February, the birth month of Babe Ruth and four presidents, to the rest of the English-speaking world is still a reminder of Charles Dickens' arrival. Nowadays, even in Russia, Dickens supposedly outsells Dostoevsky. The least schooled, the least intellectual of major novelists, Dickens in his 14 serialized works etched both individual types and whole sections of society.
To Norrie Epstein, he is not just a timeless artist but "England's greatest novelist."
Her chronological evaluation -- or assortment of interviews with Fred Kaplan, Phyllis Rose, Jonathan Yardley, Roger Rosenblatt and others; plus pictured objects, literary insights, stray facts -- forms "The Friendly Dickens" (Viking, 428 pages, $26.95). Highly readable, this "good-natured guide" duplicates the formula of her earlier success, "The Friendly Shakespeare."
Epstein, the wife of Stephen Wigler, this newspaper's music critic, is also the editor of a new edition of 1928's "The Technique of the Love Affair, by a Gentlewoman" [Doris Langley Moore] (Pantheon, 222 pages, $19.95). Less casually physical, it seems, in time gone by, but players brought every bit as much cunning to the game. As for passion -- during the 24 years that Mordecai Wyatt Johnson was its president, Howard University in Washington was transformed from "an educational gesture" to "a mature and vigorous institution," as the Washington Star put it. Johnson, a clergyman who grew up in Tennessee and was the first African-American to head Howard, provided (in another obituary quotation) the climate for the overthrow of Jim Crow.
To write the life of such a man is to risk hagiography. Richard I. McKinney, the author of "Mordecai: The Man and His Message" (Howard University Press. 349 pages, $21.95 softbound), has done the grand tour of teaching and administration (he ultimately headed the department of philosophy at Morgan State), yet he was never staff or faculty at Howard -- where sides formed, during those years. Johnson's "extensive files" there are still closed.
Relying instead on interviews, clippings and other documents, and his own sound judgment, McKinney has brought off a portrait in the round, a significant addition to academic history.
Throughout, Mordecai Johnson was an orator; an appendix reproduces the text of sermons and addresses. No stemwinder, McKinney, whose prose is mercifully succinct.
On his death at age 48 from cancer, three years ago this month, Brian Daley of Arnold left 1,600 pages of manuscript for a new science fiction series, "Gammalaw." Thanks to his wife, Lucia St. Clair Robson, and his friend James Luceno of South River, a fellow prime figure in SF nationally, three volumes are now out: "Smoke on the Water," "A Screaming Across the Sky," "The Broken Country." All are Del Rey paperbacks (256 pages, $5.99; 358 pages, $6.99; $338 pages, $6.99). A fourth and final installment, "To Waters' End," is due out come spring.
For military technothrills, they more than rival Tom Clancy --these are the weapons and interstellar arenas of time to come.
Daley's many books notably include print and broadcast renderings of the "Star Wars" films, as in his three-part Han Solo series. Fond also of wit, Daley would smile as he pounded out futuristic prose on that device of the ancients, a Royal typewriter.
Crampton's Gap may not show on Maryland's Official Highway Map, but the cavalry-infantry engagement there (a phase of the Battle of South Mountain) matters much to Civil War students -- to what degree did Crampton's Gap affect the outcome when full-sized armies collided at nearby Antietam, just afterward?
To Timothy J. Reese, a former Smithsonian official whose home is on that otherwise overlooked battlefield, the victory of U.S. Col. Joseph J. Bartlett (a postwar Baltimorean) over Brig. Gen. Howell Cobb, C.S.A., was indeed pivotal, not to mention "the first Union triumph in direct combat with [Robert E.] Lee." Strategy and hour-by-hour detail are set forth with controlled ardor in Reese's "Sealed With Their Lives: The Battle for Crampton's Gap, Burkittsville, Maryland, September 14, 1862" (Butternut & Blue, 423 pages, $40).
For all its Gettysburgs and Antietams, the Civil War was just as much a matter of skirmishes, of raid and counter-raid. Susan Cooke Soderberg of Germantown, inventorying Maryland's involvement in her "A Guide to Civil War Sites in Maryland" (White Mane, 246 pages, $19.95), counts more than 200.
Packed with detail, "A Guide" can be read for its own sake. The sites spread across the whole state; today is present (museum locations, historical society telephone and Internet numbers); Soderberg is properly impartial. An appendix, "Civil War Marylanders of Note," invites you to meet Leopold Blumenberg, Richard Thomas Zarvona, Jane Claudia Johnson, Christian Fleetwood, Andrew Woods Denison and 85 others -- vivid figures, between 1861 and 1865.
No one takes such a liking to Maryland, it seems sometimes, as the person who grew up elsewhere. John J. Noone, having observed New England and the Middle West, now lives in retirement in Annapolis, and writes novels about early Marylanders.
In "Challenge," however (Noble House, 424 pages, $26.95), Noone moves up to the early 1970s, in LaPlata. His Marylanders have limitations. "Challenge" begins with a Down syndrome birth; the author was formerly chief of mental retardation at the National Institute of Health.
Enter Alex Snyder, social worker, who has Vietnam legs that no longer work. Enter Donna Edwards, also a southern Marylander, who lacks eyesight.
This is going to be a happily-ever-after tale, but along the way Noone offers many plausible, conversational scenes of medical life.
James H. Bready writes a monthly books column on regional books. Previously he worked as a reporter, editorial writer and book editor for The Evening Sun.
Pub Date: 02/21/99