ARROW OF GOD (John Day, $5.50), CHINUA VCHEBE’S latest novel, as usual concerns his native Nigeria. It is the fourth book in what begins to look like a sociological history of the place in fictional form, and the more volumes Mr. Achebe adds to the series, the better, for he has an extraordinary ability to speak for his country in the voice of a sophisticated European, while avoiding both chauvinism and condescension.Arrow of God is set in the early 1920s and describes the disintegration of the old order of village life under the impact of British colonial authority. The specific authority is a district administrator, a Kiplingesque old hand, honest, conscientious, and sincerely trying to do his duty beneficially. He is also totally and contemptuously ignorant of the language, laws, and customs of the I bo villagers he has been sent to manage. Almost the same description could apply, in reverse, to the I bo chief priest, who differs from the Englishman not one atom in conscientious bigotry. He is, however, wary enough of British cannon to send one of his innumerable boys to the Christian mission with orders to learn the language of the enemy and find out what they are up to, for it is altogether mysterious to the Ibo that they should be set upon by strangers whom they have never injured and whose purpose is neither looting nor slave trading. The boy’s little learning, combined with the intricate religious-political intrigues characteristic of the six villages, leads to general disaster and collapse of the social structure. Colonial authority remains unaware of what is happening. The book is not comfortable reading, nor is it easy to keep track of three dozen minor characters with names like Ofuedu and Ainoge, but Arrow of God is worth the effort. It is enormously informative. It crackles with ironic contrasts and the sour comedy of reciprocal misunderstanding. Old Ezeulu and his unreliable sons are vividly living people whose unfamiliar principles gradually become comprehensible and worthy of respect. One even grows fond of their proverbs.

WILD FLOWERS OF THE UNITED STATES: THE SOUTHEASTERN STATES (McGraw-Hill, $44.50) is officially volume two of a monumental survey of the whole wild flower population of the forty-eight continental states. I mean monumental. Volume two consists of two large, fat books, boxed, containing around 1900 good clear color photographs, a description of each flower, a simplified introduction to botany for the ignorant like myself, and everything indexed under both Latin and vernacular title. No field guide unless one owns a pack mule, it is a splendid resource for checking finds at leisure. It is also a pleasure to read. The author, HAROLD WILLIAM RICKETT of the New York Botanical Garden, writes gracefully, avoids technical terms as far as possible, and does not hesitate to throw in odd and amusing bits of nonbotanical information. He also confesses that the book is not truly comprehensive. It includes the seventy known species of goldenrod but ignores “a number of unattractive weeds with small greenish flowers which are not likely to excite the interest of the amateur.”

AN ALPHABESTIARY (Lippincott, $5.95) is a book of verses, by JOHN CIARDI, about animals and people. The two are not always readily distinguishable because Mr. Ciardi believes that if you “watch any animal ... it will let you know something about mankind. It works the other way, too. ...” Some of the verses ramble into more philosophy than wit, but the best of them arc rewardingly disrespectful. The industry of the ant is briskly debunked, and as for the gnu, a sort of antelope with a rump like a horse and a head like an ox, Mr. Ciardi advises,

. . . write to your Senator
for further information.
Who is more likely to know how an ox-like mind may move with the speed of an antelope leaving to final view the rear end of a horse.
ENID STARKIE’S FLAUBERT: THE MAKING OF THE MASTER (Atheneum, $8.50) is more than a biography. It combines the events of Flaubert’s life, which were hardly exciting, with an explanation of his aesthetic theories and considers how both formed his work. The book is livelier than this summary suggests, for Dr. Starkie is an indefatigable detective, capable of digging up facts that have eluded every previous investigator, and a gingery critic of other people’s inaccuracies, sentimentalities, and unproved assumptions.
THE POSTERS OF TOULOUSE-LAUTREC (Boston Book and Art Shop, $25.00) contains superbly accurate reproductions of Lautrec’s thirty-one lithographed posters (some of them looking quite different from the familiar coarse copies) and an introduction by Edouard Julien, former curator of the Albi Museum. Since the posters, subtle, violent, original, always supremely eye-riveting, speak for themselves, the introduction concentrates on a summary history of lithography and poster-making and a description of Lautrec’s habits of work. He demanded mere perfection and was, consequently, a ferocious battler with stone, time, and ink. As a boy, Lautrec was addicted to sketching running horses and sailors doing the hornpipe. By the time he got around to posters, he could set down all the action on a cabaret stage with five or six wily blocks of color. There had never been anything like those posters. Nobody has bettered them since.