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Short Takes

A Terry Teachout Reader

By Terry Teachout

Yale University, 438 pp., $35

Teachout -- music, dance, drama, and literary critic -- is a commentator of rare daring. He is funny, astute, straight-talking, strong-minded. He is eager to tackle hard issues, unafraid to identify himself as a highbrow, willing to make value judgments. Beauty is real and worth fighting for, and he is ready to accept the challenge of the ''pesto-and-phallocentrism crowd" and others.

The best pieces in this collection of illuminating and often electrifying short essays -- originally published in the New York Times Book Review, the Weekly Standard, Commentary, Crisis, New Dance Review, and the National Review -- focus on modern dance and jazz. The essays on Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Jerome Robbins, Merce Cunningham, and Leonard Bernstein are sensational. Isadora Duncan is a ''top-seeded contender for the title of least intentionally amusing person ever." But Teachout is outspoken about writers and critics as well. He forcefully defends Willa Cather against ''the mills of trendiness [which] grind ceaselessly . . . in the age of feminist criticism." He is unafraid to attack the practitioners of black studies and what he calls their ''fellow literary-theory racketeers." Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman are ''the Nick and Nora of the limousine left." Dance critic Arlene Croce ''made the mistake of being right at the wrong time." Just when you feel at ease with his sharp criticism, he goes soft in the last essay, on singer Nancy LaMott, and breaks your heart.

The King of America

By Samantha Gillison

Random House, 213 pp., $21.95

The troubles of the very rich are often hard to sympathize with. But Stephen Hesse, the young scion of a fabulously wealthy family, is a genuinely moving character. Based on the mysterious disappearance of Michael Rockefeller in 1961, this novel traces the youth from an isolated, privileged childhood through a detached, nave adolescence to a tragic early death.

After his parents' divorce, Stephen, the eldest son of Nicholas and his unsuitable lower-class British first wife, is raised in solitary splendor. His inaccessible father (now with a proper wife and several sturdy children) resides in the same Park Avenue building. The boy grows up shy and unsure. At boarding school, he finds friends, a mentor, and a field of study: anthropology. Merging his interest in primitive culture with his father's avidity for primitive art, he embarks on a trip to New Guinea. There, acquiring skills for himself and artifacts for his father, he misjudges the force of the wind and the water, the power of his own will and muscles.

Samantha Gillison subtly and surely describes the ambiguous and contradictory signals Stephen receives from his family and from strangers familiar only with the moneyed ring of his name. She suggests that the hot, slow-moving world of the jungle may bring him peace and understanding. But she concludes that learning how to assess human frailty and how to use influence and money are lessons that take a lifetime to learn in Neolithic societies as well as in the civilized world.

The Sea House

By Esther Freud

Ecco, 277 pp., $24.95

In Esther Freud's novel, two separate stories unfold in the English seaside town of Steerborough. The stories share an actual landscape and a metaphoric architecture.

Lily, a modern researcher studying the life of a 20th-century German architect, has rented Fern Cottage to get herself into the spirit of her subject, Klaus Lehmann, and to remove herself from her own present entanglements. Reading Klaus's letters to his beloved wife, Elsa, from the 1930s to the early 1950s, she learns of his love, his loss, his art. Klaus's story is gleaned not only from his letters, but from the narrative of Elsa's years in Steerborough. Lily's life becomes entangled with the few descendants from Klaus and Elsa's past. Scraping up and sifting through the shards of local history, Lily at first confuses her life with Klaus's, then puts the pieces together coherently and correctly. It is a satisfying discovery, but not quite satisfying enough.

Barbara Fisher is a freelance critic who lives in New York.

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