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They Came Like Swallows, A Struggle for Power: The American Revolution, Chasing CÚzanne, and The Puttermesser Papers

By Blake de Pastino, Angie Drobnic, Jessica English

They Came Like Swallows
by William Maxwell (Vintage, paper, $12)

Remember a couple of weeks ago, when I said that Chris Offutt wrote like an old-fashioned novelist? Well, William Maxwell is the genuine article. Having written fiction for more than 60 years, Maxwell has acquired a gift for color and characterization that's a refreshing break from today's postmodern anomie. His second novel--first printed in 1936, now out in a new edition--is a quintessentially American work of its time, based on a young Midwestern boy who watches his family quietly enact its hidden dramas, most of which center around his stately mother. The result is a stunning portrait of an interwar family--simple in its appetites but rich in its desires--and of a woman who is no less complex. Not much happens but everything is felt, and in the end, Maxwell displays a skill and a wistfulness that, today, are hard to come by. (BdeP)

A Struggle for Power: The American Revolution
by Robert Draper (Vintage, paper, $17)

Noted historian Robert Draper, author of A Very Thin Line: The Iran-Contra Affairs and many other books, continues his curriculum vitae with a history of the American Revolution. Rather than documenting the war itself, Draper focuses on the events and causes leading to it, with an emphasis--as the title suggests--on shifting notions of who had power over the colonies. Draper interestingly shows the lie, mainly through historical documents, that the revolution was a simple matter of the oppressed throwing off their oppressors. He charts the conflicting and changing attitudes of the colonists to various forms of authority: the king, the parliament, the British military, even themselves. Though a little slow at times and clocking in at a fat 518 pages, this history should please those looking for more theory-oriented historical fat to chew on. (AD)

Chasing Cézanne
by Peter Mayle (Knopf, cloth, $23)

Peter Mayle's novels, all set in the charming south of France, are somewhat Monty Pythonesque. Only smarter, classier and much, much sexier. His latest is the story of a New York photographer who's on assignment in Cap Ferrat in the south of France, of course, when he discovers, by chance, an international art heist. So begins his chase, across the French countryside, where we meet Mayle's typically brilliant and zany cast: from high-brow art collectors and socialites to sultry agents and savvy magazine publishers. The unifying link in Chasing Cézanne is, of course, the art scene. But food plays an important role in the seduction of the reader's senses. That said, Chasing Cézanne would best be described as a veritable feast for any book worm's brain: full of parody, sexuality, intrigue and outlandishly lovable characters. Here's a brand of fiction you won't find anywhere else. (JE)

The Puttermesser Papers
by Cynthia Ozick (Knopf, cloth, $23)

Picaresque: characterized by a form of prose fiction, originally developed in Spain, in which the adventures of an engagingly roguish hero are described in a series of usually humorous or satiric episodes that often depict, in realistic detail, the everyday life of the common people. Ozick's "engagingly roguish" heroine isn't what you might expect--a Jewish New York feminist stuck in the lower echelons of government bureaucracy--and her adventures are more misadventures, ranging from a stint as mayor to an absurd marriage. In other ways, the picaresque tradition is upheld with grace and humor, and the episodes that make up Puttermesser's story are a mixture of fantasy and reality which has been compared to Don Quixote. The mix of literary convention and a quirky, unconventional perspective give The Puttermesser Papers a colorful storyline and an irresistible voice. (JB)

--Blake de Pastino, Angie Drobnic, Jessica English and Julie Birnbaum

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