Last month, a front-page story in The Post reported on a German border collie with a "vocabulary" of 200 words. This turned out to mean the dog could recognize 200 words when people spoke them, which is impressive but not particularly startling to anyone who's ever said "biscuit" to a beagle. What we're looking for is a dog who can talk back. That's the quest that frames the plot in Carolyn Parkhurst's The Dogs of Babel (Back Bay, $13.95). When the beloved wife of a professor of linguistics falls to her death, the devastated widower is consumed with the desire to know whether it was really, as the police conclude, an accident. "There is one witness: Lorelei the dog," reviewer Susan Dooley wrote here last year. "And thus Paul Iverson begins his logical pursuit of a manic task. He will teach the dog to speak." It's an intriguing plot device and a pretty good story, but the book is ultimately a somewhat predictable exploration of coming to terms with loss and the secret lives of those we love.
The Photograph, by Penelope Lively (Penguin, $14). Speaking of dead spouses with secrets . . . where have we seen that plot device before? This tired vein has been over-mined in recent years, in books and films (though in movies, it seems, the spouse often turns out to be malignantly alive). The Photograph opens with landscape historian Glyn Peters's discovery of an old snapshot. Why, that seems to be his late wife, Kath, and that's her brother-in-law, and they're surreptitiously holding hands. "I am evidently a dupe, a cuckold," Peters says. And therein hangs yet another tale of mysteries to be posthumously revealed. Coming from the very talented Lively, winner of the Booker Prize for Moon Tiger, this is slightly disappointing. Reviewer Gary Krist praised the author's "smoothly versatile style of storytelling," but even so described it as "an extraordinarily skilled writer merely playing out a clever idea."
Maisie Dobbs, by Jacqueline Winspear (Penguin, $14). She's beautiful, she's plucky, and, despite having come of age during World War I, she's familiar with meditation, the word "cult" and several New Age relaxation techniques. Maisie Dobbs, workingman's daughter, has acquired a rich patron and a polymath mentor, and as the book opens she's setting up as a private investigator in 1929 England. Her first case, whose specifics are easily solved, leads her to a broader investigation of a disturbingly private home for disfigured war veterans. What the plot lacks in mystery it makes up in history, as Maisie's early careers as turn-of-the-century kitchen maid and then wartime nurse are woven vividly into the story. This debut novel, transparently constructed to be the first of a series, was widely praised and quite popular in hardcover; whether you'll like it depends on how much coincidence and earnest pluck you're willing to accept.
The Glass Cell, by Patricia Highsmith (Norton, $13.95). The works of Patricia Highsmith, who died in 1995, have enjoyed a revival in recent years, most notably in re-issues or films of the chill and sinister Ripley novels. Ignored until now, it seems, was The Glass Cell, based on a true story and first published in 1964 (and made into a German movie in 1978). After receiving a fan letter from a prison inmate, Highsmith became fascinated by the psychological devastation of prison life. She turned some of what she learned into the story of Philip Carter, falsely convicted of fraud, who is released from prison after six years with $10 in his pocket, suspicion in his heart and a willingness to kill anyone he thinks he can't trust. Might that include his long-suffering wife?
"Walden has become such a totem of the back-to-nature, preservationist, anti-business, civil-disobedience mind-set . . . that the book itself risks being as revered and unread as the Bible." So writes John Updike in his introduction to a handsome new edition of Walden (Princeton Univ., $10.95), one of five Thoreau works being repackaged in honor of Walden's 150th anniversary. Each is preceded by a substantive, lively and idiosyncratic essay. Curmudgeon Paul Theroux feels "compelled to point out" that each section of The Maine Woods ($16.95) "begins in the most pedestrian, almost off-putting way," but goes on to marvel at Thoreau's captivating evocation of wilderness as well as his environmental prescience: "When the truth is told, the text is prophetic." Former poet laureate Robert Pinsky does the honors for Cape Cod ($12.95), in an elegant analysis that rightly ends with that book's "wintry" final sentence: "A man may stand there and put all America behind him." Radical historian Howard Zinn, introducing The Higher Law ($12.95) -- including the famous essay on civil disobedience -- uses Thoreau's words to rage against malfeasance and praise social activism in contemporary America. And environmental essayist John McPhee went so far as to retrace the canoe trip Thoreau took with his brother in order to adequately discuss A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers ($16.95). Together, the essays are a mini-course in Thoreau and the trends he launched in American thought.
-- Nancy Szokan