Amid the worst terrors of the Cold War, Americans could laugh at Dr. Strangelove, Mad magazine's Spy vs. Spy, Rocky and Bullwinkle's Boris Badenov. Maybe it's nostalgia for that kind of escapism that prompted the reissue of the slapsticky You're Stepping on My Cloak and Dagger (Naval Institute, $15.95), Roger Hall's memoir of espionage in World War II. Hall, who grew up in a Navy family in Annapolis, Md., may have been born to serve his country; he was also a born wise guy and well suited to an enterprise where he could live by his wits and try to get something over on the other guy. In 1943, that enterprise was Wild Bill Donovan's new Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Hall writes about "infiltrating" a Philadelphia circuit-breaker plant, parachuting into France behind lines that turned out to be American, one-upping snooty British commanders. You don't get the Enigma code in this man's OSS -- you get punch lines: As Hall's troop ship approached Europe, "two Air Corps pilots put their 20/20 vision to work from opposite sides of the ship and howled 'Land!' We were in the Irish Sea. Carol came running over and proudly announced, 'I've just seen Ireland. What are you looking at?' 'Wales, I think.' 'Oh, where? I've never seen one.' " Bada-bing. When it appeared in 1957, the book sold 50,000 copies, and since then, according to a foreword to this edition by Washington Post staff writer Adam Bernstein, it has become a "cult classic in intelligence circles."
Five Hundred Self-Portraits (Phaidon, $14.95) is just what its title says: page after page of Western artists looking at themselves in the mirror, beginning with an ancient Egyptian tomb relief and concluding with an installation of 500 not-quite-identical latex masks entitled "Little Sperms." In between come paintings, sculptures, photographs, four Van Goghs, 10 Rembrandts, Thomas Hart Benton as a seaside hunk and Michelangelo as a figure in a Pieta. "A lucky few, like Luis Melendez and Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun, have good enough material for their own vanity to pull off a crowd-pleaser; but more often, a tempered, disappointed self-assessment emerges," Julian Bell writes in the introduction. (His grandmother, Vanessa Bell, stares out from page 480.) "If it is vanity that leads artists to worry over their wrinkles, it is a kind of integrity that leads them to transcribe them." A fat and fascinating little book.
The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, by Paul Elie (Farrar Straus Giroux, $15). "For a brief period in the middle of the American 20th century, it was suddenly fashionable in the highest literary circles to be a Roman Catholic," Charlotte Allen wrote in her review here last year. Elie intertwines profiles and criticism of four writers of that era -- Flannery O'Connor, Thomas Merton, Walker Percy and Dorothy Day -- in this ambitious but flawed chronicle. Though the book's basic rationale at times seems strained, Allen notes that the widely different characters are united by the "certainty of a reality more real than what could be perceived by the senses."
-- Nancy Szokan