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Walt Whitman: A Life, by Justin Kaplan. New York: Simon & Schuster/Touchstone Books. 432 pp. $12.95 Frequently, the name of Whitman conjures up cloudy memories of a poem or two learned at school, vague associations with the spirit of democracy, and the full-bearded image of the 19th century's oft-photographed ``Good Gray Poet.'' Yet the latter was the title of a pamphlet written in Whitman's defense, for -- to many of his contemporaries -- Whitman's poetry, with its apparent message of sexual liberation, required defense. But apart from the praise and censure, underneath the expansive ``Singer of the Open Road'' there was a complicated, rather shy man who could also write quietly revelatory poems that testify to the complexity of his emotions, perceptions, and imagination. Justin Kaplan's insightful biography conveys a strong sense of Whitman and his times, transforming a wealth of information into a beautifully integrated, lifelike portrait. Cocteau, by Francis Steegmuller. Boston: David R. Godine/Nonpareil Books. 608 pp. $15.95.

Poet, dramatist, novelist, artist, and filmmaker Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) remains a dazzling figure, in many ways the epitome of the avant-garde whenever and wherever it may appear. His extraordinary talent for publicity, his biographer feels, was more than matched by his talent and dedication as an artist. Steegmuller disputes the widely held notion that Cocteau's flamboyant life -- his flair for scandals, his homosexuality, his opium addiction -- is of more interest than his work: ``Out of his life, so often derailed,'' writes Steegmuller, ``came the work that makes the life worth recounting.'' And in this well-researched biography, a recounting worth reading. A new afterword by the meticulous biographer contains some minor corrections to the earlier edition, published 16 years ago. The Africa News Cookbook: African Cooking for Western Kitchens, edited by Tami Hultman, designed and illustrated by Patricia Ford. New York: Viking Penguin. 175 pp. $12.95.

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This delightful and informative cookbook is an invitation to explore, experiment, and become involved. Its convenient spiral binding makes it easy to read, even while one is cooking. The recipes draw upon the wide array of spices, herbs, legumes, fruits, grains, and vegetables used by African cooks from all parts of the continent: Moroccan bstila (pigeon pie); Tunisian couscous; Ethiopian doro wat (chicken stew); prawn piripiri (from Mozambique); the hearty, ubiquitous groundnut stew, delectable curries, and chutneys from southern and East Africa; and unusual vegetarian dishes.

Produced by Africa News Service, a nonprofit agency, this book includes in its thoughtful introduction a timely reminder about the serious food shortages now confronting many Africans. Just before the index, there's a list of organizations involved in development, self-help, and relief projects. Heart of Europe: A Short History of Poland, by Norman Davies. New York: Oxford University Press. 511 pp. $9.95.

The author, a professor at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies of the University of London, says he wrote this ``short history'' for those unlikely to have time to read his two-volume, thousand-year history of Poland, ``God's Playground'' (1981). This book is less comprehensive, but similar in scope and intention. Yet, unlike its parent-history -- unlike most histories -- ``Heart of Europe'' is written, for the most part, in reverse chronological order, beginning with recent crises and working back through Poland's turbulent past. Davies, an unabashed partisan who proudly identifies his endeavor with the spirit of Polish Romanticism, is an impassioned and persuasive advocate. Wilfred Owen: Selected Letters, edited by John Bell. New York: Oxford University Press. 376 pp. $7.95.

The letters of Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) have a special poignancy, not only because they were written by a young man killed in November 1918 -- one of the most senseless deaths in an already futile war of attrition -- and not only because this young man was a poet in whom are coupled the dissonant ironies associated with a ``Modern'' sensibility and the fiercely Romantic intensity of Shelley and Keats, but also because of the character these letters express. Owen's passion for poetry, his sharp intelligence, his deep responsiveness to experience, his sense of his own vocation, and his youthful blend of naivet'e and gravity come through all he writes. Based on the complete collection of his letters published in 1967, this selection includes a few minor emendations made since then. Buying Produce: A Greengrocer's Guide to Selecting and Storing Fresh Fruits and Vegetables, by Jack Murdich. New York: Morrow/Hearst Books. 256 pp. $13.95.

Ever wonder how to choose a Belgian endive -- or, for that matter, what a Belgian endive really is? (It's produced by forcing the roots of a chicory plant to sprout leaves.) Jack Murdich -- who has worked at the Hunt's Point Market in New York and who writes a column on produce for Gannette chain -- offers a particularly useful guide that not only explains exactly what to look for, where it's grown, when to buy it, and how to store and use it, but that is also surprisingly well written and fun to read. Murdich cheerfully dispenses practical advice: skip casabas, stick to cantaloupes for reliable taste, and search out the elusive vine-ripened honeydew (which should feel like ``a baby's bottom'') for melon perfection. He's also alive to the mythic side of the vegetable world: Apricots, as he reminds us, were the Golden Apples of the Hesperides.

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