Collected Fiction, by Louis Zukofsky (Dalkey Archive Press, $19.95). One of the most revered figures among late modernist poets, Zukofsky is best known for A, a book-length poem -- like Pound's Cantos -- at once musical, hermetic and the work of a lifetime. Like other poets -- James Merrill, John Ashbery and James Schuyler -- Zukofsky also wrote fiction, notably a novel about a child prodigy entitled Little/for careenagers and four shorter works gathered under the general title "It Was." Odd books, both of them: In his preface to this collection, Gilbert Sorrentino describes Little's "free signifiers creating their own reality in a kind of linguistic heaven of infinite play." The result offers a lot of wordplay and playful experiment.
Running West, by James Houston (Crown, $19.95). For those who prefer that a novel live up to the genre's name -- by supplying the reader with information on a way of life new to him -- James Houston's works about Arctic Canada are ideal fare. He has written seven previous adult novels (the most famous of which is The White Dawn) and more than a dozen books for kids. His new book acquaints his audience with the superioriy of Indian footwear (moccasins with inner slippers stuffed with musk-ox hair do a much better job of keeping feet warm than leather boots) and the technique of making snowshoes from willow branches and dogskin. Set on the desolate west coast of Hudson Bay, Running West centers on a wilderness trek-cum-love-affair between an Indian woman and a Scottish man in exile from his homeland.
Universities and the Future of America, by Derek Bok (Duke University Press, $14.95). In this expansion of a lecture series given at Duke, the retiring president of Harvard takes issue with Cardinal Newman's view of the university as a hallowed place where disinterested scholars pursue knowledge for its own sake in an atmosphere of unruffled tranquility. For one thing, he argues, unlike those in the Victorian England of Newman's heyday, America's universities accept large amounts of public money and thus are hardly in a position to shy away from civic problem-solving. He urges universities to be bolder in addressing social issues and encouraging their faculties to take intellectual chances. "What Rachel Carson did for risks to the environment," he observes, "Ralph Nader for consumer protection, Michael Harringon for problems of poverty, Betty Friedan for women's rights, they did as independent critics, not as members of a faculty."
Gender Politics and MTV: Voicing the Difference, by Lisa A. Lewis (Temple University Press, $29.95). One wonders what Cardinal Newman -- or even President Bok -- would make of this book, a university-press-published look at the rock videos broadcast over the national network devoted to them. The author focuses on four singers -- Pat Benatar, Cyndi Lauper, Tina Turner and Madonna -- to show how a strong female perfomer can transcend the generally sexist images of women that dominate rock video. In this reading, Lauper's "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" is not merely a repetitive ditty that, heard in the morning, keeps coming back to haunt the listener all day long, but a vindication of the "common desires of women and girls for social recognition and political power." In other words, girls don't just want to have fun.
The Road to War: The Origins of World War II, by Richard Overy and Andrew Wheatcroft (Random House, $24.95). A historian-journalist team surveys the major powers during an interval that fits Ambrose Bierce's definition of peace: a period of cheating between two periods of fighting. Germany is depicted as a country looking for aggrandizement but not a fight; Britain as willing to go to war not to save Poland or any other country in particular "but to preserve the international system of which she was a major architect and a prime beneficiary"; and America as inadvertently encouraging German and Japanese aggression by its isolationist policy. Isolation, indeed, was a dominant characteristic of the old order -- hard for us to fathom in the age of instant global communication. "There existed a genuine ignorance of the way of life of other peoples," write Overy and Wheatcroft, "and only limited contact between them." Example: When he became chancellor of Germany, Hitler had not visited a single other country.
The American Speakership: The Office in Historical Perspective, by Ronald M. Peters Jr. (Johns Hopkins University Press, $39.50). Although the genial visibility of Tip O'Neill and the drama of Jim Wright's fall from power have whetted public interest in the office of speaker of the house, this book was written under the aegis of an earlier speaker, Carl Albert. Indeed, the author is the director of the Carl Albert Congressional Research and Studies Center at the University of Oklahoma. His label for the string of officeholders between Joseph Cannon and Sam Rayburn sums them up nicely -- "The Feudal Speakership." His capsule description of the period (1911-61) may cause devotees of centralized power to sigh with nostalgia: "The main fact of congressional life in this era was the role of the solid South in the Democratic party and the strength of its committee chairmen in the Congress."