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BOOK BRIEFS

The Warmest December by Bernice L. McFadden (Dutton, $22.95). Kenzie Lowe must revisit her painful origins in "The Warmest December." The daughter of alcoholics, Kenzie has spent most of her life battling her own addictions. Her teens and early twenties were lived "in a blur of drugs and alcohol," she tells us. When we meet Kenzie, she's 34 and on welfare, sharing a public-housing hovel with her chronically depressed mother. Kenzie drank her way out of a promising business career and now spends her days at the bedside of her estranged, dying father. Because she's wished many times for the monstrous old man's death, she's pressed to explain her regular attendance in his hospital room. She's been off the bottle for six months, suffers occasional blackouts and memory lapses. Things are slowly becoming clearer, however, and she's beginning to understand that a reckoning is in order.

Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory by David W. Blight (Harvard University, $29.95). This long, complex and occasionally clotted book contains many points and arguments, all of which can be boiled down to this: After four years of vicious, bloody and dispiriting war over the preservation of the Union and the abolition of slavery, the great majority of the white people of the United States spent the next half-century forgetting and denying the war's most important outcome. The country was determined to reunite at any cost. The cost, it turned out, was "the denigration of black dignity and the attempted erasure of emancipation from the national narrative of what the war had been about." National memory, as David Blight amply demonstrates in this singular book, is even less reliable, and the consequences of its imperfections can be costly indeed.

The Adversary: A True Story of Monstrous Deception by Emmanuel Carrere, translated from the French by Linda Coverdale (Metropolitan, $22). "The Adversary," is unputdownable. Emmanuel Carrere -- a widely admired French novelist and screenwriter -- relates the story of his fascination with Jean-Claude Romand, who killed his wife and children, and his reconstruction of the murderer's life and psychology. Romand, dutiful son, loving husband and father, highly respected citizen of his community, worked for nearly 18 years as an eminent physician at the World Health Organization in Geneva. Except that he didn't. For all those years, Romand merely pretended to go to his office, and instead spent the day in cafes, walking in the woods, reading papers and magazines in his car. Carrere's limpid, easy-going prose comes over superbly in Linda Coverdale's English, and there is absolutely no sense that this is a translation. Instead one just keeps turning the pages, in thrall to this "true story of monstrous deception."

The Body Artist by Don DeLillo (Scribner, $22). "The Body Artist" begins in the kitchen of an old, battered beach house, where Lauren Hartke, the title character, is living with her much older husband, Rey Robles. He's a once-famous movie director; she's an up-and-coming performance artist whose medium is her fanatically disciplined body. Their talk is of orange juice, the Band-Aid on his face, the bluejay on the birdfeeder and something he wanted to tell her about the house but has temporarily forgotten. This scene of comfortable domesticity is followed immediately by an obituary. After breakfast, Rey drives into Manhattan and shoots himself in his first wife's apartment. (Lauren is wife number three.) Lauren, against her friends' advice, chooses to face her grief alone. She is not quite alone, however. There is a secret sharer in the house, a strange, youngish man, whose speech is severely impaired but oddly poignant. The book's alternating moods of terror and pity, humor and a certain wistfulness, ensure that "The Body Artist" will be hard to forget.

-- Washington Post