Newsday: A Candid History of the Respectable Tabloid , by Robert F. Keeler (Arbor House/Morrow, $24.95) The marriage of Harry F. Guggenheim and Alicia Patterson in 1939 allied two great American fortunes, one based on copper and the other on journalism. Alicia's father owned the New York Daily News, her aunt the Washington Times-Herald and her cousin the Chicago Tribune. "Everybody ought to have a job," said Harry, and so the next year the two bought a small paper in Nassau County, the first county east of New York City on Long Island. To everyone's surprise, the paper become the most successful new journalistic enterprise in postwar America. As hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers moved to the Long Island suburbs, and as inner-city dailies died one by one, Newsday flourished, due not least to its gutsy reporting. This history of the newspaper colorfully recounts that growth and the proprietors' political fights: Harry was a rockribbed conservative, Alicia a flaming liberal.
A Republic of Rivers: Three Centuries of Nature Writing from Alaska and the Yukon , edited by John A. Murray (Oxford, $19.95). This is a collection of writings about the grand and challenging northwesternmost slab of the continent. The contributors include explorers George Vancouver and Alexander Mackenzie; naturalists John Muir, John Burroughs, Robert Marshall and Charles Sheldon; and literati Jack London, Barry Lopez and Thomas Merton. In his introduction the editor comments shrewdly on the form favored by so many of his authors: "Since Thoreau, the familiar essay has held a special appeal for nature writers, as they have found in the freedom the genre provides a literary parallel to the liberating experiences encountered in wild nature."
The Great Wall of China: From History to Myth , by Arthur Waldron (Cambridge University Press, $39.50). No contemporary statesman or other distinguished visitor to China is allowed to skip a visit to the Great Wall, usually to its most famous section, which snakes over the hills close to Beijing. And visitors and hosts alike think they know what the Great Wall is, says Princeton scholar Arthur Waldron: an awesome ancient fortification, the only human structure visible from space, continuously maintained since it was first built about 220 B.C., symbol of the Chinese nation, and so on. But in the course of studying the military policy of the Ming dynasty (1068-1644), Waldron found it increasingly difficult to reconcile Chinese texts of this and earlier periods with traditional notions of a "Great Wall." In this book he casts doubt on popular beliefs about a single wall and replaces them with the notion of a whole series of border walls, built at different times and by different dynasties, thus re-opening the vexing question of just where China's northern frontier historically lay.
The Ruffian on the Stair: Reflections on Death , by Rosemary Dinnage (Viking, $21.95). The "ruffian on the stair" is, of course, death, "dogging everywhere," from a poem by W.E. Henley. The British literary journalist and psychologist Rosemary Dinnage here interviews 24 people from different walks of life (including a rabbi, a gypsy, a concentration camp survivor, an archdeacon, an AIDS victim, a fireman and a Buddhist) about their ideas on death. Some talk about the experience from the viewpoint of the bereaved, some from that of anticipating their own deaths. All have a surprising amount to say, and some are quite outspoken: "Death is horrible. Utterly. And the way we, our society treats it is just wrong. I mean, I've been to a funeral this week, and . . . I'd rather have a Hindu funeral," says Ned. But Tom Lee, the gypsy, counters "All my family has had lovely funerals . . . . I like to see a bloke have a good send-off, you know."
Frederick Law Olmsted: The Passion of a Public Artist , by Melvin Kalfus (New York University Press, $39.50). Some of America's most visited settings -- Central, Prospect and Franklin Parks; the U.S. Capitol Grounds; the Biltmore Estate; the campus of Stanford University -- owe their soothing rusticity to Frederick Law Olmsted, the greatest American landscape architect. He was also instrumental in preserving Yosemite Valley and Niagara Falls as public treasures, rather than the private fiefdoms of speculators in natural wonders. Surprisingly, this shaper of the Republic was a rank amateur when he started to practice architecture at the age of 35 (in 1857), but he learned fast, experimented freely, and soon became one of the first American professionals with a coast-to-coast clientele. This is a psychobiography of Olmsted written by an ad man making a second career for himself as an historian.