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Rethinking the Soviet Experience: Politics and History Since 1917, by Stephen F. Cohen. New York: Oxford University Press. 222 pp. $6.95. As much a critique of the monolithic tenor of current Sovietology as a revisionist history of the Soviet Union, Professor Cohen's readable, thought-provoking study provides evidence that a climate of East-West d'etente can aid the more liberal, anti-Stalinist forces within the Communist Party, while worsening East-West relations may only serve to strengthen the hand of neo-Stalinist hard-liners. Professor Cohen spends too much time explaining -- and complaining about -- the current hegemony of the ``totalitarian'' interpretation of Soviet politics, and not enough time on developing and explaining his own counter-interpretation. He seems to believe that demonstrating the close-mindedness of the opposite school is tantamount to proving the fallacy of their theories. Even so, he has written a book that will be of much interest to specialists and laymen alike. The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution, by Andrew Bard Schmookler. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 400 pp. $9.95.

In an age of specialization, it is heartening -- or at least interesting -- to come upon someone who is trying to synthesize the findings of many fields and to rethink the ``big'' questions with the open mind of a generalist. ``Parable of the Tribes'' is a grandly ambitious, intelligent, yet engagingly amateurish attempt to untangle the workings of power. Mr. Schmookler's insights into the ways that power limits choice, his sophisticated understanding of the complex relations between nature and civilization, and his ingenious use of parables make this offbeat book inviting. Pro and Contra Wagner, by Thomas Mann. Translated by Allan Blunden. Introduction by Erich Heller. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 229 pp. $10.95 (paperback original).

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``I can truthfully claim that the intensity of my passion for Wagner was not in the least diminished by the fact it was refracted through psychological and critical analysis,'' wrote Thomas Mann, who also defined passion as ``surrender allied to knowledge.'' But as Mann would discover when the Nazis attacked his 1933 lecture on Wagner, blind adulation rather than passionate insight had become the preferred mode of nationalistic Wagnerians. This lecture, along with other essays, letters, and articles in which Mann expressed his lifelong, deeply ambivalent passion for Wagner's music, have been collected and newly translated in this volume, a great service to readers interested in Mann, Wagner, Germany, or the relationship of music and literature. No Bells on Sunday: The Rachel Roberts Journals, edited with a documentary biography by Alexander Walker. New York: McGraw-Hill. 246 pp. $6.95.

Welsh-born Rachel Roberts (1927-1980) was widely known as an exceptionally gifted actress on stage and screen. The publication of her journals, well edited and annotated, reveal her to be as intelligent an interpreter of her own life as she was of the varied roles she acted. Fans of the theater and theatrical life will find much to fascinate them here -- Roberts was married to actors Alan Dobie and Rex Harrison and acted extensively in Britain and the United States. But the particular value of this book lies in the truly dreadful picture it provides of a tormented and painful life. How tragic that such talent, integrity, and capacity for love should not have been matched by an equal -- or at times any -- belief in her own value as a person. A devasting portrait of a woman who had everything to live for and yet ended up a wretched victim of suicide for want of even a spark of faith in anything -- particularly herself. The Plays of Ibsen, translated from the Norwegian and introduced by Michael Meyer. New York: Washington Square Press. Vol. I: (``A Doll's House,'' ``Emperor and Galilean,'' ``John Gabriel Borkman,'' ``When We Dead Awaken''), 484 pp. Vol. II: (``Hedda Gabler,'' ``The Pretenders,'' ``Brand,'' ``The Pillars of Society''), 484 pp. Vol. III: (``Ghosts,'' ``The Wild Duck,'' ``The Master Builder,'' ``An Enemy of the People''), 5l6 pp. Vol. IV: (``Peer Gynt,'' ``Rosmersholm,'' ``The Lady from the Sea,'' ``Little Eyolf''), 516 pp. $4.95 each.

Ibsen's plays have stood the test of time, their dramatic power undiminished, their moral complexity seemingly inexhaustible. These widely acclaimed translations by a leading Ibsen scholar have been used in many of today's productions. Mr. Meyer also provides excellent introductions to all the plays, as well as interesting notes on the translations, and a chronology of Ibsen's life, making this an invaluable set. Habitations of the Word: Essays, by William H. Gass. New York: Simon and Schuster/Touchstone. 288 pp. $8.95.

This new collection, as we have come to expect from Mr. Gass, is filled with the unexpected. His originality blends the subtlety of serious literary criticism with the verbal and imagistic electricity of poetry and the free-ranging spontaneity of ``talking to oneself,'' the topic of one of the essays in this volume. Addressed in some sense to the general reader, Gass's essays are never obvious, fatuous, or condescending. His aim is exhilaration, and he usually succeeds. Included in this book: an appreciation of Emerson, a spirited defense of Ford Madox Ford's ``The Fifth Queen,'' a diverting disquisition on the word ``and,'' thoughts on the nature of style, and meditations on the complex relationships that interlink words, thoughts, and things. Metropolitan Corridor: Railroads and the American Scene, by John Stilgoe. Illustrated. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press. 397 pp. $15.95.

At a time when the very existence of passenger trains in this country is threatened with extinction, this book reminds us of how crucial a role the railroad has played in the growth of American society. As its author, a Harvard professor of visual and environmental studies, and of the history of landscape puts it: ``In the half century following 1880, the railroad industry reshaped the American built environment and reoriented American thinking.'' No small claim, but it is magnificently documented and illustrated in this beautifully produced volume. From the grand stations of the big cities to the distinctive structures of the small towns and junctions, from the splendors of private cars to the boxcar conveyances of wandering hoboes, the many tentacles of the American rail system in its heyday are all here. Train buffs will love this book, but so will those interested in the ways in which this pluralistic and spread-out nation grew stronger and more productive as its people and resources were able to circulate more easily. An evocative reminder of an era when limits seemed unimportant and a society was able to enrich itself (albeit less proportionately than one might wish), even as the railroads claimed a high share of the riches for themselves.

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