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Books: Leisure reading

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`Annals of the Former World'

By John McPhee;Strause & Giroux; $35.

It may sound odd to hear the name John McPhee in the same sentence as the phrase "cult writer." McPhee's career developed smack in middle of the literary mainstream, in The New Yorker of the '60s and '70s. In many ways he, along with Joan Didion, Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe, helped define contemporary American writing, elevating journalism from journeyman's status to something like literature.

McPhee's influence may have narrowed since his heyday, but he remains the ultimate writer's writer. Now his fans should be moved to even greater awe by a giant new opus. "Annals of the Former World" is vintage McPhee - it represents 20 years of New Yorker pieces and books, reworked for the first time into a unified whole. All the craftsman's flourishes are on view. Sentence by sentence, this book has more finely tuned prose than anything I've read in ages.

Which is, as it turns out, its main shortcoming. Things written sentence by sentence often lack a larger energy.

- Sarah Kerr

The New York Times

`In the Kennedy Style'

By Letitia Baldridge;

Doubleday & Co.; $29.95.

The title is "In the Kennedy Style: Magical Evenings in the Kennedy White House." The title is wrong. The book is nothing but Jackie.

And that is quite enough.

We forget how stunning she was, this woman who moved into the White House at 31 years old, looking every inch the slim queen just two months after having John Jr. But it all comes rushing back in Letitia Baldridge's new book about the Camelot years.

"It was such a happy time, such a beautiful, graceful time," Bald-ridge says. "I thought it was important to write particularly in this sort of ungraceful time, with people entertaining less and dressing down. So many horrible, untrue things have been published about the Kennedys lately that I thought it important to show what a stellar job they did."

The book - a collection of stories, photographs and recipes from six White House functions, all planned by White House chef Rene Verdon - is about the style the sophisticated young lady of the manor brought to the president's house, and consequently, to all American houses.

- Beverly Bundy

Fort Worth Star-Telegram

`Pulp Culture'

Collector's Press; $39.95

"Pulp Culture" is a scrumptious collection of art from the pulp magazines of the teens through the '50s, when the form died out.

Organized by genre - horror, western and so forth - the editors are careful to showcase premium magazines. Hammett's "The Maltese Falcon," for instance, first appeared in the September 1929 "Black Mask" (20 cents!), with a nice painting of somebody - not Brigid O'Shaughnessy - firing through a newspaper right at the reader.

Some of the artists are famous (Wyeth, Leyendecker), but most were worker bees specializing in lurid action and bug-eyed monsters, but with great dramatic vitality.

It's a wonderful tour of a publishing universe that no longer exists. Did you know there was once a magazine called Speakeasy Stories? How many stories would anybody want to read about speakeasies?

- Scott Eyman

Cox News Service