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"Swimming Toward the Ocean" by Carole L. Glickfeld, "Matters of State: A Political Excursion," by Philip Hamburger, and "Apostles of Disunion" by Charles B. Dew. 

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Swimming in New York

Yiddish expressions, a 1950s-style sexual awakening, New York City and a family of new Americans: "Swimming Toward the Ocean" by Carole L. Glickfeld (Knopf, $24) revisits Brighton Beach in the baby-boomer years to unfold a feminist, darkly funny and original story.

Chenia Arnow is about to have a third baby and struggles with a husband who isn't doing her any favors. If he had been more careful, she wouldn't be pregnant at age 45. Since they can't afford another child, they decide to abort the baby. Regardless of her na‹ve attempts to do so, she ends up giving birth. So far, it's a housewife's lament.

But the story jumps the tracks when the baby is born, a few months after Chenia's first encounter with a tall, diplomatic stranger she refers to as Peter the Wolf. Devorah, as the unwanted child is named, is the book's narrator and witness to the conversations with the man as her mother pushes her stroller along the boardwalk.

Chenia never went to college and her English is poor. But the mysterious stranger, manager of a local store, tells her of different worlds. She goes to the Cloisters museum and revels in the beauty of the icons from a Christian past. She begins to give up her superstitious ways and is eventually tempted to break her side of the marriage pact. Her daughter, while seeming oblivious in her stroller, is listening and learning, and in this book she tells the story.

Sharp-tongued Chenia's hilarious comments in broken English or fluent Yiddish make it worthwhile to read of heartbreak, brushes with death and a bittersweet attachment to the American dream.

As they sit on a hill overlooking New Jersey and the George Washington Bridge, Chenia teaches Devorah a new Yiddish phrase to explain why the river isn't as interesting or beautiful as the ocean: "Mit shnaiken men nit makhn gomolkes" - "From cheesecake you can't make snow." But then you have to start somewhere. — Ann Bayliss



Yesterday's Crusades

Admonished by Harold Ross, editor of The New Yorker: "Never go cosmic on me, Hamburger," Philip Hamburger lets his scenic and political sketches flow cool as a mountain stream in "Matters of State: A Political Excursion," (Counterpoint, $24). The subjects of the 26 essays include three New York mayors of various color and stripe, a United Nations general secretary, nine presidential Inaugurations, Tom Dewey's heartbreaking defeat, Dean Acheson's mustache, and a redhead's comment after hearing FDR's "Noting to fear but fear itself…" speech:

"I think we'll live."

As echoes of our disputed election die away, there's balm in reading irreverent details of yesterday's crusades. A lady wearing "a high-rise birdhouse of a hat," clutching a plastic wine glass bearing the White House crest; "Mr. Billy Graham was masked in a high bronze-tone makeup that gave him the appearance of a traveling Cherokee performer." And Maya Angelou's last line at the Clinton bash:

Very simply
With hope —
Good Morning

With the wit comes pride of country, a small flick of the flag. Mayor O'Dwyer talking in the night: "So it all adds up to this — you want to give the kids a chance to grow in their own way, in a democratic world, to make their own choices, to live out their lives with regimentation, and to transmit that heritage to their kids." — John McClenahan



Heads-Up:

The University Press of Virginia has published "Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War" ($22.95). Written by Charles B. Dew, respected historian and professor in the social sciences at Williams College, this is an account of the commissioners sent out by the states of the Deep South to persuade other states to secede. For history buffs or for those of us who were brought up on the idea that the South seceded in defense of "States Rights" and not slavery, this is an important book. A quote from one the commissioners from Virginia:

"What was the reason that induced Georgia to take the step of secession? This reason may be summed up in a single proposition. It was a conviction, a deep conviction on the part of Georgia, that a separation from the North was the only thing that could prevent the abolition of her slavery." — Rozanne Epps
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