Words from the Wise

IT sounds dry: Dictionaries: The Art and Craft of Lexicography, by Sidney I. Landau, who served as editor-in-chief of several dictionaries. But I found reading this book anything but dry.

Landau asks, "What is a dictionary?" and proceeds to define and survey various types. As a frequent user of dictionaries, I gained a great deal of insight into the gospel according to those responsible for compiling them, as well as the process of defining words and determining pronunciations.

Samuel Johnson remarked, "Dictionaries are like watches, the worst is better than none and the best cannot be expected to be quite true."

Landau describes Johnson's contribution to the dictionary and introduces lesser-known personalities involved in the evolution of modern dictionaries -- such early scribers as John Kersey, Nathan Bailey and Thomas Sheridan. Also included is a critical look at dictionaries both general (from the American College Dictionary to the World Book Dictionary) and specialized (A Dictionary of South African English; Webster's Sports Dictionary). After reading this book you'll better understand how Webster's Collegiate Dictionary can define "bimonthly" as both (1) "occurring every two months" and (2) "occurring twice a month." For me, it's "Bye, bye, bimonthly."

Originally published by Scribners (1984), the book is now available in softcover from Cambridge University Press at $13.95. BERNARD S. KATZ Reston

Angels at Her Table

THE autobiography of New Zealand novelist Janet Frame recounts events that, if presented as fiction, would strike even the most credulous of readers as thoroughly improbable. Written in a quietly evocative prose, her story offers encouragement to anyone who has ever worked at taming an impossible sentence or coping with life's many difficulties.

The first volume, To the Is-land {sic} (Braziller, 1982), carries Frame through her childhood and schooling in rural New Zealand, depicting a young mind transported by works of the imagination. It also tells of the difficult lives of her parents and her sister's tragic death by drowning. Part Two, An Angel at my Table (Braziller, 1984), details her attempted suicide and subsequent commitment to a mental institution after she is faced with the prospect of spending a lifetime as a teacher. The story of her near-lobotomy has all the qualities of a fairy tale, complete with last-minute rescue. The final volume, The Envoy from Mirror City (Braziller, 1985), describes her emigration to England, her successes (and failures) as a writer and her triumphant return to New Zealand.

For writers and would-be writers, Frame has sage advice: "The only certainty about writing and trying to be a writer is that it has to be done, not dreamed of or planned and never written, or talked about (the ego eventually falls apart like a soaked sponge), but simply written: it's a dreadful awful fact that writing is like any other work."

Frame's trilogy has recently been made into a film ("An Angel at my Table") that has received great acclaim in Europe. ALAN MARGOLIS Arlington

What Price Oil?

SOME years ago I read The Bastard War: The Mesopotamian Campaign of 1914-18 by the respected British military historian A.J. Barker. The events of recent months in the Persian Gulf brought to mind this fascinating account of a little- known World War I campaign: Once before a Western power deployed forces to that region to protect oil resources.

This "bastard war" -- the phrase derived from a British commander's comment, "It was believed to be a sideshow and no man's child" -- was fought to prevent the Germans, through their surrogate, the Turkish army, from taking control of the oil-rich province of Arabistan.

The British had a naval presence in the Persian Gulf, had treaties of protection with various Arab sheiks and since 1908 had been developing the oil resources of Arabistan (the province of Khuzestan in present-day Iran). In October 1914, the Viceroy of India was ordered to send an expedition to Mesopotamia as a show of force to safeguard the oil. Barker's narrative follows the chronology of the Mesopotamian War from the British Indian Army's embarkation at Bombay to the taking of the final objective, the city of Mosul, 700 miles up the Tigris river. This last battle occurred after the armistice of Nov. 11, 1918, an inexcusable event appropriate to the sordid nature of this campaign.

The period from December 1915 through April 1916, which saw the tragic events leading to the fall of Kut, is covered in detail. After the failure of the first attempt to capture Baghdad, Gen. Sir Charles Townshend ordered his forces to retire to Kut to await reinforcements. Taking advantage of the situation, the superior Turkish army besieged this fortified city on the Tigris and forced the surrender of over 9,000 men, the greatest defeat suffered by the British since the Battle of Yorktown. This dismal episode was what finally alerted Whitehall and resulted in the convening of the Mesopotamian Commission to inquire into the reasons for the incredibly irresponsible war administration in Mesopotamia.

The Bastard War is out of print, but available in libraries throughout the area. MICHAEL J. EVENSON Bethesda

Stiff Upper Love FOR Anglophiles, cynics with soft centers and lovers of scandal, may I recommend Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate (available in a joint Modern Library edition)? These two short novels share the same narrator, Fanny Logan, who dissects with good-natured humor the mad, the bad and the dangerous to know, which is to say the English upper classes between the World Wars. The tone of the first novel is bittersweet; the second has an amiably malicious air to it. Both are irresistible and contain a wonderfully memorable cast of characters, modeled on people whom Mitford knew among the Bright Young Things and the Not So. GARY MANTELLO Berryville, Va.