April 03, 1992 at 05:00 AM EST

Fredrick Douglas William S. McFeely
The Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Ulysses S. Grant turns his talents to a portrait of the great black orator, writer, and social crusader. McFeely captures Douglass’ mythic dimensions, but this is not a saint’s life, and McFeely makes Douglass’ shortcomings as fascinating as his strengths. A

The Ghostway Tony Hillerman
You don’t have to be a regular at Tribal Policeman Jim Chee’s powwows to dig The Ghostway, one of the freshest of Hillerman’s whodunits. The plot kicks in with a murder at the Wash-O-Mat, and Chee’s deadpan humor never goes a step beyond subtlety. B+

Family J. California Cooper
The worst of Cooper’s writing employs a spaced-out diction (”Time is so forever that life has many instances when you can say ‘Once upon a time’ thousands of times in one life”) that makes you think she’s been holed up somewhere reading Ntozake Shange. Still, when this first novel — which records the testimonies of four fictional slave women — gets cooking, there’s powerful magic in it. B

Don Juan in the Villiage Jane DeLynn
There’s a raw world of feeling in this lesbian picaresque. You feel DeLynn striving for absolute honesty, even when she’s wisecracking, and her rendering of her heroine’s alienation from the gay world is painfully, depressingly convincing. A-

The Last Fine Time Verlyn Klinkenborg
Klinkenborg delivers a large slice of American social history through his look at a neighborhood bar that was located earlier this century in a working-class Polish neighborhood on the east side of Buffalo. An engaging, vivid, and funny book that re-creates a place you’ve never seen and makes you miss it, too. A-

Patrimony Philip Roth
An unsparing and moving account of the last year of Roth’s father, Herman. By not joining the conspiracy of euphemism that surrounds the very old, Roth pays them the strongest sort of tribute. Herman Roth emerges from this memoir defined not by his final physical humiliations, but by his cantankerous vitality. Blunt and devout, comfortless and bracing, Patrimony, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for biography, is a triumph of unflinching memory. A

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