTE
by Judith Thurman
CREATING COLETTE, VOLUME 2: FROM BARONESS TO WOMAN OF LETTERS, 1912-1954
by Claude Francis and Fernande Gontier
I've read about half a dozen biographies of Colette and skimmed as many more. The new one by Judith Thurman, who won the National Book Award in 1983 for her biography of Isak Dinesen, is by far the best. Thurman is a terrific stylist who neither fawns over nor tries to sound superior to her subject. The volume by Francis and Gontier, who have written about Proust and de Beauvoir, is good on the French context of Colette's work, but the plodding prose and superficial psychoanalysis keep it from being a great biography.
Born in 1873, Colette was a provincial girl. She married the hack writer/sleazebag Henri Gauthier-Villars, 14 years her senior, and moved to Paris. Willy, as Gauthier-Villars was called, soon discovered that his nubile wife had great stories to tell about her days as a country schoolgirl, and that if he kept her in her room he could force her to write them. For years Willy claimed authorship of the four Claudine books that became the rage of Paris.
Eventually, Colette left the constitutionally unfaithful Willy and went on the stage. In her most scandalous early performance, she played a Salome-like mummy who kisses -- on the lips! -- a scholar, played by her cross-dressing lesbian paramour, the Marquise de Belboeuf. Colette lived openly with Missy, as the Marquise was known in the sapphic demi-monde they frequented, and wrote about the music hall performers, gigolos, bohemians, and tarts around them.
After she left Missy, she had two more husbands, an affair with her hunky stepson, a daughter, a cosmetic product and beauty salon business, a membership (the first woman ever to be invited) in the Legion of Honor, and lots of cats. Voraciously engaged in the world of the senses, she was also oddly oblivious to the bigger picture. During World War I she risked life and limb to follow her husband to the front so they could enjoy their conjugals. During World War II, though married to a Jew, she continued to write for pro-Nazi magazines. Though a heroine to independent women everywhere, she was a dreadful mother to her own daughter. Thurman's intelligent study does this brilliant writer proud. REBECCA BROWN
LOST AND FOUND
THE AMBOY DUKES: A NOVEL OF WAYWARD YOUTH IN BROOKLYN
by Irving Shulman
Irving Shulman's 1946 pulp teenage drama, about ne'er-do-well Brooklyn street punks Frankie, Betty, Kitty, Janie, Shimmy, and Crazy, is real bubblegum naturalism. Featuring make-out parties in abandoned warehouses, zip guns, fast cars, teenage riots, well-meaning high school counselors, and lots of reefer, The Amboy Dukes draws a drab portrait of America's teenagers in the post-war '40s. (In 1954, Shulman would be called in to write the screenplay for Hollywood's proto-rock 'n' roll tragedy Rebel Without a Cause, only to have his name taken off the script when the producers rejected his negative ending.)
Shulman was a morbid cat. Frankie murders his high school teacher. Crazy rapes Kitty. And in the novel's desperate final scene, Crazy throws Frankie flailing to his death off the tenement roof.
According to my mom, who was 13 when The Amboy Dukes was published, the controversial best-seller was required teen reading. In the book's 1947 foreword, the chairman of the Continuing Committee of the National Conference on Prevention and Control of Juvenile Delinquency wrote: "Because of overcrowded schools and tired teachers, difficulty of securing employment, racial and religious tensions.... Mr. Shulman's book is important and timely." I couldn't agree more. JOSH FEIT